guy with tablet in restaurant

The Next Iteration of Self-Service

Once we acknowledge that the measurable, objective job might be taken by an app, we have to make service dramatically better than self-service, or else this job is gone.

—Seth Godin

Humans replaced by machines. This is the future sci-fi movies have been both hoping for and warning us about for decades now. It’s closer than ever.

But where do we draw the line between technology that’s helpful and technology that gets in the way? For the customer experience, where do we find the balance?

Tablets Instead of Servers

Mitch Joel of Six Pixels thinks tablets will soon replace servers in fast-food and low- to mid-priced restaurants.

He points to Chili’s, which just replaced menus with tablets at many of its locations. At the moment, the tablets show diners the menu and let them pay by credit card right at the table, but Joel sees much more potential.

“What would make this that much more powerful,” writes Joel. “Is giving more power to the customers: allow them to control everything from what they order to when they order it, and enabling them to have more feedback.”

Want to start with appetizers and hold off on ordering main courses? Done. Want a refill of your drink? Done. Want to order, eat and pay quickly to make the start of the movie? Done.

And personalization of service. Imagine swiping your credit card at the beginning of a meal and having your entire ordering history with the restaurant at your disposal. Can’t remember what you had last time that was so good? It’s right there on the list. Click.

AI in the Call Center

According to Marketing Magazine, IBM’s Watson supercomputer is now helping out in the call center. The idea is that artificial intelligence can boost personalization in call center service.

“It will take advantage of IBM Watson’s natural language solution,” writes Marketing Magazine. “Which learns, adapts and understands market and organizational data quickly and easily, and gets progressively smarter with use, outcomes and new pieces of information.”

The intent isn’t to replace live agents with Watson but give them a leg up with the supercomputer as an advisor “that can read and uncover insights from millions of pages of data-driven content within seconds, from product guides to call transcripts.”

“The result,” writes Marketing Magazine, is “cognitive computing that will augment a contact center agent’s knowledge and shift their time from searching for answers to discovering timely insights that solve problems, facilitate new opportunities and improve the customer experience.”

Technology Gone Awry vs. Balance

Not like Hal 9000, Skynet or Robocop. Nothing apocalyptic. More like your average poorly done automated voice system that annoys most of the customers who call in. With which we’ve all had experience.

What if you have a question about the menu at a restaurant and need some advice from an actual server? Yes, we’re still talking about low- to mid-range restaurants, so it wouldn’t be about the cassoulet or vichyssoise, but it could be about the burger or food allergies.

Will the wait staff at that point just be bussers, running the food out from the kitchen and doing little else? Or will the restaurant have a couple of knowledgeable people on staff to handle questions?

How much trial and error will restaurants and call centers have to go through to find a technology-human balance that customers (humans) can be happy with? Call centers, for one, are still searching for the balance.

According to Gartner, companies struggle with the multi-channel nature of today’s customer service.

“Through 2015, contextual advice and support delivered through analytics systems across all channels will be the key differentiator during customer engagement,” writes Gartner’s Michael Maoz. “The explosion of interactive channels used to engage customers is creating a gap between what the customer knows and expects of the enterprise, and how the enterprise can intelligently engage the customer.”

Right now, customers tend to know a lot more about companies than the companies do about them. Gartner’s Olive Huang doesn’t think many companies, as they are now, are capable of overcoming this problem.

“In 2013, only 2% of organizations will have the adequate technologies and processes in place to provide a consistent customer experience across departments and channels,” writes Huang. “Gartner estimates that from 2013 to 2015, this number will grow from 2% to no more than 20%.”

Forrester’s Kate Leggett brings up an important element, as well.

“Customers want consistent service experience across these channels [call center, website, social media],” she writes. “They also expect to be able to start an interaction in one channel and complete it in another.”

From Here to There

At the moment, that’s rarely the case. More often than not, callers end up repeating info at least a couple times during a call with a call center. Despite the fact that automated voice technology is more than capable of addressing the problem, most companies just aren’t there yet.

What worries Seth Godin is what happens to the human element when we replace ourselves with technology.

“Mitch [Joel] writes about the very near future when most fast-serve and mid-priced restaurants will have a tablet on the table, letting you order and pay without ever speaking to a waiter,” he writes. “It sort of takes the magic out of restaurants for me, but I get his point.”

I suppose magic is debatable if we’re talking about fast-food and mid-priced restaurants, but Godin is talking about more than that, anyway. He’s talking about the potential to have technology handle the simpler tasks while letting humans handle the rest. In other words: balance.

“What an opportunity!” he writes. “Instead of seeing a job as a shuttler of information and stuff from place to place, we can acknowledge that, in fact, the shuttling isn’t unique or even particularly valuable. The human being part is what’s worth something.”

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