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When It Comes to Customer Service, Nothing Beats the Human Touch

a person avoiding common automation failures

The world is now filled with a variety of automated tools that have been designed to make our lives easier. Chatbots are available on millions of websites that enables customer service communications. Automated bank tellers are so entrenched that consumers rarely have personal contact with a real-life person. And we now have AI tools like ChatGPT to help us collaborative on a variety of tasks and projects. Right in line with these so-called technological advances are self-checkout kiosks, which have boomed in the last decade. But despite a marked increase in these retail checkout assistants, customers routinely experience common automation failures. This has made some companies wonder if the disadvantages of self-checkout are really worth the investment.

a woman avoiding common automation failures
Common automation failures in customer service can be avoided… by using people.

(Want a comparative breakdown of the various AI chatbot services? Bold has you covered.)

In stores across America, self-checkout kiosks have become a permanent part of the consumer experience. Major stores like Walmart, Costco, and ShopRite experimented with these offerings early. Many other stores have since followed suit with the promise of greater convenience, shorter wait times, and of course, lower employee costs. But as the great experiment with these devices progresses, so do common automation failures that undermine potential benefits. And now, realizing the impact of the disadvantages of self-checkout, many retailers are having second thoughts. There’s something to be said about the impact real human interactions have on the consumer experience. This is what’s driving some stores to revise their checkout practices.

The Promise (and Reality) of Automated Self-Checkout

Believe it or not, the initial introduction of self-checkout kiosks occurred in the 1980s. Technologies were advanced enough at that time to accommodate such enterprises. But it wasn’t until the early 2000s that some larger chains began to experiment with these automated options. K-Mart was among one of the earliest to do so, and since numerous businesses have adopted the technology as well. The selling points for these automated units were several. They promised checkout lines would be shorter and that more sales assistants would be available to help customers. Most importantly for businesses, the promise to staff fewer employees, along with fewer sick days, could save money. Eventually, these enticements worked.

(The healthcare industry has a data enrichment problem–read this Bold story on the solutions.)

Unfortunately, all that glittered wasn’t gold. In reality, customers tend to be slower that actual cashiers. It’s like navigating a highway in traffic, where drivers are dependent on the slowest car on the road. As a result, lines were just as long if not longer. In addition, technology has glitches, and common automation failures occurred. And now with employees who focused on supporting these self-checkout kiosks, fewer were actually available in the rest of the store. Shelves tended to be messier, and customer service in other areas declined. As it turned out, the disadvantages of self-checkout prevented the marked improvements described. This has been the painful reality of self-checkout kiosks that many customers now appreciate.

a dude working in a call center
Nothing beats talking to real people for customer service–not automated call answering, and certainly not AIs.

Challenges in Reversing Automated Trends

Given these common automation failures, there’s recently been a number of stores rethinking their self-checkout strategies. Some stores like ShopRite are adding employees and live checkouts to address customer complaints. Others are adding more staff to assist customers through the process of self-checkout. Clearly, this defeats the purpose of having these devices in the first place. But one of the additional disadvantages of self-checkout involves the investment costs up-front. On average, the installation of a four-unit self-checkout kiosk costs $125,000. As such, companies aren’t in a hurry to forego their investments so quickly. Instead, many are trying to bridge the gap by adding some staff but not too many to erase profit gains. In other words, taking these machines away is more problematic than their initial installation.

There are additional challenges in dealing with self-checkout kiosks that could eventually persuade the change, however. One is maintenance costs, which can be substantial. Over the years, designs of these kiosks have become less robust and user-friendly. As a result, machines tend to require maintenance in order to reduce common automation failures. Naturally, this makes their investment less profitable. At the same time, theft can be a real issue with self-checkout kiosks. Whether intentional or accidental, companies are spending big money to thwart theft on these devices. And these efforts can make customers feel like they’re under constant scrutiny and untrusted. This is not the ideal customer experience, which is why companies are trying to shift gears.

Other Areas of Automation Fails

A person avoiding the disadvantages of self-checkouts
One of the disadvantages of self-checkouts is that there are no people to help you.

The disadvantages of self-checkout are not just an issue recognized by retailers but by customers as well. But these are far from the only common automation failures that consumers experience today. Nearly all customer service centers utilize various automated technologies to screen calls and direct then to the right personal assistant. But in the process, these algorithmic prompts result in customer frustrations instead of customer satisfaction. One wrong selection might take someone back to the start. Complete disconnects also remain common automation failures with these systems. And even once you get to a live person, you might find the automated system sent you to the wrong place after all.

In addressing these occurrences, companies are increasingly returning to live customer service answering services. By avoiding these common automation failures, an actual person significantly boosts customer satisfaction levels. Companies like Zappos have appreciated this simple fact for many years. This is why they have some of the most loyal customers in the shoe industry. The disadvantages of self-checkouts mirror the same disadvantages of other customer-oriented automated technologies. Responsibilities are shifted to the consumer, and in return, nothing is gained. In fact, this can result in greater irritations for consumers and lost business for retailers. How these systems are employed is critical to ongoing market success.

Bringing Back the Human Factor

There’s no doubt that automation has its place in the consumer experience process. But relying on these technologies to ensure great customer service alone can be a huge mistake. The key is to utilize both in a complementary manner to best serve customers. The disadvantages of self-checkout demonstrate that over-reliance on such systems can be a disaster. But by minimizing common automation failures and adding a human touch to the encounter, companies can excel. For this reason, it’s important that all retailers and business rethink its customer management strategies. In most instances, a personal human interaction for the consumer makes a positive impression and keeps them coming back in the future.


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