Physical Self-Service

(C) Time Magazine
(The end of) customer service made it onto Time’s “Top 10 Ideas That Are Changing The World,” along with mandatory health, reverse radicalism, and a whole bunch of other seemingly more important issues. Regardless of the editors’ views about the importance of customer service as a global change factor, the one page article was interesting.

It focused on how self-service (think self check out, airline kiosks, grocery stores where people buy their own things instead of the clerk going to get it, etc.) is changing business. And Time rightly assumes, what changes business significantly (especially consumer business), does tend to affect consumers significantly. Self-service is here to stay (and become more prevalent) because it saves money for business and gives customers more control.

Time gives an interesting history of self-service. It started in 1902 when the first vending machine-esque cafeteria came about in Philadelphia. People were able to pick their own food and buy it without much help from humans. Piggly Wiggly became the first self-service grocery store 14 years later and completely changed that model around (for good). Self-pump gas stations followed in 1947 and are found in a vast majority of states today. ATMs came about in 1967. In 1995, Alaska Airlines (why them, I don’t know) sold the first airline ticket over the Internet. The timeline shows that self-service has been steadily getting more and more popular, spreading both horizontally and vertically across industries, for the last 100 or so years.

Physical self-service and the concept of self-service is interesting. It’s definitely here to stay, which makes it a natural topic of interest. The thing that is perhaps most interesting about self-service is that thinking of unique ways to bring self-service to your company is often pretty difficult. It takes some unique thinkers to essentially turn the way something is done around completely. In 1916, the idea of a self-serve grocery store was unheard of. No one thought it would work. Being able to see the potential in that and then being able to make it happen is no easy task. You definitely need unique thinkers.

What are some other examples of self-service that you’ve seen? What industries have room to provide more self-service? I would say essentially any industry where the average transaction price is low and/or simple has room for more self-service.

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5 Responses to “Physical Self-Service”

  1. Steven Di Pietro said:

    Apr 02, 08 at 1:44 am

    Yes I too saw the article. As to where else there are self serve opportunities, what about Hotel Check-in – do we really need to line up at the counter? What about booking my car for a service? What about on-line florists?

    The possibilities are seemingly endless. But beware!

    Providers of self-serve products and services should beware that they are there for when things go wrong. The momentS of Truth have become the MomenT of Truth. With less opportunities to impress but greater consequences of each interaction.

  2. Service Untitled said:

    Apr 02, 08 at 8:42 pm


    Check in, online florists, and booking cars all make a lot of sense. You can definitely get carried away with self-service.

  3. Service Untitled » The Tools You Need - customer service and customer service experience blog said:

    Apr 02, 08 at 10:00 pm

    […] I talk about tools occasionally, but not enough. Just like self-service, tools are becoming more and more important to great customer service. As the products and the solutions to inevitable problems with those products become more and more complicated, customer service will get more and more complicated. As a result of that, customer service representatives will start to need more and more powerful (not necessarily complicated) tools. Companies will obviously have to invest time and money into purchasing or developing these tools. And when companies have to invest time and money into getting something, they start to what is actually necessary versus what is completely superfluous. It’s important to look at the value of tools beyond their actual development or acquisition costs, though. If your company is a large company with 500 people providing service on a daily basis, spending $100,000 on developing an internal tool probably isn’t a huge deal. However, if that tools disrupts the flow of the service process, requires a lot of new training, etc., the costs will start to pileup elsewhere and in other forms. Tools are rarely a one time expense – they are almost always a recurring expense. […]

  4. Benjamin Myhre said:

    Apr 02, 08 at 10:45 pm

    I have noticed a trend in forced self services. Companies like WalMart and You Tube provide extensive online help, but make it so difficult to find a support email or support phone number that it feels almost like anti-customer service. I understand that it is an effort to save money, but unfortunately its frustrating and tears down the brands.

  5. Service Untitled said:

    Apr 06, 08 at 1:24 am


    I agree. One of the conditions of self-service should be that companies always make human, live help available. It isn’t good to have just self-service when some customers may want (or need) help from a human.