John Lynch

Service culture vs. the machine

What do you do in the digital age if service is your strongest selling point? The irrepressible march of the machine is already locked into the 'service industries'. We expect to bank, shop, book holidays etc. and seem content to cut out the human interaction. Even ordering a taxi today (via Uber) can be done without talking to anyone. Where will this take us and our idea of customer service?

The common link is that consumer purchases are seen as the pointy end of what seems an ever widening complex funnel where the obsession is to get the sale through as fast as possible. An understandable reaction but as the philosopher, Nick Bostrom,  said, "If you create a really powerful optimisation process to maximise objective “X” you better make sure that your definition of X incorporates everything you care about." Is there really a shrinking universal need for the human touch as our collective marketing objective “X” suggests? Should we simply carry on and mechanise all transactions completely?

Of course there is a time when you just want to get in and get out. But looking at it from an offline perspective, I posed this question to a senior marketer in one of our more upmarket supermarket chains. Surprisingly he pointed out that he thought self-service tills had been a big mistake, a lost opportunity to both interact and gather marketing data and have significantly contributed, in his opinion, to his chains demise. He believed, self-service technology is not necessarily more efficient than well-trained cashiers, if all intangible costs/benefits are weighed up.  

Its the inescapable 'hard choice' it would seem, between transactions or relationships. In other words if you focus on the relationship and forget the transaction you are inefficient and waste the company’s resources. But some offline retailers are starting to listen to customer concerns. In the US, the likes of Costco and Albertsons (a grocery store) removed self-checkouts from their stores in 2013; the latter was in response to customer complaints that the tills took jobs from people, as well as bemoaning the loss of human interaction. At IKEA, they believe staffed checkouts are more convenient, especially given the 'unique' shopping experience their stores offer. 

Inefficient or not, human-to-human interaction and the empathy it produces adds an important element of the brand experience for a consumer (yes it’s a bad experience sometimes but that’s another discussion). However, as more transactions happen online the user experience is dominated by the idea of the ‘time poor’ consumer so the obsession of channel conversion optimisation will prevail.

But if UX and design creators are not mindful enough to take into account empathetic awareness and users aren’t demanding enough to request it, where will this lead us. As this behaviour it begins to permeate more offline into activities traditionally characterised by human to human interaction (like shopping and ordering a taxi) what will happen to those companies with a strong service culture? So should you go further and start thinking now about ways to endow future machine intelligence with positive human like values or just go with the flow? Just a thought. 


Posted by Tony Coll , 10 June 2015

The root of the problem is that UX and design are seen as subsets of IT, not branches of PR, marketing or customer communication. They should be, because how customers relate to staff and how customers relate to the machines that are increasingly replacing the staff is not that different.

However, while the Googles and Apples of this world retain their positions as the Lords of Creation, they will see the world from a technical standpoint and will value technical skills over human ones.

The result is that we have a whole range of poorly-thought-out interactions between people and machines. Point-of-sale machines whose robot voices sound bored, snooty or angry with the customer. Those same machines with confusing or intimidating procedures. No-touch payment cards that can't be used next to Oyster cards because they interfere with each other. Technical help desks staffed by people completely unable to explain technical procedures in lay terms, or show any compassion for the bewildered and non-technical customer. Websites impossible to fathom unless you have a degree in computer science.

It should not be beyond the wit of such mighty industries to devise customer interaction systems that feel right, or even pleasant, for the non-technical human. And I suspect that the first company to design an automated experience that's as good as one with a real human will make a lot of money.

Posted by John Vaughan, 11 June 2015

In the digital age Service IS your Point.
It ain't just brochureware any more.
As UX Practitioners, we implement self service in a variety of ways.

Posted by John Lynch, 11 June 2015

Hi John, Self-service and customer service are arguably not the same thing. Self-service has always been predominately about saving money, but sold to consumers as the convenience argument. The root of the problem may be that UX and even design are seen as subsets of IT, not branches of marketing or customer communication. They should be, because how customers relate to staff and how customers relate to the machines that are increasingly replacing the staff should be not that different. However, while the engineers maintain their positions as kings of the hill, they will see the world from a technical standpoint and will always value technical skills over human ones. What i am arguing is we seem to have replaced complex human needs with a liner, binary or one dimensional view of the world.

Posted by John Vaughan, 11 June 2015

I get your point. And I believe that I get your perspective, John. It seems there's a little resentment on your part towards the tech side, and perhaps a little permissiveness as regards marketing. We could debate, tho that's another thread.

As a UX person I am abundantly aware of the IT vs. Marketing frisson, tho I'm fairly agnostic on the issue. IMO UX transcends and subsumes both Marketing-centricity (Sales) and IT-centricity (Implementation) by redirecting the focus to customer-centricity (Me).

Arguably, customer service and self service are closely related and - from a UX perspective - co-reside upon the continuum of customer-centricity. "User Assistance" takes a LOT of forms. I see no point in word-smithing it.

For the time being, I'll stick w/ my observation that "In the digital age Service IS your Point." Self service - whether it's clicking on the FAQ page or contacting a Call Center - is self-generated service. As noted in my article, "FAQ's should map to issues in the call center and their priority (on the FAQ list) should reflect call center volume."

Pro-active or invasive "customer service" popups? We could talk about that...

Posted by John Lynch, 17 June 2015

Good artice from HBR on the same topic -


John Lynch Digital Ministry John Lynch
Company: Digital Ministry
Position: Editor
Involved in the digital media and Marketing industry for many years, through working at the Economist Group (uk), Universal McCanns, Zivo, emitch, OneDigital, IBM (client side), & now TBWA NY Now in Bath, UK working as a consultant

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