Can Good Customer Experience Be Created by Removing Customer Service?

Imagine entering a store, picking up a can of soup, a bottle of shampoo, maybe a box of cat food, putting them in your bag, and then just leaving. No “hellos,” “goodbyes” or reaching into your wallet to pay.

Either this could be an introvert’s dream shopping scenario or the stuff of nightmares for anyone accustomed to traditional customer service.

By now, you’ve probably heard about Amazon Go, Amazon’s latest foray into brick-and-mortar retailing. As a part of the company’s “Just Walk Out Technology,” sensors automatically detect items taken off of and placed back on to the shelves, and when shoppers leave, the merchandise is automatically charged to their Amazon accounts.

The 1,800-square-foot Seattle prototype isn’t open to the public yet, though Amazon promises an early 2017 opening). Currently, it’s only available to Amazon employees and is stocked with grocery store staples and prepared food items, but this convenience store is likely to be fancier than your local 7-Eleven.

But was this an exercise in showing off tech capabilities or a solution aimed to meet customer demand? Amazon has been working on this for four years, and it wanted to meet the challenge of creating a store with no lines or checkout. But really, for Amazon this is a data play. Millions of Amazon Go transactions will provide insight into purchasing habits and ultimately can create personalized shopping experiences.

In 2011, Gartner predicted that in 2020 (only three years away!) 85% of customers would manage relationships with companies void of human interaction. That forecast may have been a little ambitious, but there’s no question we’re moving toward more automation, often as a cost-saving measure.

Amazon isn’t alone in a quest for automation

Panasonic is also looking to replace the human touch in exchange for greater efficiency. In Japan, the company has developed checkout machines for convenience stores that scan and bag items, though customers will still pay with cash or cards.

Yasuyuki Fukui, a Panasonic executive, recognized that this wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste and promised this tech wouldn’t eliminate cashiers altogether. “We need a good solution also for customers who wouldn’t like a completely digitalized system,” he said.

Bank of America has been testing three fully automated branches in Denver and Minneapolis and has already eliminated tellers at some branches, replacing them with video-capable ATMs for customers to talk to employees based in call centers. Dean Athanasia, co-head of consumer banking, said of these initiatives, “We are literally automating every single thing.”

This move has not been without growing pains; removing drive-up tellers in some branches did lead to customer complaints.

Self-sufficient consumers are the minority

Just under one-quarter of internet users in North America surveyed by iVend Retail said the in-store shopping experience would be improved by faster collection processes. So, for the majority of shoppers getting their goods and getting out isn’t a top priority, though for that 24.3% it is. That’s a significant number of customers.

And when executives were asked in a Retail Systems Research study which tactics they’d use to improve the in-store customer experience, empowering employees with in-store tech was number one (53%). Customer self-service options placed last (33%). Once again, though, one-third is significant.

Companies can’t ignore this self-sufficient customer. The numbers will only continue to grow as digital natives age and consumers become accustomed to—and even expect—d.i.y. options if it speeds up transactions.

Automation isn’t for everyone

Target shut down its “Store of the Future” before it even saw the light of day. The retailer chose an existing Silicon Valley location to be the site of an experimental store that was to be part showroom, part warehouse. Customers could pick out merchandise, robots would retrieve it, and the items would be available to shoppers upon checkout. This approach would’ve been potentially innovative, but the retailer shifted gears to focus on the fundamentals after a disappointing holiday season.

Lesson learned: robots are nice-to-haves, not necessities.

Whether as a cost saving measure, to glean more customer data, or move shoppers out the door more rapidly, automation isn’t going away. There will also be a segment of the population who are averse to depositing their own checks or having a machine bag their groceries, just like some will avoid self-checkout at the supermarket at all costs. But with time, automation will feel less foreign and the companies that can demonstrate that it enhances the customer experience rather than detracts will be ahead of the game.


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