Employee Engagement And Self-Service Checkouts

Do you know what it says to your employees when you replace them with a machine? It says “I don’t trust you”.

It also says, your job will soon be irrelevant. You are worthless. I can provide better customer service by removing you.

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Many of supermarket chains are are increasing the number of ‘fast’ self-service checkouts, with the exception of Morrisons who thankfully did some research of their customer base and are removing them. 

At our local supermarket, instead of spending time at the checkout with a member of the Sainsbury’s team, I am forced through the agonising self service process of bag opening, mis-scanning, being accused of theft, and waiting for approval for wine and before I can scramble out of the store. 

Sainsbury’s have also reduced the number of people on the checkouts (naturally), so the queues build up, and just like animals heading to slaughter we are all forced into the zigzag of the DIY area…..

During a recent visit to McDonalds we found a new form of ordering system. Instead of ordering food from a person, big vertical screens were suspended from the ceiling, into which you can tap your order and it magically appears at the counter five minutes later. No need to talk to anyone if you don’t want to. 

In our experience around 90% of the people coming in refused to use them despite staff begging them too. Note to staff – begging people to make you redundant is a bad idea.

Same experience at my local bank – Barclays staff now try and usher me to self service machines rather than spend time at the counters, and there’s a move to keep me out of fuel stations by presenting me with a card slot at the fuel pump – the same story is true at my local train station.

Even more bizarre is the appearance of self service coffee machines from Starbucks – which is horrifying when you think that their value proposition is based around the quality of barista and bean. Why would I pay the same for a robot as the qualified barista?

While these are unlikely to appear ‘in store’ any time soon – the rise of the poor quality franchise outlet and the war for UK service stations between Costa and Starbucks is not helping quality perception.

Starbucks – remember this from 2008, when you shut all your stores in the US for the day?

“We’re taking time to perfect our espresso. Great espresso requires practice. That’s why we’re dedicating ourselves to to honing our craft”

I suspect a little sub-note saying “but you can still use the machine at the gas station” would not fit…..

In common with 44% of the population (according to Retail Week), I prefer interaction with people rather than self service, and although retailers typically preach ‘choice’ and ‘speed’ as their reasoning, it transpires that the associated increase in theft is costing far more than the $125k installation costs and the staff salary savings.

These thefts cost retailers over half a billion pounds per year and as a consequence are causing greater investments in multi-sensory, anti-theft spying systems at checkouts, combined with an increase in security guards. 

Now I’m sure that there is short term pain investing in the technology, and the aim is long term savings by removing pesky humans from the equation (or at least reducing the number dramatically) – but none of these companies are thinking deeply enough about their brand.

Wake up. Your people ARE your brand. In an evolving service economy one of the very few things that separates you from the competition are the interactions your customers have with your staff. 

Here’s a quote from a really great article by Kate Hilpern on brand value.

“Brand value is measured one brilliant customer experience at a time”

Machines do not give brilliant customer experience.  They provide short term novelty and the illusion of choice, but never long term relationships.

I am REALLY upset that my local Starbucks closed last week, I’ll miss the coffee, and the meeting space, but much more than that I’ll miss the team of human beings that have looked after me for several years (most are facing redundancy which makes it doubly hard).  

We’ve all been to ‘good’ and ‘bad’ versions of our favourite chains – and greater consistency can be achieved by a machine, but it’s never going to ask you about your family and bring you an occasional free coffee, burger or kids toy. It also won’t prompt you about a ‘2 for 1’ offer you missed (that might slow the line).

More touch points between companies and their customers is a good thing – but so many companies are now flying in the face of common sense it bewilders me.

Self service machines are the exact opposite of employee engagement, they suppress any positive projection of culture and they reduce your value proposition. 

Stop doing it. Stop it now – think better of your staff, see past the cost and appreciate the enormous value these conversations, relationships and other interactions bring.

And we need to stop using the damn robots. You don’t have to use them – in fact you can have great fun (and get even greater customer service) by proclaiming in a loud voice “Why would I use one of those, I like talking to others, and if I keep using a machine, soon all these nice people will be made redundant”.

Try it and see. 

PS Great people really do make great companies, and I’m a big fan of both Starbucks and McDonalds for that very reason – read this blog for some more insight.



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