When customer service becomes self-service

Whether you’re banking or buying groceries, companies are moving toward a do-it-yourself approach. Here’s how to survive and thrive.

Published: July 2014

Outsourcing of jobs has been a painful, recurring theme in the past several years, but here’s a twist. More companies are outsourcing customer service—to their own customers.

Remember when attendants pumped gas, clerks bagged groceries, and the sales help measured your feet before you tried on a pair of shoes? Today at Applebee’s and Chili’s, tableside computer tablets allow patrons to order food and drinks and pay the bill without a waiter. Got a tech-support problem? Forget the help line. Just post your question to a company’s message board or community forum on its website and wait for amateur troubleshooters to respond.

The do-it-yourself economy is transforming industries, services, and society at 4G speed. Why have companies embraced self-service so enthusiastically? To save money. A customer-service transaction handled by a live agent usually costs between $2 and $10, compared with just pennies for, say, placing an order online, says John Goodman, vice chairman of Customer Care Measurement & Consulting, based in Alexandria, Va.

Credit the availability of inexpensive, improved, and widely embraced technologies for much of the transformation—along with digitally savvy millennials who expect answers quickly and are more comfortable interacting with touchpad screens than people, according to Shep Hyken, a customer-­service expert and author of “Amaze Every Customer Every Time” (Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2013).

Of course, most people don’t really think about service until they experience a problem. Self-service shouldn’t mean no service. Try canceling an online order immediately after pressing “submit.” Chances are you can’t. Or try tracking down live help if an eBay transaction goes sour. We’ll offer advice on how to cope in this self-service world and what to watch out for.

The quickening pace of self-service

There’s plenty to like about self-service, especially for routine tasks. It’s empowering and gives customers ultimate control over an experience.

Speed is at the heart of many of the initiatives. Take Walmart’s Scan & Go program, in 200 of the megachain’s 4,200 stores. Shoppers can grab, scan, and bag items as they cruise the aisles, then wirelessly transfer all of the products scanned to their smart phone (enabled with the Walmart shopping app) to a self-checkout in one move. “The purpose has never been to push people to a self-­service model,” says spokesman Ravi Jariwala. “Our customers are mobile savvy. It’s really about allowing customers to shop Walmart in a faster, friendlier, more convenient way.” Stop & Shop and Giant (of Landover, Md.) offer similar ways to shop via mobile app or handheld scanning device.

We asked Consumer Reports’ Facebook fans to share their opinion of customer self-service, and most accept it as the new normal.

“I’d rather do it myself than have someone earning minimum wage telling me what my options are and getting it all wrong,” confessed Barbara Herron of California. “I occasionally mess up, but not as often as when somebody who doesn’t care is providing the service.”

The downside of do-it-yourself

One danger is that many consumers are at risk of being left behind, either unable or unwilling to adapt. Consumer-behavior expert Brian Wansink, director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, says such consumers may increasingly pay extra for demanding personal customer care. Airlines such as US Airways charge $25 to make a reservation by phone. Spirit Airlines imposes a $10 fee on travelers who ask an agent to print a boarding pass. Banks are moving in that direction, too. Customers with a Virtual Wallet account at PNC Bank are charged $3 for staff-assisted transfers.

Nor do lower labor costs necessarily translate into cheaper prices. Though self-service might mean savings of a nickel or dime per gallon at the pump in the highly competitive retail-fuel industry, that’s the exception. Companies utilize self-service for efficiency gains and cost savings, says Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a Washington, D.C., think tank that wrote the report “Embracing the Self-Service Economy.” Job losses are inevitable in many industries as well, with those at the low end of the wage scale particularly vulnerable, Wansink says.

Then there’s the loss of human contact and the opportunity for companies and customers to forge a bond that goes beyond dollars and cents. A decade ago, most luxury hotels had a concierge, says longtime lodging industry analyst Bjorn Hanson, now divisional dean of the New York University Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management. A 23-year-old might prefer to seek dining and entertainment recommendations via social media, but a concierge can give that guest a “wow” experience by getting him a reservation at an exclusive restaurant or fantastic seats to a sold-out show, he says.

Similarly, you can shop online for clothes but can’t feel the fabric or try them on, says retail specialist Jack Abelson of Leawood, Kan. “You and a computer are never going to be friends,” Abelson says. “With human beings you can have a relationship; that’s not possible with a device. Businesses are focused too much on price, not value. Thus they ignore the value attached to a service such as an expert opinion as to how a garment looks and fits.”

What’s next?

Illustration: Christoph Hitz

More technology will ultimately lead to more self-service, the experts say. For example, once the price of radio-­frequency-­identification technology drops enough, the tracking tags can be incorporated into low-cost items such as groceries. When that happens, even the self-checkout might become obsolete, because customers could complete the process by wheeling their carts nonstop through a barrier—like a high-speed E-ZPass lane on a highway—that automatically totals all of the items and bills you electronically.

Customer Care Measurement’s Good-man predicts the future of customer service will build upon the marriage of mobile and video.

Expect to see more consumer interaction with companies via video chats, whether you’re ordering a hamburger at a fast-food restaurant or banking. Tech support is likely to come in the form of a representative looking over your shoulder—from your phone—and guiding the repair process step-by-step. “Service will be virtual, at a distance,” Goodman says. “More tailored, more personalized, and more visual due to video in both directions. The challenge is to be personalized but not creepy.”

Life at the speed of technology

The do-it-yourself movement is revolutionizing the way consumers go about routine activities and tasks from banking to filing insurance claims. Here’s how some companies are putting it into practice.


The insurance company’s mobile app speeds up the claims process by allowing customers to upload accident photos and get an automated estimate of the damage, often eliminating the wait for an adjuster to show up for an appointment.

Hyatt Hotels

Want to avoid waiting to check in or out? At some Hyatts, guests can bypass the line and go straight to an automated kiosk and complete the task with a credit-card swipe. They can also use the kiosk to ­request a room upgrade or add an amenity.

Walmart Scan & Go

In a test at 200 of the chain’s 4,200 stores, customers can use their Walmart-app-enabled smart phone to scan items as they cruise the aisles, put them in their cart, and pay in one step by scanning a QR code—a dotted square than can be read by smart-phone cameras—at the self-checkout.


The Avis-owned firm allows rentals lasting from an hour to seven days. You sign up to become a member and receive a Zipcard. You book online or via mobile app, walk to the designated car, and swipe your card across a reader on the windshield. The doors automatically open, and you turn on the engine and drive off.


The toughest part of moving is lugging all of those heavy and bulky belongings to the truck. With Pods, the company drops off a cargo container for the consumer to pack, then handles the grunt work of hauling the “pod” to your new home—on your schedule, not theirs.

Panera 2.0

Restaurant customers can place their orders online or by mobile phone up to five days in advance and pick up their order at a predetermined time without waiting. They can also place orders the same way from anywhere inside the bakery-café and have them delivered to the table.

US Airways

Airlines encourage customers to have as little interaction as possible with employees. Kiosks are undeniably handy to print e-tickets and boarding passes. But if you want a paper ticket, the company charges $50. And if you want a receipt for an e-ticket after the flight, you’ll pay $20 to do so by calling reservations.

PNC Bank Virtual Wallet

PNC designed its Virtual Wallet mobile money management account for Generation Y consumers who want to manage their spending and saving in real time. Account holders actually get charged for interacting with an employee. Each staff-assisted transaction costs $3.

City National, Cadence Bank ATMs

City National in Los Angeles has unveiled a new generation of cardless ATMs—you can remove cash via a secure mobile app. Cadence Bank, based in Alabama, has ATMs that go beyond simple transactions to offer video screens that allow virtual interaction with remote tellers.

How to find help in a self-help world

Technology that makes self-service possible also gives consumers a powerful voice. Internet forums can turn one person’s headache into a corporate nightmare. Companies actively patrol social-networking venues such as Facebook and YouTube to monitor what’s being said about them—and often respond to a concern before it goes viral. Twitter has become the go-to brand for customer support; be sure to incorporate the company’s Twitter handle in your critique. There’s even an app called GripeO that will take your complaint right to a company’s doorstep.

Here are other tips:

Have a chat. Although few firms post their toll-free numbers on all of their Web pages, more and more offer live chats with agents. It’s faster and more efficient than e-mail because you can have a clear dialogue. Be sure to print or e-mail yourself a transcript of the conversation before signing off.

Connect with other consumers. User communities within a firm’s site are a surefire way to get noticed. You can post questions and comments, and air grievances about products and services. Often a representative will join the discussion to put out a fire ­before word gets out. According to one study, disgruntled complainants are almost three times more likely to ­express their unhappiness to others than those who have a good experience. Each dissatisfied customer spreads the word to about 28 people.

Sidestep automated phone menus. Check out websites such as DialAHuman.com and GetHuman.com, which list hard-to-find customer-service numbers and advise how to bypass automated prompts to get a live person.

Use the “E” word. If you make it through to a live person and still feel you are getting the runaround, tell the agent you want to “escalate” your complaint. That’s a guaranteed attention grabber because agents can be criticized for bumping too many calls “upstairs” to a supervisor.

Climb the corporate ladder. If your comments are ignored, go to the bottom of the website’s home page and sniff around for hyperlinks to “corporate contacts,”  “investor relations,” “company information,” and so forth. That’s where you can usually find ­contact details for top management.

Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the September 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magzine.

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