Final Word from Isaac de la Fuente

Self-service first, personal touch second.


start with the bold statement that you’ve been thinking about customer service all wrong. The gold standard of customer service is actually NO service at all. Or, better put, great customer service is self-service for 99% of interactions. For the remaining 1%, all you need is a knowledgeable human being.

If your customers have to interact with you on a regular basis, you’re doing something wrong. I’m not just referring to customer/dealer relationships, but also dealer/wholesaler/manufacturer ones. I would argue that focusing on customer service, and measuring and rewarding your team for great interaction, is actually keeping you from providing truly great service.

Self-service expected

Self-service is no longer a trend; it’s an expectation of the younger generation. And by that I’m not only referring to millennials, but also to much of Gen X. Here are some examples:

  • The airport: why wait in line when a computer can print your boarding pass in two minutes?
  • ATM machines: no queues and you have access to cash in thousands more locations.
  • Travel: why have the added layer of a travel agent?
  • Shipment tracking: we’ve been trained to know where our merchandise is at any given moment. Having to call for a status update is unthinkable.
  • Rental cars: VIP members already go straight to their car. The best customer service you can give is letting the customer walk to a car and drive away.

But Isaac, you might say, I hate the self-checkout line at the grocery store. This is a great example of how self-service for the sake of self-service (or cost savings) can actually create customer angst. Instead of removing friction from the buying process, self-service here merely transfers the checkout burden to the customer. It’s too time-consuming and rarely seamless, leaving the customer frustrated and angry. Fortunately, self-checkout is just a transitional technology waiting to mature. The final iteration will resemble something like Amazon Go stores where you walk into the shop, grab what you need and walk out. Completely frictionless commerce.

The Tipsy Robot in Las Vegas is another example of how polarising self-service can be. For those not familiar, this is a bar that consists of only drink-mixing robot arms and touchscreens to place your drinks order. You press a couple of buttons, swipe your card or Apple Watch and the robot pours and shakes you a drink. Standing near the bar you can hear everyone over 50 complaining about how robots are taking over the world while the twenty-somethings are already concocting their second robot-crafted cocktail.

In my view the Tipsy Robot has taken a great first step by creating a self-service opportunity for its customers, but has completely failed at re-deploying human capital to create customer delight and ultimately loyal, repeat customers. We need humans to make human connections and technology to accomplish the rote tasks.

Practical advice

What does all this mean for your business and how can you leverage the self-service revolution to better satisfy your customers?

  • Measure the number of touchpoints, time and energy spent on your customers. At Supply Chimp, we periodically record the purpose of inbound phone calls and emails, and measure the breakdown of all time spent by our customer-facing employees.
  • Analyse the data to find self-service opportunities and prioritise. Common examples might be customers asking for tracking numbers, invoices or price quotes, special pricing or promotional items, the wrong item sent, etc. Rank them by the total amount of human hours spent satisfying these tasks. 
  • Use technology or processes to self-serve time-consuming customer touchpoints. Automate tracking numbers, provide online access to orders, allow printable, mailable invoices from customer account pages, facilitate self-service returns and shipping labels, etc.

Overall, let technologies accomplish the tasks they are good at, and let people focus on human connections. Importantly also, reclaim and reuse the new-found employee hours to create meaningful interactions with your customers.

Providing great service means getting out of the way of your customers and letting them enjoy your services on their terms. Be thoughtful and purposeful about your interactions so that your time is spent surprising, delighting and ultimately retaining those customers in a world rife with online competitors ready to take them away.