Thursday, July 14, 2005

A Breaking Point for Self-Service

While I was on vacation in Buffalo last week, the local paper ran a story by Stevenson Swanson of the Chicago Tribune under the headline, "A Breaking Point? Service gets lost in the technology of a self-serve American world." The point of the article is that the move toward self-service is causing a backlash, raising questions about whether we are actually saving money or time in the trade off between doing tasks ourselves and having to learn so many new processes. Also, are we truly competent to handle tasks such as home sales, retirement planning, and other complicated issues on our own?

I had an epiphany in Chicago at the ALA conference when I heard the delightful Joan Frye Williams make a very simple, but very powerful, point: Self-service does not mean NO service. It means putting control in the hands of the customer, letting him or her manage the transaction, and providing appropriate and requested assistance 0n the customer's own turf and on his or her own terms. (Joan, if you're reading this and I'm misquoting or misrepresenting you, please jump in here!)

Too often, it seems, retailers (and I'm afraid, some libraries) seem to think that self-service means you turn the customer lose and wish them well. But if you think about it, your best experiences with self-service have probably been when you know there's a safety net, someone on an 800-number or a chat service or even in the little booth at the gas station who can help guide you through the sticky parts.

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