Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Disadvantage of Self-Service

The greatest advantage of technology is empowerment: it enables many people to perform a task in spite of their lack of expertise.   This is also the greatest disadvantage of technology – because while it enables people to do a task, it does not enable them to do it well.

It’s easy to observe when the results are visual: an accounting clerk, given a word processing program, can “design” documents.   He can lay out a document, choose typefaces and colors, decorate it with clip-art, and perform other tasks he has no skill or training at doing – and the result is absolutely hideous and unreadable because he doesn’t have the skills of a designer.

An in the spirit of fair play, it works both ways:  a designer, given a spreadsheet application, can do accounting work.  They can enter numbers, create categories, and do financial analyses with the software – and the result is just as awful, wrong, and dangerous to reply upon because he doesn’t have the skills of an accountant.

A hapless and unskilled worker with sophisticated tools does not become an expert, nor capable of doing the work of someone with skills and experience – though their ignorance and narcissism make many of them loath to admit it.   And a lazy or cheap manager, who does not himself understand or prioritize quality, will provide no discouragement – and may in fact be very supportive of having “Bob the Accountant” design the company’s sales brochures because he has the software to do so.   It’s certainly cheaper than hiring a real designer to do the work.

But take this a step further … the same attitude is taken toward the customer.   If the firm provides self-service capabilities, the customer can take on tasks that had previously been performed by skilled (read “expensive”) employees who currently provide them with service.  

This idea, while financially attractive, can only lead to disaster.   Some customers are capable of self-service, others are not.  And it will become clear which are or are not when they find that self-service does not lead to the fulfillment of their needs to a degree of quality they find acceptable.

And customers can be just as narcissistic and ignorant as employees in this regard: they feel that whatever they did for themselves must have been done right, and so if there is any dissatisfaction with the outcome, it is the company they did business with that is to blame.   It’s the solution that did not perform the job adequately, not their lack of expertise in using it, and they will switch to a different solution provider.

And while the economic efficiency of customer self-service will continue to attract firms to any prospect of reducing their labor, it must be done with the consideration that when any cost is saved, the quality of service is invariably diminished – so follows customer satisfaction, and so follows market share.  There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but they tend to be rare.

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