Supermarkets: to self-serve or not to self-serve?

Spoken | August 9, 2016

A lesson in IVR automation from the grocery store

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that supermarkets, the first to embrace self-service at point of service, are taking two very different paths. The Journal reports that while 200 Albertsons stores in the Southern and Western U.S. are phasing out the self-checkout systems and replacing them with human cashiers, the Kroger supermarket chain is continuing to embrace self-service, even to expanding to trials of a new scan-tunnel system that would automatically scan items from a conveyor belt.

To self-serve or not to self-serve, that is the question. And store owners seemed to have whittled the question down to a much simpler one: do supermarket patrons really prefer the personal touch or quick anonymity?

As with the answer to every other business questions, the answer is “it depends.” On how well you know your customers and track their actual behavior. In this case, it depends on the type of supermarket patron and the type of shopping excursion are involved.

7777278_s The basket excursion  I don’t know about you, but on most of my trips, I have no desire to bond with my supermarket checkout clerk. Several times a week, I am invariably grabbing one of those small baskets and squeezing the errand in between other activities that I actually enjoy doing and tend to approach the chore with a stoic pragmatism: get in, get the items on the list, and get out. I don’t want to have a conversation with the butcher; I don’t want to converse with other patrons; I don’t even want to have an Excellent Customer Experience. I just want to buy my 10-15 items and then spend time doing something I actually value in life: interacting with my friends and family.

8581830_s The shopping cart excursion  However, that is only one kind of shopper one one type of shopping excursion. I’ll admit that when I’m doing a monthly stocking-up trip, one that requires actually getting a shopping cart, filling to the brim and inevitably brings a three-digit total, the self-service checkout is not my first choice. In that case, the human checker saves considerable time and effort.Then again, that trip occurs once a month for me; the other, weekly or bi-weekly trips are all much better candidates for self-service.

Basket or shopping cart?  One would hope that both Albertsons and Kroger’s did studies to determine which type of shopper and excursion were more common, brought more income and inspired more brand loyalty before making their respective decisions to phase out and increase the level of self-service in their stores.

The lesson for IVR design

And we can learn a lesson here when designing IVRs. Most annoying IVRs do not fail because of the technology; they fail because of a flaw in the design logic. Just as a supermarket needs to consider its basket-versus-cart shoppers and their needs and values, companies should consider the following business logic before attempting to automate any process in the IVR:

  • What is the task most frequently requested by your customers?
  • What is the task your agents find the most boring and routine?
  • What are the top three reasons customers call your company?
  • What routine task are agents tired of repeating?
  • When your customers call after hours, what are they requesting?
  • When your customers call first thing in the morning, what are they requesting?

Understanding which tasks are vital to your customers and which are simply routine can and should direct your IVR design. It’s the same as understanding which shoppers on which excursions want to simply get in and out and on with their lives versus which truly want that human touch. Remember that not all tasks fare well in automation: you must analyze your current customer actions in order to determine which tasks they will sing your praises for automating and which they will be grateful to speak to a human being over.

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