• United States
Contributing Writer

Mailbag: Self-service kiosks not human enough

Mar 04, 20034 mins
Enterprise Applications

* Your thoughts on some airlines taking self-service too far

Here’s the dilemma for e-tailers of any kind: lower costs, yet continue to differentiate yourselves from competitors. Sounds simple enough, but truth be told, the portion that tends to get cut out of a budget first is the cost of interacting with clients. Hence, the move toward automation. Your response to my newsletter on the airlines’ rapid move toward self-service everything proves that this trend is a bit misguided.

“The movement by all types of B2C companies (airlines, bank, retail, etc.,) toward ever-greater concentration of self-service is probably inevitable,” one industry veteran says.  “In my 20 years working in automated customer service, management has exhibited a continual (insatiable?) desire to drive the cost of service as close to zero as technology and customer preference will allow.”

A Delta frequent flier program member is less than optimistic about the airline’s ability to improve customer service. “In the past two years, it has done an extremely poor job at ‘full service’ and it continues to get worse each day,” he says.  “There is no way with its system’s inabilities to cross-talk/share information that self-service will work.”

Readers wrote in about problems using the self-service kiosks from all the major airlines. “It would be great if they worked, but they don’t!” says one IT pro.  “I’ve attempted to use one at American Airlines on two occasions, and one at United Airlines once, and I’ve yet to see one work.  On all occasions I got a message on the screen ‘see agent.'”

He adds: “The problem occurs when any slight change has been made to the itinerary. If the fight number has changed, or the departure time changed a few minutes, the idiotic software in the kiosk won’t process the check-in.”

Another reader agrees, but says that well-run call centers alleviate the stress of this situation, allowing customers to pick up a phone and get a quick solution to their problems. He says he prefers the phone to standing in long lines at the airport.

And what about those pesky lines? A reader who specializes in e-commerce for the aviation industry says other technologies could be rolled in to help. For instance, a customer service rep could use tablet PC technology to assist people waiting in line with their special needs, rather than routing them to other long lines.

He adds: “…Airline service is heading more and more down the commodity track, but the only way for airlines to ‘own’ the business they generate is through product differentiation.  And, even with technology, that really boils down to customer service – which is what people really remember once they’ve satisfied their price and scheduling considerations in picking the flight in the first place.  So, I think the important point is that airlines need to consider how much standardization and commoditization they are willing to accept before they completely eliminate any hope of differentiating their services/products for all but their most elite customers.”

One reader says that this push toward self-service by the airlines opens the door for agents to carve out their niche. “I’m one of those old-fashioned people who would rather speak to a real person,” he says.  “Granting all of the efficiencies to be realized with some of the new systems, I have an odd prediction:  We will see the revival of travel agent business.  People will ‘retain’ travel agents to be their advocates when negotiating with the airlines.  If one of those nasty situations occurs, a person will use their own telephone or Web browser to get in touch with their agent in order to have knowledgeable help in working out the problems.”