On a recent trip to a big-box retailer, I had encounters that reinforced two of my beliefs in the future of retailing. Self-service technologies aren't simply more efficient ways to provide services to a customer base. They are fast becoming the preferred manner in which most of us will conduct business with retailers of all sorts.
And even with that, actual human interactions resonate and differentiate as much as they ever have.
After driving my son to school one morning, I had to make an emergency trip to that warehouse club. My household was out of the Keurig coffee pods we buy by the case. Hey, improved technology has even affected our morning coffee.
Our trips to coffee shops have dwindled in the past year. We're spending as much on coffee as we ever have, but we're spending it with suppliers who have made a comparable product far more convenient. (I never have to stand behind anyone giving a five-step latte order in my kitchen.)
That morning, I found that the coffee aisle was filled with large boxes and pallets. As I walked up, the young lady working that area smiled and said, "You probably came to the store this early to avoid traffic, and here we are in your way."
I told her that it wasn't a problem, and she cheerfully replied, "Can I help you find what you're looking for?" I thanked her but was able to access what I was looking for without help. And we had a funny conversation about the fine art of properly stocking shelves while I got my coffee.
As I walked toward the checkout lanes, a pleasant voice said, "Hi. Would you like a free sample today?"
I instinctively began to turn and say, "No thanks," and then saw no one there. A moment later, I realized the voice was coming from something called a "FreeOsk." A brightly colored, unmanned kiosk with a large display audibly and visually offered free detergent samples.
I seldom stop at manned kiosks because the folks there too often look miserable or desperate. But there was no pressure here and it looked pretty cool. I scanned my membership card, and a detergent pod was dispensed while details about the product were given by the nice automated voice.
When I made it to the checkout area, I chose one of the self-scan lanes. Now thinking about technology, I spent a few seconds analyzing the screen. Another pleasant voice from behind me said, "Good morning! Do you need some help with that?"
I turned to find a roaming cashier who had perceived my slow actions to be a sign of confusion. I replied, "Oh, no. I'm OK." She smiled and said, "That's my favorite coffee, too" and wished me a great day.
As I walked to my car, I reflected on the previous ten minutes. I had completed shopping, in-store sampling, and paying activities entirely through self-service technologies. Not one employee was needed for me to satisfactorily accomplish the tasks at hand. Theoretically, the employees in that store were unessential to me.
Yet, the trip was actually made personal through the interactions of two of those "unessential" employees. Their friendliness and proactivity made a self-service trip feel like a pretty great service experience.
I can think of many situations in which folks have given me much more hands-on assistance and made me feel unappreciated the entire time.
If I would have been polled that week, I would have given that chain high marks for great service, even though, technically, I was the "server".
It wasn't all that long ago (in bank years) in which banks were being heavily criticized for trying to offload basic teller functions to ATMs. The financial aspects made sense, but the experience for a sizable portion of customers was less satisfactory than the (more- expensive-for-us) alternative.
That dynamic has changed before our eyes. For one, the user experience and functionality of today's ATMs are immensely better than they were only a decade or so ago. That, along with ever-improving and ubiquitous mobile technology, has allowed a shift in many teller functions from our employees to our customers.
The kicker this time around is that customers actually like it, and increasingly, prefer it.
Does that mean branch employees will become unessential? I would argue, no. But the future value of our branch teams will not (and cannot) be in providing services that technology provides faster, cheaper, and more conveniently.
I continue to believe that our team members' future is being the "human interface" of increasingly online operations. No technology yet is as effective at initiating and/or strengthening real relationships as smiles, personal conversations and consultations are.
Will you see those in your branches today?
Dave Martin is an executive vice president and chief development officer at Financial Supermarkets Inc., a Market Contractors subsidiary that offers design, construction, consulting and training services for retail banking programs. He can be reached at email@example.com.