Published in Energy/Utilities

One is Not Always the Loneliest Number

Whenever I’m around my parents and mention accomplishing some task on my own, my mother will typically smirk and remind me of something I (apparently) used to constantly say as a child—“Dougie do it!  Dougie do it!”  Yes, apparently I yearned for my freedom and autonomy from a very young age.   This behavior and mentality has obviously stuck with me through my adult years as I always try to accomplish as much as I can on my own, without asking for anyone’s help (sometimes, admittedly, to my detriment).

But isn’t that the way of the world these days?  Aren’t we all shifting more towards isolation and a lack of human interaction, at least at some level?  Take ATMs, for example—no need to wait in line at a bank and speak directly with a teller.  With a card and a few pushed buttons, you’re well on your way with cash in hand.   And who wants to stand in long checkout lanes at the store when you can quickly zip through a self-service checkout in a fraction of the time?

Some quick-serve restaurants and fast-food chains have even jumped on the self-service bandwagon by adding kiosks to their frontline counters.  Here customers can create and customize their unique order, pay via credit card, and then take a seat to wait for their order to arrive.  Heck, we all probably have a self-service kiosk in our pockets or purses right now—it’s called a smartphone.  What better demonstration of accessing and utilizing information and services in an instant and (literally) at your fingertips?

Self-Service is Often Superior to Human Interaction

In a recent article on “4 Reasons Why Self-Service Enhances Customer Experience,” the author, Madeleine Le, points out that self-service is oftentimes superior to interaction with another human being because:

  1. Self-service is often much faster. Issues of understaffing and the simple ratio of workers to customers can generate minute- to hour-long wait times for given services.
  2. Self-service empowers customers to take charge in how they use a service. Because of how quickly data is collected and reported (here again—smartphones are a prime example), consumers are able to more quickly adapt their behaviors and lifestyles—ever-personalizing their experiences to fit their changing needs.
  3. With self-service, there’s less room for error. Studies have shown that utilizing self-service technology increases the accuracy of the transaction or of the data being submitted.  Consider a busy, loud restaurant environment where the waiter/waitress strains to hear you place your order.  It’s much easier to plug in your order on the tabletop kiosk, is it not?  At least this way you can review the details of your order before placing it.  Many a QSR drive-thru have adapted this as well—allowing customers to view their order on an LED screen as you place it.
  4. Self-service creates a more personal experience. Now on the surface, this might appear contradictory.  But consider this—most transactions/interactions of a given type typically occur the same way, time after time.  How often has the process of buying/checking-out groceries with a human attendant changed over the last 10+ years?  (Outside of the ‘Paper or Plastic?’ option, probably not much.)  Because self-service technology can be configurable to match the changing needs/situation of a consumer, it can adapt and be in flux with consumers’ changing needs, desires, behaviors, etc.

Experiencing Self-Service in a Time of Disaster

The true driving force behind looking more closely at self-service technology was an experience that I had in the middle of July last year.  I shared this same experience with nearly 100,000 other unfortunate souls living in the area.  On July 13 2016, we experienced a massive thunderstorm that swept across the state of Missouri, downing power lines, blowing fuse boxes, and testing personal generators to the max.

A newspaper snippet showing the power outage that happened in Missouri

My wife and I were without power for just over 23 hours that night/day (and we were some of the luckier ones in that regard).  Despite the frustrations that come with having all the gadgets and technology that one is constantly using suddenly fizzle out and become obsolete, we remained fortunate for two reasons.

First of all, we live close to my in-laws [Yes, I realize how lucky I am that I can consider myself lucky for this reason!] and were able to stay there overnight as they were somehow not affected by the storms.  Secondly, in a search for some way to identify when our power would be back on at our own home, I discovered a powerful self-service, mobile application through our energy company’s website.

After entering in my home phone number associated with our energy bill, the app pulled up a listing of our home location and an indicator light that identified whether the power was currently On or Off.  It also had some information on the side such as 1) what likely caused the power outage, and 2) if/when there was an estimated timeframe for the power to be restored.  Thanks to the now-constant supply of battery power to my phone, I checked this application regularly—two or three times an hour—to see if the status had changed or if any mention of restoration had been added to the page.  I was able to constantly monitor the situation and receive real-time updates without ever speaking to a single human being.  It was almost enough to make the entire situation tolerable!  Almost.

Self-Service Still Has a Ways to GoA screenshot of the Ameren App

But there’s a catch, as there always is.  The kicker is that this is a good example of how the favorability of self-service options is not yet universal and that companies are still not thinking about their entire customer base when designing innovations such as this mobile app.

Did you find it odd that I mentioned having to look up my location in the app by entering in my home phone number rather than my address?  I sure did.  And it turns out that what they are truly asking for is your home landline phone.  Have a cell phone but not a landline?  Sorry, won’t work.  The app will only accept the phone number associated with the in-ground telecommunication wires that run outside your house.  [A coworker confirmed this a few days later when I was raving about the app and she expressed her frustration in not being able to use it because she only had a cell phone number on file with the energy company.]

So before you commit yourself to taking a break from the outside world and giving up all human interaction, remember that while self-serve technology can oftentimes be a time-saver, there are still too few instances of fool-proof and universally-accepted options out there to completely dismiss human interaction all together.  I know it’s tempting to do so…but if Dougie can do it, you can too.