Services: "Do it yourself, customer!"

You can see it as the ultimate way into the service desert - or as a strengthening of the active consumer.

Services: "Do it yourself, customer!"

You can see it as the ultimate way into the service desert - or as a strengthening of the active consumer. With some retail chains, the customer almost seems to get the feeling that the best thing to do is to reorder the goods that they have scanned themselves for the warehouse. And how long, one could ask with a wink, does it take until the burger in the fast-food restaurant not only has to be selected via touchscreen, but also has to be fried by hand?

"Please do it yourself!" on all channels: What may seem strange, sometimes strange in the modern consumer world has a serious background. In addition to specifically addressing consumers who are willing to do everything without human help for low prices, cost pressure and a lack of skilled workers are increasing the do-it-yourself attitude of many service providers.

"You know the topic in itself," says trade expert Gerrit Heinemann from the Niederrhein University of Applied Sciences, for example about the triumph of discounters. "But it has received a push in a number of areas."

It is no longer just about classic self-service at the shelf, it is no longer just about functions such as self-check-in at the airport or on the train via machine or app. In retail in particular, it can be felt that customers should do as much work as possible. Whether groceries, sporting goods or furniture: self-check-out registers for self-billing and self-packing can be found in more and more shops.

Fast and impersonal or slow and individual

If you prefer one of the few normal checkouts or have specific questions, you often have to put up with longer waiting times. Tests are already underway with completely "autonomous" shops in which the customer can control everything exclusively with an EC or credit card - including round-the-clock access. Edeka, for example, emphasizes that these “smart boxes” should also “focus on the shopping experience”. Do buyers who need advice or have a low affinity for technology also see it that way?

Heinemann is skeptical. However, the development can hardly be stopped and is understandable from the point of view of the industry. "Through self check-outs or smart boxes, outsourcing and automation reach their peak," he explains. Commercial theory describes this as "integration of the external factor" - i.e. the customer - into the company's own work. "The entire online trade is ultimately based on this principle," says the expert. "But we are now also seeing its permanent expansion in brick-and-mortar retail."

One of the main reasons is the lack of cashiers. "The cost pressure, especially in the food trade, leads to this. In addition, there is a massive shortage of staff in all possible areas." Philipp Kolo from the management consultancy Boston Consulting Group (BCG) emphasizes that digitally supported technologies for self-service often have advantages from the customer's point of view: "If I just want to have a standard product as quickly as possible, an automatic checkout can be sufficient. Or if I use online banking wants to make a quick transfer."

But it always depends on the context. "It's different when I'm looking for specific advice, for example in a specialist shop," explains Kolo. "Then this advice must be really good and comprehensive."

Between cost pressure and staff shortages

The trend is spreading elsewhere too. Those who still order (or are allowed to order) at the counter in larger branches of fast-food companies now belong to the minority. Personal orders are only accepted, if the shop is not too full, you sometimes hear them - and sometimes not at all, then only the displays with waiting numbers above the kitchenette remain. If you want to pay in cash, you are sent to another loop until you can get the food.

Martin Fassnacht, marketing professor at the WHU business school, believes that digital outsourcing to customers is far from over. "The pandemic has additionally triggered this development," he says. "Many service providers transfer activities to their customers in order to save themselves money. You can also see this in medicine, for example when it comes to booking appointments with doctors." The reasons? According to the researcher, "clearly clear goals of cost reduction, now also due to the energy crisis and often staff shortages".

A real compulsion to self-service is spreading. Not every customer tolerates that. "Those who want to continue ordering their Happy Meal at the counter are disadvantaged," Fassnacht states soberly. "But the trend can extend into the luxury realm."

Colleague Heinemann also finds examples in cheaper houses in the hotel industry. Check in yourself with codes and room cards? "That will increase. And who actually still offers place settings for breakfast? Only buffets everywhere." Already when planning a trip, the customer can or has to click through individual offers with an increasing tendency. Tui, for example, wants to focus more on combined bookings and no longer just on ready-made packages. Sure, that brings more choice - economists speak of consumer sovereignty, which ensures competitive prices and competition among providers.

"Then you will find it good"

Seen through this lens, the logic of almost complete self-service only seems paradoxical. "Some customers no longer associate service primarily with people and employees," admits Heinemann. It is not uncommon for companies that have largely outsourced services to be the most satisfied in retail. What is decisive for the impression made by the end consumer is "that the price is lower for precisely this reason. It must be made clear: You then have everything cheaper. Then people find it good."

Possible downside: Even when putting together complex products such as cars, you have to navigate through extensive configurators. Some prefer that to going to the car dealership and consciously want to be left in peace. But if special requests come up, there is less feedback.

Many banks and insurance companies employ fewer established consultants, and in the event of a problem you often have to make do with telephone menus or chat bots. "Or take medical services," adds Heinemann. Homemade standard vision or hearing tests, centralized health insurance portals spread. "Otherwise it's simply no longer affordable in this form."

Personnel expert Kolo appeals to companies to take a differentiated view of the topic of digital self-service. What he means by this is: "If I streamline certain services, this frees up capacities to expand personal service in other areas. There I can use my employees more sensibly to solve problems that really require intensive consultation." On the other hand, clumsy digitization without using the new resources risks losing some of the customers.

Don't leave the elderly and regular customers behind

So where is the do-it-yourself world headed? Heinemann appreciates: "There are no limits to your imagination." You can see that advisory services - where they still exist - are being delegated to consumers. "In social networks, customers answer inquiries from other customers, so that expensive service centers are no longer necessary." Service to the simple customer, as the mass consumer society has known it, could indeed die out. "Real brains and personal service are becoming almost priceless and luxury goods."

Despite all this, the economy must not overstimulate. Consumers turn away when service and price levels do not match. The fate of many department stores showed that, says Heinemann. However, he also points out the difficulties older people have in finding their way in the universe of PINs, TANs and QR codes. "One or the other is completely overwhelmed, you can see that not only at ticket machines. The legislator must also be careful that parts of society are not excluded."

Ultimately, service must retain a value, warns Fassnacht. Otherwise there are "only so few moments of truth, of encounter, that loyalty decreases. That can ultimately lead to a loss of customers."

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