The Undeniable Importance of Human Assistance in an Automated World
Across the pond, self-checkout machines are prevalent at almost all grocery chains, especially in larger cities, such as London, where their presence doesn’t even warrant consideration from customers.
It made me wonder if the reason we have a negative view of self-checkout here in the States is due to the enormous cultural emphasis on personal customer service that’s ingrained deeper into the psyche of American shoppers than most others?
The truth that service and American consumerism are inseparable is inarguable. In most states, for instance, waiters are paid an hourly wage fractional to the legal minimum; it’s understood that the quantity of tips a server receives is largely correlated to the quality of service he or she provides.
And let’s not overlook the super-abundance of corporate slogans where “service” is the operative. We’ve all heard, “Service with a Smile” and “Service You Can Trust” and service-centric, “The Customer is Always and Completely Right.”
All of a sudden, it’s no wonder that bank tellers are getting raises and the number two and number three favorite U.S. grocery chains, according to 13,000 customers, are Publix and Trader Joe’s, respectively. And that makes sense? They’re both service-forward chains where you won’t find many, if any, self-service lines.
“Wait, Keith, you own a parking company, right? What’s with the food-talk?”
Perhaps grocery stores and parking garages share more in common than we realize.
Both are popular among customers going to and from work. Both help customers find commodities of limited supply. And both are struggling to find a happy balance between the cost-effectiveness of automation and the service quality of humans.
When it comes to parking, finding that balance is anything but easy.
If a customer has an issue with a grocery store’s automated service, an employee is right there to help out. But if a customer has an issue with your parking facility’s automated service, it can turn into a fit of complaints and blaring horns.
As consumers, we’re all in for automated service—until the tiniest thing goes wrong. And when we’re stuck, we won’t stand for anything less than efficacious, excessively apologetic human dedication and resolution to the problem that’s undoubtedly made us late for something which likely isn’t even worth the fuss we’re causing because we are stuck, “thank you very much.”
It’s called consumer aggression toward technology and it’s nobody’s fault, per se.
It’s just that the only thing outpacing the speed of technology is our expectation for it to always work. Because the convenience of technology is such an effective primer for behavioral trends, it’s difficult to imagine a world where tech can viably keep pace stride-for-stride with such expectations.
And this causes problems. Big ones, sometimes.
For instance, consider this anecdote from a friend of mine who recently found himself stuck while trying to leave a parking complex in downtown San Diego. (I would like to point out that it was not an Ace parking facility… serves him right!)
After inserting his parking stub just fine, my friend Stephen (fake name to shield his embarrassment), then inserted a parking validation stub. But, instead of the arm lifting, releasing him into the gridlock of 5:30 traffic, the machine flashed a confounding PAYMENT INVALID.
He tried again. No luck.
So, what happened?
Stephen had initially inserted his validation ticket upside down. Though the machine could recognize a parking stub at either angle, flipping the validation stub prompted a failure. He realized this as the agent and manager were both trying to figure out what the heck was going on—he was too embarrassed to speak up.
No horns, no bad reviews—any negative experiences from other customers were more than likely focused on Stephan rather than the parking company… so, all in all, everything’s fine, right? Not really.
This exposed a defect in the customer experience that, if it could happen once, could be replicated many times over, likely with drivers who have a lot less patience. When this happens in facilities that don’t have kiosks or agents close by, the customer experience takes a vertical plunge.
Which brings me back to the list of America’s top favorite grocery stores, and how they relate to parking companies.
Trader Joe’s and Publix sit respectively at #3 and #2… The #1 favorite grocer? Wegmans.
Known for its top-shelf customer service, Wegmans surprised the market by installing self-checkout kiosks in 2018. Why would they do that amidst a national consumer backlash against automated checkout? Because, as JVH would tell you, they sell bananas. Let me explain before I let you go…
People shop for bananas of all sorts, from unripe green ones to over-spotted ones; a single snack or a perfect bunch, Chiquita or Dole; locally grown and organic… “One size doesn’t fit all,” he reminds us.
After collecting the requisite data, Wegmans shifted to an integrated approach, installing self-service lanes because many shoppers make small, simple purchases. But they keep stores well-staffed to be there immediately for customers who have more complex purchases. They also offer shoppers an app that makes grocery shopping simpler (and upselling easier, I’ll add).
JVH uses his simple put perfect banana analogy to point out that the parking industry needs to deploy tailored experiences to take the frustration out of parking.
Most parking agencies will find that automation benefits them tremendously, but that human connection is as integral to the parking experience as efficient tech. (Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, for instance, has ticketing machines that virtually connect to drivers face-to-face for support when they experience an issue… or holiday meltdown.)
Oftentimes, parking’s answers are right in front of us—frequently in the form of a problem, but also as data points. Collecting the right data is key; implementing it the right way is crucial. And I believe we’re finally recognizing that the “right way” does not ignore the human way.