By Michael J. Talmo March 22, 2023 (published in State of the Nation)
I’m not going to mince words. I hate self-service. I despise it. I loathe it. Words are inadequate to describe how deeply the very sight of self-service machines and kiosks offends me. When a business or a government agency wants me to do something that they should be doing, it pisses me off. What really irks me is that self-service is being marketed as a way to give us, the consumer, “numerous psychological benefits” that will make us “feel happier and empowered.” To quote this article:
“Self-service makes your customers happy…Make them feel good by helping them help themselves. Give them independence…This feeling of independence evokes positive emotions, it imparts a sense of freedom.”
If you believe that pile of dog vomit, I have a Grand Canyon in Arizona that I’d like to sell you. People will fork over big bucks to bungee jump into it. You could make a fortune.
Big lies vs reality
The nonsensical idea that self-service is “Helping Customers Help Themselves” reminds me of an experience I had back in the early 1990s. An ex-girlfriend had this nifty sales job offering business owners and other prominent people an opportunity to be featured in a one-time issue of their own magazine. The company she sold for provided a stock publication with some fluff articles. The client would get their picture on the cover along with a big feature article stating how wonderful they are. The magazine would be paid for by getting companies and people they do business with to buy expensive ad space in the publication. Her commission was $15,000. ($31,229.07 in 2023 dollars).
On her referral, I applied for the position. But they told me that they are lowering the commission to $10,000 for new people—my ex would still get the same deal. And get this, they had the unmitigated gall to tell me “we’re lowering the commissions, but it’s better for you.” Really? How is getting paid less better for me? I told them to forget it. But this is the kind of corporate doublespeak they are using to convince us that self-service is a good thing. Here are some examples:
“Letting customers solve their own problems will give them a sense of accomplishment”
For those in dire need of a sense of accomplishment, try an enema. Seriously, I have enough problems. I have enough to think about. As a customer, I want the business staff to solve my problem.
“Everyone wants to use self-service”
I don’t want to use self-service. Lots of people don’t want to use self-service. According to an MSN poll, “78% of customers said they would be less inclined to go to a restaurant that has automated ordering kiosks.” And this article explains that older people in particular, such as baby boomers (born 1946-1964), my crowd, in most cases, don’t want to use self-service.
Regardless of age, what’s really going on is that most people don’t like waiting in long lines at retail stores or anywhere else. Myself included. They want immediate service. Self-service propaganda sites rightly point out this aspect of human nature. But this doesn’t mean that people want to use self-service machines or kiosks.
For example, have you noticed in big retail stores like Target and Walmart where they have like fifteen checkout stations and only a couple are open? This manipulates impatient people to use the self-checkout machines. Open up all or most of the employee-manned checkout stations and we’ll see how many customers want to use the self-checkout machine.
With self-service, there is less room for error “because the customer is the one in control of the transaction…the customer does not have to rely on an employee to make their service request or transaction accurate. By doing it themselves, customers are taking charge of how they are using a service and are less likely to make mistakes.”
The article I just quoted admits that “even well-trained workers can make mistakes.” But somehow untrained customers will make fewer mistakes. Out of what part of their anatomy did they get that tidbit of illogic? I’ll give you a hint, it’s below the waist.
As explained in this article, a big drawback with self-service machines in all industries are “software problems” and “internet or power outages.” In restaurants, the kiosk may not be updated and customers will order items that have been discontinued. Data errors also frustrate customers and cause delays in all other industries.
If the system isn’t working at all in the case of restaurants, no one will be able to place an order. This even applies to places that use live order takers, because just about everywhere now uses computers. If the system is down, there is no manual override. No one can do anything. We have become slaves to the machine.
Regarding self-checkout, this 2022 CNN article reported that “errors at the kiosks are so common that they have spawned dozens of memes and TikTok videos.” In addition, “the machines are expensive to install, often break down and can lead to customers purchasing fewer items.” There is also the problem of shoplifting. A lot more of it occurs at self-checkout machines, which also causes another problem; people getting wrongly accused of shoplifting.
In 2022, the New York Post and NBC News reported that using self-checkout machines could get you arrested and jailed for shoplifting. Of course, some people really are guilty. But a lot of others may have forgotten to scan an item because they were in a hurry or distracted by their small children or whatever else. Sometimes the scanner malfunctions even if all items were properly scanned.
People could also wind up being prosecuted months later when the store does inventory and comes up short. They will go through video footage and blame the last person to make a purchase even if they didn’t do it. You could wind up paying thousands of dollars in legal fees to defend yourself against the charges. And “megaretailers like Walmart usually have to present very little evidence” for an arrest. Think about that before using self-checkout. You could wind up being one of the unlucky few.
“Customer service isn’t an easy gig. It takes boundless empathy, rigorous organization, and a great deal of patience.” And it “will take a toll on your team’s morale.”Customer self-service “has two benefits: first, it saves the customers time and effort, which they’ll appreciate. Second, it saves time and effort for your agents as well” and will “spare their mental health.”
Customer self-service, will waste more of the customer’s time and create more effort, which I don’t appreciate. I hate automated systems. They are obnoxious. Give me a real human to talk to anytime. But customer self-service will save time and effort for the agents because most of them will be out of a job, which is the whole point. And since looking for a new job can be both stressful and depressing, it won’t do much for the agents’ morale or mental health.
Self-service is “all about giving your customers options. Let them be the ones to choose what is more convenient for them. They will appreciate it.”
Many stores, like some Walmart locations and CVS, have gone totally self-checkout. No more live cashiers. So, where are my options, buttercup? And no, I don’t appreciate it.
“providing customers with the means to solve their own problems is the gift that keeps on giving.”
It sure is. It lines the pockets of company CEOs and share holders because they don’t have to provide as many jobs. As explained in this 2017 article, self-service technologies are “a race to the bottom” because “they kill jobs” and because machines“don’t pay taxes.” This constricts the economy, which is bad for everyone except the very rich.
“It’s critical to understand customer-facing processes and pain points in every possible scenario in the customer journey to clear the way to efficient, intuitive, and successful self-service.”
For crying out loud, I’m conducting a business transaction with some company. If I want to work on my pain points and be more intuitive to help me along my journey through life, I’ll go to an ashram.
“Millennials” (born 1981-1996) “are independent, resourceful, and aspire to self-sufficiency. This age group overwhelmingly prefers self-service resources to talking to a human representative.”
Sorry children, diddling around with a self-checkout machine at a Wawa or an order kiosk at Taco Bell doesn’t make you Daniel Boone.
Self-sufficiency is growing your own food, making your own clothes, knowing how to find and purify water, along with how to hunt, fish, and how to find and identify what is edible in the wilderness. That’s self-sufficiency. Self-service makes you an unpaid employee. It’s exploitation. Don’t fall for it. Knowing how to use a self-service checkout or printing your own boarding pass to get on a plane won’t help if the power grid fails or if the Apocalypse hits.
“All I want is a Pepsi”
According to this article, “automation exists because we want it.” This is why customers are “opting for self-service.” What they are doing here is conning you into thinking that self-service is automation. It isn’t.
For example, in the 1989 movie classic Back to the Future Part II (my favorite of the trilogy), Marty McFly, played by actor Michael J. Fox, enters Cafe 80s, which is supposed to be in the year 2015. There are no employees. Marty goes to the counter and a CRT screen bombards him with CGI images of former president Ronald Reagan and Ayatollah Khomeini yelling out what he should order. Marty shuts them up when he says “Hey, all I want is a Pepsi.” A trap door in the counter opens and the Pepsi pops up. That’s automation folks.
In the case of self-service, such as checkout machines in supermarkets, instead of a store employee handling, scanning, and bagging your groceries, you are doing it. If it was really automated, all you would have to do is put the groceries on the conveyor belt and tell the machine you’re checking out. Instead you are doing what the store employee is doing: operating the check-out machine manually. That’s not automation. That’s exploitation. They are making you the store’s unpaid employee.
However, automation does exist when it comes to public bathrooms. Many of them have self-flushing toilets and urinals along with sinks that automatically turn on the water when you put your hands under the faucet. The toilets and urinals work fine, but the sinks are a whole other experience.
My first encounter with this brilliant innovation was back in 2018 at this restaurant I used to frequent. I go in the bathroom to wash my hands and notice there are no faucet handles. For a moment I’m puzzled. Then it dawns on me: “Oh, it’s automated.” So, I put my hands under the faucet and nothing happens. No water. I leave the bathroom and tell the manager that the sinks aren’t working. He goes into the bathroom with me and explains that I have to position my hands correctly in order for the sensor to activate the water, which he demonstrated. Since then, I have found that automated sinks don’t work half the time.
When I recently went to see a movie, the public bathroom had four automated sinks and only one of them was working. Naturally, I had to waste time moving my hands up and down inside the sink looking for the sensor in order to find that out.
Call me old fashioned, but I really don’t mind flushing my own toilet and manually turning on water to wash my hands. I’m also very good at wiping my own ass. I can handle all of that. What I don’t want to handle is self-service kiosks in grocery stores, restaurants, banks, and printing my own boarding passes at airports, which was a real nightmare for my ex-wife, who is an experienced traveler. The kiosk wasted so much of our time that she made sure she only got flights where the boarding passes were printed for us. But such is the Bizarro World we live in where simple things that we can easily do are done for us, but we are expected to do complicated things that trained individuals should be doing.
Just press OK
Another aspect of self-service that rankles my Rumpelstiltskin is having to scan my own credit cards. In the past, you handed your credit card to the checkout clerk and they would scan it. 1-2-3 Done. Not anymore. Now, in many places, they have these annoying little machines where you have to either swipe your card or insert it so it can read the chip. Problem is they don’t work right or are complicated and people, including me, often have to waste time struggling with them, which holds up the line. I would love to wrap my hands around the throat of the genius who came up with that bright idea.
Some self-service credit card scanners also require that you press “OK” or “enter,” or even sign the screen to complete your transaction. Somehow, this is supposed to be for my safety and security. I fail to see how. When the self-service credit card machines first came out, I used to ask the clerk to scan my credit card, but the reply was always no can do. I have to do it. Some of these machines are so bad that the clerk has to work the machine for the customer, all of which wastes everyone’s time.
“I’m as mad as hell and I’m not gonna take this anymore”
The above statement was made by actor Peter Finch in the 1976 movie “Network,” which I can really relate to when a minority of people that I encounter tell me how much they love self-service. I want to grab them and shake some sense into them because the more people passively accept and use self-service, the more likely all of us will eventually be forced to use it. But I realize that no matter how bad or how stupid something is, there will always be a percentage of the population who will go along with it. People are, all too often, their own worst enemy.
Don’t use self-service machines, folks, even if you have to wait in line longer. But don’t stand there like sheep. Demand they get more cashiers if there is a big line. I’ve done it and it works. Don’t just go along with their agenda. Go to the manager or owner of every store and business you frequent where you see self-service machines and tell them in no uncertain terms that you refuse to be exploited in this way. Tell them that if they go totally self-service, you will no longer shop or do business there. Tell them you refuse to be their unpaid employee. Do this firmly, but nicely. Encourage everyone to do the same.
Contact your state and federal legislators and demand they enact laws making self-service-only stores and businesses illegal. Demand that they make laws that require enough live personnel to take care of customers who don’t want to use self-service. And demand that people not be prosecuted for shoplifting with self-checkout machines. Place the blame where it belongs: on the business owners who can write the losses off on their taxes.
Also call for laws that prohibit retail establishments from going cashless.This discriminates against low-income people because they usually don’t have access to credit cards. 40-60 percent of people worldwide pay in cash. Cities and states have begun to ban cashless stores for this reason, as explained here, here, and here. Refuse to do business with cashless stores because they could pave the way to a totally cashless society, which is “a huge threat to our freedom,”as explained in this 2013 CNBC article. In a “cashless society,” the government will know about every financial transaction that you make and will have the power to deny you access to your funds if you do something it doesn’t like.
The employee serves the business in exchange for a paycheck. The business serves its customers in exchange for them buying whatever it’s selling. Self-service changes all that around. You now have to serve the business instead of it serving you. In other words, you have to do their bidding to get the things you need. This is exploitation. Self-service utterly destroys the healthy relationship between customer and business. Self-service is corporate greed personified. The Technology as it now exists makes everything more difficult and more complicated. It also separates and depersonalizes us. The coldness of the machine has replaced the warmth of human interaction.
This corporate insanity reminds me of two cartoon shows that I used to watch in my childhood long, long ago: The Jetsons and The Flintstones. The Jetsons was about a family in a futuristic world where life was easy and automated. The Flintstones was about a Stone Age version of suburbia. There, life was very hard. They drove cars powered by their feet, lifted heavy objects, etc.
Simply stated: with self-service, they promised us The Jetsons and gave us the Flintstones.