[Web Informant] 30 June 2009: The self service Internet

David Strom david at strom.com
Tue Jun 30 12:52:49 EDT 2009

Web Informant 30 June 2009: The self service Internet

There is no doubt that we have become accustomed to less customer
service and more self-service these days. Maybe it is because the
general bar for customer service keeps getting lower and the actual
service itself surlier. Maybe it is a cost-cutting measure as more
retail establishments cut back on their staffs. Maybe it is a general
increase in rudeness, or because of more violence or reality shows on
TV. I don't know. Whatever the reason, self-service is here to stay,
and we might as well get used to it.

The inspiration for this missive came from a blog entry on the New
York Times Web site, entitled the Self-Service City. Timothy Egan
talks about the various cutbacks in municipal services that have him
growing his own food, hauling his own trash, and other activities:

As he recounts, self-service doesn't always work out as well as we'd
like, though. Remember how the Internets was supposed to empower

We buy our movie tickets on Ticketmaster/Fandango, so we don't have to
wait in lines at the box office. We can examine online seat maps to
find the perfect seat to watch our shows. Yet we pay "convenience
fees" and surcharges that sometimes add $15 or more to the purchase.
Convenient for whom, exactly?

We book our own flights online, because travel agents weren't as good
as search engines in finding the best fares or flights. Now I have a
Twitter account that notifies when fares drop from major St.
Louis-based routes. (Go to farecomparelabs.com and enter your city for
more info.) But I really don't need a search engine to find these
fares, mainly because there are so few non-stop flights out of STL
served by our one and a half major carriers (and American is dropping
more nonstops, making Southwest our largest airline here now).
Southwest has some amazing customer service initiatives, including
calling you back when you dial their 800 number, rather than being on

We bank online so we never have to enter our branch and deal with
snarly bank employees or get stuck behind a first-time customer
unfamiliar with general banking principles. And companies like USAA
and ING have made this into a calling card, offering branchless
banking for years with various online tools – USAA even allows you to
scan your checks to deposit them instantly to your account. That is
the ultimate in self-service banking, without the heinous float times
that the ordinary banks like to lay on top of you for their deposits.
And yes, some banks are getting it totally online: after Twittering
Bank of America a few months ago, I managed to save $140 in overdraft
fees. Not bad for a buck a character transmitted, surely the best rate
that I have ever been paid as a writer.

Many of you use Web sites like FreshDirect.com to order and deliver
your groceries, which seems like the ultimate in self-service time
savers. I know several of you that are very happy with this service,
but you have to be more organized than I. Like Ticketmaster, there are
delivery fees that are added on to your purchases.

There are companies like RightNow Technologies that build self-service
web sites that have frequently asked questions and answers. And there
are numerous developments on social networks, such as Answers for
LinkedIn, Vark.com and Mahalo.com where people can ask and get answers
to their questions no matter how arcane. There are some people that
spend significant portions of their day answering questions for people
they don't know and have never met: isn't the Internet a wonderful

So what does all this mean? As we do more Internet-based
disintermediation, the companies that can provide face-to-face contact
and initiate customer problem resolution will win over loyalty and
retain their customers. The best companies will combine great service
by humans with electronic initiatives such as USAA's scanned deposits
and Southwest's call-backs. Those that have the right attitude and
understand how important customer satisfaction is will need to do both
online and human-powered things together. The others will go the way
of Worldcom, GM, and AIG.

Do share your own customer service success stories if you don't mind
on my strominator.com blog.

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