Opinion: the huge growth in industries using self-service tech means customers are performing tasks which were traditionally undertaken by company employees

From online banking and putting credit onto a travel card to ordering food and booking a holiday online, technology is a key aspect of our everyday lives. Indeed, it could be argued that technology has become one of the most disruptive forces in consumer and organisational life. A 2017 report by PWC entitled Human Value in the Digital Age, charts the continuing impact of technology on global gross domestic product, since the rise of industrialisation in the late 1800s, the development of robots in the 1970s and the all-encompassing role of personal computers and the internet in the 1990s.

Similarly, Daniel Newman's recent analysis for Forbes expanded on the technological trends that will take centre-stage in 2018. These include smart home devices such as Amazon Echo, augmented reality, robots (e.g. for housework, entertainment, companionship), artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things (health sensors), 5G technology and drones.

There's no question that technology, and specifically self-service technologies (SSTs), offer obvious benefits such as cost-savings, more efficient operating systems and time efficiencies to organisations. Equally, many readers will agree that online purchases can frequently offer cost-savings and time efficiencies. But the key aspect to SSTs is the inherent self-service aspect: customers perform technology-enabled tasks, the same tasks that were traditionally undertaken by a company employee.

Unexpected items in the bagging area. Photo: David McNew/Getty Image

Many of the industries using SSTs are to be found in the service sector, such as tourism, hospitality, health and finance. Indeed, the growing prevalence of SSTs is serving to diminish the level of employee involvement in many sectors that are inherently people-driven and service-bound. 

For example, tourists often run the gamut of SST interfaces in the tourism and hospitality industry, from researching and booking flights and accommodation online, to "bagging and tagging" their own luggage at the airport, self-scanning airline security passes and kiosk check-in at hotels. In essence, the customer becomes a partial employee of the service provider. This notion of having to work while on holidays surely suggests the contradictory nature of the customer of these two experiences.

In order to more fully explore customer perceptions on the role and relevance of SSTs in a tourism context, Dr Petranka Kelly and I led a Dublin Institute of Technology research study involving a sample of 165 customers. The first part of the study involved short interviews with 133 airline passengers in the departure area of an international airport in which they were invited to recount their recent in-airport experiences of having to use SSTs. Follow-up interviews with a further 32 customers allowed us to tease out a number of interesting issues relating to how customers relate to SSTs.

Sport the convenience seeker, motivated worker, enforced worker and assistance provider. Photo: Joshua Lott/Getty Images

The participants were invited to reflect on the SSTs that they had used to make their travel arrangements, such as websites, mobile apps, voice-response menus and interactive guides at travel locations. A common theme across the interviews was how technology impacted upon the user, or as some participants volunteered "how it made me feel" or "what I had to do". This led to the identification of six roles that customers may undertake when interacting with SSTs: (1) convenience seeker, (2) motivated worker, (3) judge, (4) enforced worker, (5) unskilled worker and (6) assistance provider.

The first role was that of a customer who enthusiastically embraces SSTS, viewing them as offering advantages such as time savings, lower prices, enjoyment and control while not required to expend excessive energy in order to use them. An example would be the convenience of using electronic boarding passes via a smartphone.

The second role was that of the motivated worker, who believes that SST usage requires "work" on the part of the customer, which is either in return for control or price benefits, or else it is "just the way things are done". This role differs from the convenience seeker in that a motivated worker tends to feel that they have a responsibility to contribute to effective service delivery and will therefore expend more energy and time. One participant described how she diligently checked and rechecked the details that she had entered for an airline booking (e.g. correct names and spelling) so as not to make a mistake before she proceeded to purchase.

The third customer role was that of a judge, an SST user who evaluates the SST interface as a whole and provides feedback (positive or negative) and recommendations to the tourism provider in question. For example, one participant who had worked in a high-tech job described how he liked to offer both his professional and consumer feedback to the company so that they could streamline its effectiveness for future customers.

As organisations increasingly embrace new technology, they also need to be alert to the learning curve that technology creates

The fourth role was that of the enforced worker, where some customers felt that the requirement to use the SST was being imposed on them, with no alternative of seeking out a service employee for assistance.

The unskilled worker recognised their own lack of technological know-how and spoke of a sense of fear or unease that they would be unable to use the SST effectively. A frequently occurring example was a perception of detaining other customers in a queue as they took their time using SSTs such as public transport ticketing kiosks.

The sixth and final role was that of the assistance provider, the customer who took it upon themselves to assist another customer who might be having difficulty in using an SST in public. The motivation for doing so was often altruistic in terms of wishing to help someone. But alternatively, the motive was also described as being self-serving in terms of helping a customer in difficulty so as to ease the queuing time. 

While these six roles reflect the perspectives of one sample of SST users, they also serve to illustrate the complex relationship between customers and service-provider technology. As organisations increasingly embrace new technology, they also need to be alert to the learning curve that technology creates, especially in people-dominant, service-bound industries such as travel, tourism and hospitality.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ