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In a classic 1995 episode of "Seinfeld," Jerry's kooky neighbor Kramer gets a new phone number, the digits of which are very similar to a movie information hotline. After a string of dialers intending to call the movie information hotline call Kramer by mistake, he takes to pretending to be the automated system that provides movie information. He accurately translates keytones into movies, locations and promptly offers show times and other info. Except when George calls in. Kramer cannot make out his request, guesses a couple of times and then reverts to saying, "Why don't you just tell me the name of the movie you've selected?" In other words, "instead of me serving you, please do the work for me."

And so it goes with many forms of so-called "self-service" systems today. Services formerly provided to the customer are reversed, instead making the customers do the work for us. Take the self-service checkout experience at grocery stores. Instead of having a cashier ring in the order, the customer now does the work of scanning and bagging groceries. I can see why it's good for the grocery store not to have to pay a cashier, but why is it good for me as the consumer? It would be like walking into a barbershop that rents you a pair of scissors, a chair, and a mirror for 20 minutes, so that you can cut your own hair. 

Examples of customer servitude seem to be everywhere these days—from the grocery store self-checkout lane to the airlines’ asking flyers to check and label their bags and drag them over to security inspection.

 But not all do-it-yourself options are negative. In fact the DIY industry is so popular it has its own subculture with books, magazines, websites and television programming that goes on for hours.

Doing self-service right means giving the customer a better, faster, more personalized experience, not making them do more work. In the restaurant industry, letting customers order and pay from their own device (or from an in-store kiosk) instead of waiting to order and pay with a cashier or server who has to transcribe the order into a separate terminal—the point-of-sale—saves time and increases accuracy.

There is no doubt that making the shift from full-service to self-service can help increase operational efficiency and cut costs. But the decision to adopt and promote self-service solutions needs to be driven by having a goal to heighten your customer experience, differentiate your brand, and make customers feel special when they engage.

When considering a self-service model, consider the following—and avoid customer servitude.

1. Give the customer control

It's imperative that restaurant brands make the experience of ordering and paying better, faster, and more personalized. Today's customers crave and expect elegant experiences. In a 2012 poll, the National Restaurant Association found 46 percent of restaurant customers would use a restaurant’s smartphone app if available, and 36 percent of customers have placed an order online. The restaurant industry currently serves 12.9 million people, indicating that nearly 6 million people would use a smartphone app if available. So why not give the customer what they want? With smartphone ownership nearly doubling in 2012, this number is likely to continue to grow.

The key is to give customers time to review the menu, build an order, and pay directly using self-service ordering on their own device. That means the ability to order and pay is not just shifted from the cashier-facing POS to a guest-facing POS by putting kiosks in the store. It means the customer can order and pay from everywhere, using their own device.

2. Re-imagine the customer journey

Technology companies like mine spend their days thinking about user experience ("UX"). For self-service ordering at restaurants, UX extends beyond the customer interface to the full experience, including in-store. Brands must consider the entire "customer journey" and always come back to the question, "Is this better than what the customer experiences today?" If the answer is "no," the program requires rethinking.

 3. Over-execute on customer service

By liberating your staff from taking orders and payments for customers, you free up their time to focus on more important tasks that enrich the customer experience: welcoming customers when they enter the store, bringing drink refills for customers, helping keep a clean store by bussing tables quickly, and having conversations with customers that cross sell products—for instance suggesting a new sandwich, limited-time offer or upcoming promotion. By freeing staff from taking orders, they can become true brand advocates and customer service professionals.

In a recent National Restaurant Association poll, 82 percent of quick serve restaurants believed online and smartphone ordering will become more popular, but we must band together to get it right, ensuring that the experience increases customer service—and doesn’t resign our customers to servitude.

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User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • Mandy Oviatt
    18487298
    I do agree that customers sometimes think that the self service kiosks that are out today demonstrate a lack of service. Employees working around kiosks need to find ways to help consumers utilize the systems, to continue giving good customer service for consumers.
  • Noah Glass
    18458202
    Thanks for your note, Mandy. Well said!
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Noah Glass
Noah Glass is the Founder & CEO of online and mobile ordering pioneer Olo. Since 2005, Olo has raised $13.75M from PayPal and leading venture capital firms. Olo has been featured on “Good Morning America,” The Wall Street Journal, and ABC World News.
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