Sometimes Self-Service is the Best Service

I sometimes wonder where my simple, uncomplicated life has gone. It may be that I am getting old and tired, but everything just seems to be so much harder these days. Many businesses have made my life incredibly complicated.

For example, when I apply for financing of a new car at the bank, even though I have had a number of different accounts at the same bank for almost fifty years, even though this is the seventeenth car that they have financed, I still have to fill in a poorly-designed form, and I still get asked for all of my personal details, like name, address, various telephone numbers, occupation, and even, “Who do you bank with?” every time. (If they don’t know by now, they never will!) I am also required to personally bring in supporting paperwork to prove where I live, (the same place for the last 22 years,) and I am asked irrelevant questions about how many children I have, and how many squares of toilet paper I use every time I go to the loo. (Okay, maybe not the last one.)

Once it’s all finished, I have no choice but to sign a contract which I barely understand, but which I can tell you without a shadow of a doubt protects the bank and not me. Then I must wait, humbly, for approval of the loan by an anonymous employee who has never looked me in the eye, and knows absolutely nothing about me save what he or she can see on a screen.

There are at least two dozen new “rules” when you make a simple 50-minute flight from Johannesburg to Durban. Even when I fly locally, I have to book well in advance, arrive an hour beforehand, park at least half a kilometre away, wait in a usually-long queue to check in my baggage, (since their home check-in system was down again last night,) pass through a humiliating and tiring security process where I have to remove all electronic items and sometimes take off my shoes, wait again in a very noisy lounge, walk to a gate where there are no seats available while we all wait, board with a very specific-sized bag, (everyone else seems to bring in tons of extra, but they never get caught,) sit passively in a really uncomfortable seat, uncertain about when I am allowed to switch on my electronic toys, (inconsistent between airlines, and rudely requested by frustrated models and actors that didn’t make it to the big time,) and then, finally, fly.

On the other side, I have to get out the plane, wait to be bussed to the terminal, wait for baggage that always seems to be “last in, first out,”, walk another half a kilometre to car hire, wait again, and eventually drive away. A fifty-minute trip to Durban usually takes five hours from house to hotel. And then there’s another waiting process to check into the hotel.

If I want to change payment of my monthly insurance from one account to another, or if I want to cancel my internet service provider, again I am hassled by people who want to know why, who want to sell me something else, and who demand a whole lot of paperwork. To unblock my cell-phone and be allowed to use my card to draw my money on an overseas trips, emails fly backwards and forwards for a few days.

Buying a simple day-to-day item like a toothbrush leads to an overwhelming selection of 72 choices. Applying for a simple one-page document at your bank or Home Affairs means you have to set aside hours, if not days, to sort things out. Even having an insured mobile phone fixed means you have to jump through hoops, notwithstanding the fact that you will be bombarded by more people trying to sell you a whole bunch of extra stuff. And so it continues. These are just a handful of examples of hundreds of everyday complexities that I could list.

So it won’t surprise you to hear that one of my favourite eat-out restaurant experiences is sushi. I’m certainly not a “new age yuppie”, nor do I have any aspiration to become a notorious South African politician. I’m also not really that partial to raw fish. But the sushi restaurant concept has a really great service approach.

At the centre is a long counter, around which all of the patrons sit. And on the counter is a revolving conveyor belt on which there are many small plates of various bite-sized snacks, all of which are beautifully decorated, and most are delicious. Each plate is colour coded so that you know exactly what you are paying for, and customers help themselves to whatever they want. You can also order from the kitchen if you so please, and the sushi chefs stand right at the centre of it all making fresh plates of what you desire in minutes, while putting on an entertaining performance of preparing new dishes to replenish those that are eaten.

There are a few obvious reasons why this concept appeals to me…

  • First, there is instantaneous and simple choice, not only of the different dishes, but also of how much or how little you want to eat.
  • Second, freshness is guaranteed, and is seen right in front of your eyes.
  • Third, there’s the entertainment element as the food is elaborately prepared before you.
  • Fourth, there’s the speed of it all: You can eat comfortably and leave in 15 minutes if you wish.

But what appeals to me most is the simplicity of it all. You walk in, eat immediately, stay as long, (or as short,) as you like, pay, and go. It is not surprising to me that the sushi bar originated in Japan: the beauty of simplicity is one of the strongest values in this amazing country.

Roberto Goizueta, late CEO of Coca Cola said of the company: “This is really a very simple business. When we complicate it, we really mess things up.” I am inclined to agree.

Of course, it is not always like this. Some businesses have made life simple, and probably at great difficulty, and perhaps some risk, to themselves. I really like it that I can buy a new customised computer from my IT company TATI, it comes ready to “plug and play” with all my previous data exactly as I left it. (Pity it’s spoilt by Microsoft’s new Windows 8 which is one of the most irritating programmes I have ever encountered.)

At De Oude Caab Guesthouse in Bellville, where I always feel especially warmly welcomed, simplicity rules. For my first visit, a clear map with clear directions was sent to my offices – unasked for. As I arrive, I am guided to my parking bay by somebody who looks like he stayed up especially to wait for me. Check-in happens in my room – after I’ve settled in. We both check to make sure the WiFi is working on my machine. There is a gift of dried fruit, biltong, sweets and rusks – in case I need a late-night snack. Their philosophy seems to be: “You’re travelling, you’re tired, what can we do to make things as easy as possible for you?”
Mr. Delivery makes life easy by bringing food, videos and other items to my house. The garden service comes in, do their work properly, at the same predictable time every week, and leave my place looking good. The owner and other people at Anderson’s Nursery take time to explain where I should plant my new purchases, and how I should look after them. The Pajero dealership in Pretoria, on discovering that this was the first time I had owned a 4X4, taught me how to drive my new car on a specially designed obstacle course – and chucked in a free beer and boerewors roll as well.

So what can you do in your company? It obviously begins with designing and redesigning your processes and systems – from a customer’s perspective. Challenge everything, and do it regularly.

If you start off with the question: “How can we make this easier for our customers and reduce their effort dramatically?” you will probably find that you have made the first big step. There are four main areas where you can focus:

  1. Time-wasters: What can we do to save our customers time? How can we ensure that they don’t have to wait too long with nothing else to do?
  1. Physical effort: Is it physically hard or tiring to do business with us? How many muscles are required to walk, to pack/unpack, to open, to use, and so on?
  1. # Intellectual effort: Is this conceptually challenging for our customers? Is it easy to understand and to carry out? Is there unnecessary complexity that we can simplify for them?
  1. Emotional effort: In what way does or business create negative emotions and feelings in our customers. What can we do to avoid embarrassment, frustration, humiliation, insecurity, a sense of being bullied or intimidated, confusion, all variations of anger, a sense betrayal, distress, being appalled, helplessness and hopelessness, feeling insulted or hurt, feeling ripped off, vulnerable and/or violated?

If you are unsure about what else to do, here are some more examples…

  • Ask your customers! Get them involved. Look out for the times when you experience these are a customer, when your life is made complicated and difficult, and make sure that your business hasn’t fallen into the same traps.
  • There will also be times when you have expertise that customers don’t. You know how your products work, how your company is structured, how to solve problems, so use your expertise to help them, to show them the short cuts, to train them, and to make their lives easier.
  • Learn from other businesses. Can you implement an ATM-type approach for your customers? Is there anything you can learn from or McDonalds – or any other companies mentioned in this article?
  • Have one point of contact for your customers, and let that person or team do whatever needs to happen internally to take care of their problems. For example, the Virgin Airlines “limousine” drops off Upper Class passengers at the lounge, and then takes care of all the other issues except passport control and shopping.
  • This example also shows how you can offer customers a complete “A to Z” package which includes all of the stuff that happens before and after they use your products and services. Thus, LTA-Grinaker, the construction company, will get approval for a new toll road from the authorities, then design it, build it, administer the tolls, and maintain the road for the next twenty years – without the money going to an unknown Austrian company. Virgin Brides, (another Richard Branson company,) and now many other wedding planners, will make all arrangements for your wedding, so that all you have to do is arrive and enjoy it.
  • And, of course, you need to empower your staff to occasionally break the rules, or go beyond the same old methods and responses to customer problems.

The title of this article is about self-service being one solution to the complexity dilemma, and this is particularly true if there is something important that your customers need or want, but the same request is unimportant to you, and maybe even frustrating for people on your team. Self-service is one way to simplify. Clearly, we can’t do this with all transactions, but if you put your mind to it you will find many ways to automate things so that customer’s lives become easier.

The companies that simplify things for their customers will inevitably be able to attract more business, and, as an added bonus, simplicity also usually means more profitability as you do more with less, and your customers will be grateful for that.

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