Self-service or self-serving?

Check-in queues

Self-Service is a powerful trend but often it is not optimised for the benefit of the passenger argues David Watts.

Check-in queuesSelf-service is a key trend at the moment, and many of the benefits are clear – both in terms of business benefits for operators, and the ‘experience’ benefits for passengers. There are powerful business reasons that have driven the trend for self-service – more throughput, less queues, less space, less staff, and lower costs giving increase profit and efficiency.  In a highly competitive environment these are sound business reasons. Beyond that, and the reason for this piece, is how self-service should contribute to a great customer experience for travellers. Implementing new technology does not automatically equal a better experience.  The value should come in a stress-less journey from home to destination, making them feel special and cared for, whilst enjoying the benefits that makes a brand successful all contributing to a better brand experience which in turn will create increased passenger loyalty. But it needs attention to the softer parts of the solution.

So with an improved passenger experience, what’s not to like about self-service? The challenge appears to be that the theory has not so far translated into the potential improvements. People appear to be hesitant and some recent studies show that passengers are reluctant to embrace it, often preferring, instead, the human touch. This is not just hearsay – a recent survey published in Management Today magazine suggested that 60% of us still prefer to go to a till staffed by a real person. On the surface of it, that could be a challenge when SITA’s latest trend survey for airports notes that they anticipate a 30% reduction in face-to-face check-in next year. So the question for operators is how should airports approach self-service to guarantee they give the experience benefits as well as the operational and space ones.

The starting point, it would seem, logically, is to improve the understanding of the users of ‘self-service’ – what they want from it, how they interact with it and what they expect from it. Understanding passengers and their needs will improve usability. The cry should be going out, “Usability, usability, usability.”

Critically, operators must understand the nature of the “better experience” that self-service can provide and how does this align with the experience that passengers want? If done right self-service can make the initial part of any passenger journey faster – the airport’s capacity to process passengers through is no longer constrained by space (for desks) or staff (how many desks they can man).The question is what strategy do operators need to adopt in order to achieve this?

Self-service can give a sense of control and autonomy to passengers. Passengers can feel that with control, they are also participating in the process, rather than just being a passive customer. The well-established mobile check-in and coming-in home bag tagging give further autonomy by freeing the passenger from a time and place to do that task. They can give a feeling of choice where there is a self-service option alongside the more traditional manned desk.

Self-service can also be very good for very utilitarian tasks and processes like passport control. The integration with the passport officer was never a very enjoyable one – passengers have never enjoyed the prospect of standing in a line to be given a check by an official, so automating this has no negative trade-offs. This is particularly the case when it can offer transactional benefits such as higher throughput, fewer and shorter queues, as well as faster actual or perceived transaction time: psychologically, for passengers it ‘feels’ quicker even if in reality it isn’t.

Self-service moves some of the work to the customer. This is a relatively new concept, but it becoming quite common place – we read our own electricity and gas meters, we print off gig tickets, in work we print off long documents sent by email that would previously been delivered by post. So this is a widespread trend across lots of parts of our lives. It sets the context, but should not delay or hinder operators wanting to increase the level of self-service

The two principle negatives around the concept of self-service come from the loss the human interaction and the replacement of it by technology. Many people like the idea of contact with another person and the idea of meeting your first person as you arrive on the plane doesn’t, for most people, hit home as a positive experience. The bare fact though is that contact with a person during a transaction is often not a great experience. What self-service does is provide the opportunity of using staff to offer a better, higher value contact with passengers – giving guidance, directions, and so on.

This takes us to the heart of what experience airports are aiming for? Are we saying all passengers want a fast, efficient, automated experience where you are rapidly processed? Or are we just wanting to make sure that we put the human contact in the right places and where are those right places?  In parts of the airport that hold anxiety (usually the earlier ones where we are still worried about time – like security) do we still want the reassurance of the human interaction? Does that help reduce anxiety?

At each touch-point through the process operators must understand what is the desired experience and ensure that the self-service technology delivers that. This can be a challenge when the replacement of people by technology is a known source of anxiety for many people. Confidence amongst the general public with technology is not widespread…in relation to self-service it will change over time but technological innovation will mean there is always something new and different for passengers to tackle. Hence the need to focus on getting usability right.

Given a better understanding of the experience they are aiming for, airports are better placed to understand how self-service can offer that and recognise that self-service itself is not the problem but bad self-service technology is. Helping people to understand the purpose and function of the technology is all important.

For that we have task match – does the self-service kiosk design match the mental model of the task that the passenger holds. This might mean is it roughly the same as when they’ve done it at a manned desk before. This is not unusual in technology where a ‘skeuomorph’ approach is often used to increase people’s levels of confidence with the new and unfamiliar. People will react much more positively if they understand how to use the technology because there is a familiarity to it. Once technology is well established then you can move to new and more novel approaches.

Getting the language right is absolutely of the first importance. This can be making sure that the terms used are familiar – many are still reluctant to embrace the term ‘bagging area’ in supermarkets, and why should they? It has no visual identifier or link so we are left wondering which side of the machine is this area – the design assumption was erroneous in thinking we’d understand the concept. But equally, it is the importance of clear instructions that communicate with passengers at the right level – not over-complicated, not patronising and in the same terms that a passenger might be thinking. For example, some check-in kiosks ask something like “how many bags to you have?” which results in people printing bag tags for their hand luggage too. Rather than say “how many bags do you want to go in the plane hold?”

An integrated approach to design will result in the best outcome. Hardware should be created alongside the software when it’s integrated and feels like a consistent interface it’s so much easier for the passenger.

Getting the design process right will lead to a much better end-result. To achieve that means testing. Test it lots with real end users and watch their behaviour and how the interact with the interface. Focus groups, observation, mock-ups, trials, etc are all in the armoury of the human factors research team – the people who are experts in understanding human behaviour in complex environments. The most-forward-thinking airports will work with their suppliers to develop prototypes which can be trialled by passengers in situ. This means a bespoke solution can be developed rather than one that is simply off-the shelf and not fine-tuned to particular needs and challenges.

Branding plays a pretty significant part in any commercial operation these days, but particularly in a new area, such as self-service is, it is important to put functionality ahead of style. Get the first part right, and the second can follow.

We have talked about passengers a lot, but staff are equally critical and valuable. What impact does self-service have on staff? Less of them for one. Those who are there are now deployed in different roles – sometimes to provide support to those struggling with the self-service machines. This is not always a very positive role for them – they have gone from providing a service and gaining a sense of satisfaction from it to providing assistance for something that is going wrong. They are only getting to deal with the hassled, the stressed and the embarrassed users.

Don’t think this is the end of staff. Everyone talks about ‘experience’ now – but as customers, travellers, users we all recognise that we are not ready for a process that is devoid of human interaction. Some retail organisations are slowing down or reversing the use of self-service. So whilst increasingly we are getting used to self-service and the younger generation in particular is showing some preference for technology, we still need the human touch.

Airports are a leading environment for self-service, and the lessons learnt here will be taken up elsewhere. The critical element is providing a better experience for passengers. The former Harvard Professor and leading management writer has pertinently written that Satisfaction is the sum of Perception less Expectation. Our expectation from the airports is that self-service will deliver a great, fast, simple experience.  If our actual perception is lower than this then we will always walk away with negative satisfaction.

David Watts is Managing Director of CCD

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