Can Kiosks Provide Better Service than 'Dopey Kid Behind the Counter?'


Retail technologies fascinate me, because they are such an important part of CRM. If done well, they play a big role in establishing and maintaining customer relationships. And if done poorly, they can wreck those relationships.


Last week, I wrote about technologies designed to blur the line between online and offline retail experiences, a couple of features designed to make Web sites more personal and interactive, and a concept being tested by bookseller Borders that transfers some of the features of online shopping into offline stores.


On a recent trip to Target, my husband and I were asked several times by red-shirted employees if we needed help as we shopped for school supplies and other items. My husband remarked that "guess Target has done some customer research" showing that folks want more assistance as they traverse the store.


They didn't ask me. I'm not sure how other folks feel, but too much customer service bugs me almost as much as not enough. While I like to be able to readily find help when I need it, it annoys me to be asked multiple times in a quick trip. Jeez, do I really look that clueless?


Some Staples stores are testing a solution that strikes me as more effective and efficient than sending employees to trawl the aisles looking for signs of confusion. According to MSNBC's The Red Tape Chronicles, 34 Staples outlets in Canada have added videoconference kiosks that connect customers with remote operators. Though the companies that make the kiosks acknowledge some people may be put off by the idea of going to a kiosk instead of a person for help, they say those concerns are allayed when customers realize remote agents are more knowledgeable than workers in stores.


Says DL Baron, CEO of Experticity, the company working with Staples:

We found that consumers are lining up to talk to the person on the screen because they know the dopey kid behind the counter can't answer their question. When consumers start using it, it becomes their preferred mode of engagement.

It's easier for centralized agents to develop specialized knowledge about products so they can offer better advice, says Baron. They can also use interactive screens to illustrate especially complex points and print out further instructions if necessary. Customers with Webcams on their home PCs can connect with agents from there as well.


There is a precedent in fast food restaurants that find their drive-through lanes are more efficient when staffed by agents in remote call centers rather than multi-tasking employees tasked with keeping an eye on the fryer and filling soda cups as well as taking orders from drivers.


At least one customer service expert, Robert Spector, author of "The Nordstrom Way," seems dubious, however. Noting that he's had poor experiences with live chat online, he says:

Many companies don't think like their customers, they think in ways to make (the company's) life easier, rather than 'how do we make the consumer's life easier.'

As someone who has been frustrated with "the dopey kid behind the counter" -- if I can find him at all -- I think the kiosk concept could work if it's well executed. But that latter point is key. Self-service technologies are great in situations when customer service tends to be slow, rude or otherwise ineffective. Think airport check-in, hotel front desk and grocery checkout. But not if the self-service option is no better than the assisted experience. Most people won't give kiosks more than two, maybe three, chances if they aren't in operating order, easy to use or can't help after all.