Self-service

The Buffalo News recentle ran a story on self-service (ATMs, self-check-in kiosks, retail self-checkout, self-service prescriptions, etc.) that featured a photograph of the back of my head and a brief quote. A colleague here at UB (Neil Yerkey asked me how well the short quote reflected my real view. This is how I answered:

My position is a bit ambivalent. I suspect that the market will bear out and that companies will begin using customer service as a distinguishing mark. But I also think that self-service can *help* this to happen. Jet Blue is a great example of this: they won a design award for their self-checkin kiosk, but because this works so well, the check in counter staff seem to be less stressed, more attentive, etc. In other words, it’s all about the strategic use of such technologies that provide the client with a variety of ways of successfully interacting with the company and each other. My hope is that this will become the norm. It actually annoys me that Wegmans won’t let me check myself out, but I also wouldn’t want their employees to be absent. It’s just a question of shifting them to work that is most suited to humans.

The much larger question, I think, is the issue of where these employees go when it does reduce the number of workers. The dictum has always been that agricultural and industrial jobs are replaced by high-tech positions–the ssembly-line
worker gets retrained to maintain the robots on the line. There is evidence that this really is how things happen, for many (but not all) workers. But there are also diminishing returns. I have the feeling that the unemployment rate in the US will never get much lower than it is today, and will continue to creep up, no matter what happens with the economy. We’re finally hitting the point where our efficiencies are reducing the amount of work available. The combination of a vastly increasing rich-poor divide (particularly within the context of globalization) and production and service efficiencies are creating an untenable situation.

I don’t think the market fixes this problem. Over the next decade, we’ll need to be pretty creative to address questions of reduced work (perhaps going the French route of mandatory restricted work-weeks), an aging population, and issues of education.

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