As of 2016, self-service is 100 years old.
Well, self-service is that old if you mark its origin as the moment in 1916 when Piggly Wiggly opened its doors for business. According to this article by Don Dodds in the Huffington Post, and by Piggly Wiggly’s own reckoning, the grocery chain was the first business that allowed customers to roam the aisles themselves instead of requiring a clerk to take their grocery lists and shop for them. Despite many skeptics, founder Clarence Saunders gambled that people wanted greater control over their transactions – at the expense of convenience – and his gamble paid off.
Thomas Friedman asserts in his “five gas stations theory” that this D.I.Y. trend in customer service is a very American phenomenon that has spread to the rest of the world. Piggly Wiggly tapped into the American sense of rugged individualism and the DIY service movement has continued unabated for over a century.
It spawned ATM’s. It spawned self-serve gas pumps. It spawned self-checkout at the supermarket. And it spawned countless mobile apps that allow us to be our own music producers, our own travel agents, and our own accountants.
The transition has not always been smooth. I was at a supermarket recently in which the self-checkout (SCO) machines spoke people’s purchases out loud using text-to-speech. Someone next to me had to deal with his machine practically yelling “[beep] Twelve donuts. [beep] Twelve donuts. [beep] Twelve donuts.” I’m sure the person was prepping for a party, and he showed no embarrassment, but wow did that design flaw have the potential to scare away customers. By the way, I noticed the store turned off that “feature” recently.
In an earlier What’s Next blog post, Greg Pal wrote that “Nuance will usher in the day when nearly all customer service is automated and consumers will prefer it.” This statement is not so far from the sentiments of Clarence Saunders 100 years ago. Nuance’s offerings allow people to roll up their sleeves and complete tasks on their own without asking someone else for help. What’s more, Nuance’s offerings allow people to complete those tasks in a way that is natural to them: using language. As the late Cliff Nass of Stanford University wrote, speech is the primary form of human communication. The ability to phrase your need in your own words is something that humans have always been able to do, and should continue to do regardless of whether they are chatting, texting, or otherwise communicating with a machine or a fellow person.
The narrative is not perfect of course. Self-service has spread like wildfire, but companies such as FreshDirect hearken back to the pre-Piggly Wiggly days when you handed off a grocery list to someone else. Juliette does your laundry. Nest controls your home temperature. And even the apps I have suggested as D.I.Y. – like mobile banking – have features that put less control in your hands (e.g. automatic bill payments). So there’s apparently a little something out there for everyone; for those who raise chickens in their suburban backyard to get their own eggs and for those who want the local diner to serve them an omelette.
For those reading this who find the trends of automation and self-service alienating, fear not. Bank tellers are still there, despite ATM’s. Gas station attendants are still there, despite the self-serve pumps. Checkout clerks are still there, despite the giant machines that loudly proclaim what you are buying. And yes, call center agents are still there despite IVRs, the web, and self-service mobile applications. Some things need to be done by a person. Maybe that sentiment comes from a lack of imagination, but that is not a kind of imagination I want to have. That need for human connection is to be respected.
But for every other task that does not require a person, and for everyone else who just wants to get their task done no matter who or what helps them do it, the trend that Piggly Wiggly began will continue, and Nuance will support it using technology that leverages millennia of human-to-human communication strategies.