Self-service Technology (SST): Between Receptivity & Reproach
Dr Marwa Gad Mohsen
IORMA Research Associate
In a digital era marked by the quest for efficiency and value, self-service technology (SST) features as a delivery interface eagerly pursued by public and private sector service providers.
The use of robotics and artificial intelligence is moving full speed, with machines replacing humans and having personalities too. Whilst the fusion of humanity and technology persists across industries and services, SST is one of the many ways of offering innovative solutions across sectors where humans interact with machines as opposed to other humans.
Coined as a means of shifting service production to the customer, SST enabled-services use technological interfaces in providing access to services in the absence of front-line employee engagement; such interfaces can be tangible such as self-service kiosks (SSKs), self-check-in at receptions/airports and self-check-out at stores, automated bike/car rentals or intangible such as mobile ‘apps’, online banking, e-bookings, self-help diagnostics/medical services, etc.
The positive outcomes of endorsing SST are embedded in value co-creation. For the service provider, increased productivity and reduced cost are some of the benefits. For the customers, it is mainly about convenience and, in some cases, cheaper access to offerings as they can ‘do it themselves’ online/offsite and offline/onsite. With the assumption of a win-win situation for both parties, stereotypes arise concerning antecedents for positive receptivity and impediments in adopting SSTs.
Successful SST adoption is challenged by customer segments who may not endorse it due to many reasons including subjective norms (the background culture may not be one of DIY or openness to human-technology fusion), varied ability & disposition to engage with SSTs (e.g. technology anxiety/readiness, time pressure, crowding, perception of ease of use), in addition to factors linked with customer age (some studies suggest that older customers may not jump at the idea of technology use in services where they were traditionally served by staff). Technology anxiety encompasses all ages in novel use and in the absence of handy employees for support. There remains a dearth of studies on the increasingly relevant issue of ageing in relation to SST use, both for private and public services, particularly when factoring in differing contexts and service domains.
At a macro level, the drive for using SST from a customer perspective is simple: being empowered to do things on my own, saving time spent in queuing and waiting for a human agent (in the case of public SSTs), and enjoying the accessibility of doing service transactions conveniently at own time (in the case of private SSTs). Yet, customers may miss out on enjoying the ‘convenience’ experience and sense instead that the effort is just being passed down from the provider to the user, mal-motivated by a corporate self-interest. Also, ‘convenience’ may mean different things to different people in different settings. If technology anxiety and feeling alienated overwhelm the customer, perceptions of ease of use and convenience may swiftly disappear, to be replaced by feeling estranged and isolated.
From a business perspective, SSTs positively drive efficiency gains by increasing customer base devoid of a matching increase in staff costs or physical operating sites. As such, existing staff time can be freed to do other higher-value tasks, thus fostering advances in human capital management and strategic staff development. Such efficiency gains also assume that service staff are happier and more comfortable in forgoing low-value activities for a better management of the customer experience. However, this view of customer service employees is controversial given that technology-based efficiencies entail job cuts as technology replaces the human touch.
Notably, talking broadly about the virtues of SSTs may imply an over-simplification that does not highlight the reality of individual differences in receptivity to SST and the value involved. More recently, studies have picked up on this thread in terms of the necessity to comprehend that, for customers, various SSTs are evaluated differently and hence attitudes towards their use and the decisions to adopt them are not generic. Whether classified based on the type of service provider being a business or a government, or based on the type of service provision location being a public place (e.g. Self-service Kiosks – SSKs) or a private context (e.g. using bank card readers and mobile apps), or based on perception of the inherent value gained, there are many disparities in the attitudes and motivations involved.
Thus personal factors and situational conditions play a key role. At a personal level, individuals will vary in their ‘do-it-yourself’ likeability, experience & skills in using the technology and in their risk assessment and the level of control felt. At a situational level, the type of SST involved as well as the location of provision and anticipated benefits in its adoption are variants among individual customers. Social and psychological factors include preference for person-to-person interaction and whether a fruitful service outcome can be attained, particularly in public – under conditions of perceived crowding and time pressure.
With so many intricate dimensions and influences, more focused research attention by public policy makers as well as public and private service providers is needed globally to tackle the key issues that hamper or facilitate the success of SST and the extent of its rewarding use. Towards future directives, urging themes emerge through the following questions:
1. Are SSTs aimed at replacing customer-staff service experience with customer-technology service experience, or is it a supporting interface to improve efficiency (through, for instance, managing peak hours or towards out-of-hours convenience) while still maintaining the interactive human element, albeit to a reduced or phased-out extent?
2. Is SST suitable for every service and every customer, or is it important to study the feasibility of value co-creation for each service type and to evaluate pros and cons for specific customer groups?
These questions entail many themes for future investigation.
Firstly, more advanced enquiry is called for on the viability of using diverse types of SST in public and private domains, in addition to more systematic evidence on where the benefits, costs and value highlight, and for whom, towards finding the right balance.
Secondly, it is important to note that culture plays a significant role in technology adoption, as do country factors given that in some countries the cost of the human factor is lower than technology costs of replacing it. And even if it is more productive to use the technology and co-create value through the involvement of the customer in service delivery process, should certain demographics only be targeted in the marketing of SSTs in different cultures?
Thirdly, assuming SST becomes popular everywhere – will the capacity of SSTs for public provisions and business services online/offsite and offline/onsite keep up with corresponding demand, or will technology adoption result in further queues that push some back to manned stations and offices, check-in desks and check-out aisles? Such instances can lead to pushing a restart button on perceptions of the value of technology in improving our lives.