Without realizing, as customers, we have gradually assumed increasingly large workloads. The fact is that we are more and more frequently – entirely unpaid – carrying out tasks that used to be someone else’s job. Some examples of this growing self service trend: You build IKEA’s furniture, and you pay in their self-service checkout counters; you make your flight reservations and you check yourself in for your flight: you sort your outgoing mail into yellow and blue mailboxes; you buy and sell stocks, and; you track your FedEx package on the Internet.
The e-commerce giant Alibaba sees no reason why not sales of more complex products shouldn’t be carried out by the customers themselves. Together with Ford, in Guangzhou in China, they have launched what can be called a gigantic vending machine for selling cars.1 This unmanned machine contains 42 cars of different models that prospective buyers can choose between. People with high credit ratings can, by identifying themselves with their faces, release the desired car from the vending machine. The person then has the possibility to test drive the car for three days before choosing to buy or return it.
The reason why customers often accept such responsibilities is the freedom and feeling of control that transactional self service involves. According to some studies, 30 percent of the customers in Europe prefer self service over contact with a company.2 In other regions of the world the number is already up over 50 percent. While the number of channels and points of contact both increase and improve, acceptance for handling purchases without involving sales representatives also increases. Through apps, websites and smart speakers one can, without being disturbed, evaluate and personalize products and services based on one’s own needs.
Another reason is that time-stressed customers demand that the complexity of the purchasing process is reduced. Sales meetings with pastries and pleasant rounds of golf are nice, but sometimes customers with limited time want to quickly arrive at a conclusion. Sometimes they aren’t even interested in evaluating the various alternatives and prices, but instead want to routinely, quickly and simply make their next purchase. It is possible to use automated tools to guide customers through the entire purchasing process so that they can do the job themselves. If this works quickly and smoothly, it often leads to a positive purchasing experience. Along with our relationships becoming more virtual, many prefer to shop without talking to a person.
It ought to be common sense that service is important to sales. But it’s not. | Stanley Marcus, former chair of the department store chain Neiman Marcus
Amazon is one of the Internet giants that is attempting to simplify the customer’s journey as much as possible. Their solution with Internet-connected “dash buttons” involves taping up different connected order buttons at home. The idea is that when you are about to run out of a product you push a button to automatically order more. Running out of coffee? Push the Nespresso button in the kitchen to order. No more tissues? Push the Kleenex button. Toilet paper? No problem, push the button taped up by the toilet and hope for a fast delivery.
Every button is connected to a specific brand of an individual product. There are hundreds of suppliers for, for example, Red Bull, Pringles, Colgate, Gillette and L’Oreal. The buttons are connected to Wi-Fi and cost about 5 US dollars a piece. However, you get a five-dollar rebate on your first purchase, which means that in practice the buttons are free. The profits are made through product sales.
The appeal of this solution is that the customer can place their next order with minimal effort. She doesn’t need to initiate the mental task of choosing between different brands and can make her purchase with essentially no friction. This solution is also very interesting for suppliers. When a customer has installed an order button and uses it routinely, it takes a lot for them to change supplier. Order buttons can work just as well within B2B, where for example a doctor can easily push different buttons to buy new rubber gloves, tongue depressors, and syringes.
Amazon has another solution called “Amazon Dash Replenishment,” where the idea is to eliminate humans entirely. Printers can order new ink cartridges themselves when they begin to run out, coffee machines can purchase new filters and washing machines can send orders for more laundry detergent. The same goes for dog food, soap, air filters, extra batteries, etc. Of course, these auto-generated orders result in lock-in mechanisms that can quickly create negative friction; it requires an active measure to cancel a purchase. This is the ultimate form of self service is short-circuited purchasing chains where the manual steps have completely disappeared.
When machines order products, clearly suppliers must realize that they have entered the IT industry. They must learn how ordering systems work, how to make themselves known, and how to become part of this new ecosystem.
1 Ye, J. (2018, 26 March). Alibaba and Ford unveil car vending machine in
Guangzhou. CNBC. Downloaded 2018-10-22 from:
2 Van Belleghem, S. (2013, 18 June). The Real Self-Service Economy. [blog post] Downloaded 2018-10-22 from: https://www.stevenvanbelleghem.com/blog/new-report-the-self-service-economy/