Self-Service Technology: a Look at Our Past, Present, and The Future

By Sumit De

Business Technology

A whopping 75% of business leaders expect their users to demand more self-service in the next two years, and 72% say they want self-service now. It’s already played a huge part in our past, it’s definitely a norm of the present, and it looks like self-service is well and truly our future.

But what is it that we like so much about self-service? Well, it’s easy, simple, and responsive. In the busy and digitally focused lives we all lead, what’s not to like about accessing services that are integrated with our phones, laptops, and tablets?

And self-service tech has advanced significantly to keep up with the demand; companies have embraced the ability to integrate artificial intelligence (AI) and automation into their processes. So, you may be thinking: how can we possibly improve it further? Let’s dive into the past, present, and future of self-service to discover how we can keep up with, or even surpass our users’ growing expectations.

The beginnings of consumer independence

When we think about our early interactions with self-service, it’s easy to imagine the wonder of the first time you independently scanned and paid for products at a self-service checkout. But I’d like to take us back one step further, to the invention of the vending machine in the 1850s. This was the first time people were able to completely rely on themselves to access a service.

While nowadays vending machines are an outlet for snacks and drinks, back then, they dispensed postage stamps. The reason this made so much sense as a self-service offering is that we didn’t need the help of postal workers to send a letter, this could be done independently at a post box. However, the process couldn’t be truly independent while we still needed postal workers to buy the stamps to send the letter. So, by using technology to allow self-purchasing of stamps, the post office could reduce unnecessary footfall and queues and free their workers for more important jobs – genius, right!

And this concept has been the backbone of every self-service offering since; a process that allows users to be truly independent and ensures the service provider is not inundated with unnecessary tasks.

Modern-day self-service capabilities

Since welcoming self-service into our lives, the developments of this service delivery technique have come thick and fast. We can now self-check-in for flights, order fast food via a self-ordering station, buy tickets through machines, and manage our finances via an app, for example.

But the growing number of self-service options has started to take its toll on service providers. Yes, the ability to be independent has meant that some users don’t need to contact the service desk, but it also brought new queries, like how to access self-service or where to find something on a portal. Additionally, our service providers now have more channels to maintain. It’s no longer just a telephone line, email, or desk, as now they also have apps, websites, and chat facilities that they must monitor.

As such, there’s been a shift of organisations supplementing their self-service capabilities with modern technology, for example implementing a chatbot powered by AI to answer frequently asked questions. This has allowed service providers to free their operators of mundane tasks and ensure that they are available to deal with more complex and critical queries.

Alongside the growth of tech to help the service desk, there’s been the arrival of tech designed to make our consumer’s lives easier. Are you bored of turning a light switch on/off? Sick of reaching over to silence your alarm clock? Too lazy to press the on-switch of your Bluetooth speaker? No, me either. But the likes of Alexa and Google Assistant (and the tech that accompanies them) have taken these mundane tasks away from us anyway. And this is all in preparation for the future.

Tech to tech communication

It’s estimated that around a quarter of households now have a smart speaker; that’s a large proportion of consumers that are already asking questions of their virtual assistant and setting up automation to supplement their daily life. And as this advanced technology becomes more popular, demand will increase, and the tech must grow and develop to continue to meet and surpass expectations.

So, when it comes to the future of self-service, what can we expect? A system where user and supplier technology communicate directly, releasing both customers and the service desk from tasks that can easily and logically be automated.

And this is what the creators of smart speakers have been preparing for. Your light switch, Bluetooth speaker, and alarm clock may not currently annoy you, but the reality is that our digital touchpoints are significantly increasing. The average adult will now spend a bit part of their life looking at a screen – when we take life expectancy into account, that’s around 42% of our time spent using technology. Much as self-service capabilities have taken their toll on service providers, digital fatigue is affecting consumers.

Our expectations are changing, but so are our needs. And we will soon follow in the steps of the service desk to call on AI, virtual assistants, and automation to help us to cope with the increasing load we face in the digital world.

In the future, you will not need to manually use a self-service portal to log a problem with your printer. Instead, the printer will directly talk to your virtual assistant who will notice the issue and communicate with the service provider’s AI for troubleshooting. A problem that would have once required two people now requires none.

Empowering our future

Some say that technology will replace humans one day, and it’s easy to believe that the use of AI and automation in self-service is a step in this direction. But it’s not. The reality is that this new technology is actually supplementing our lives and allowing us to get on with things that matter.

And this is the key to how self-service will develop in the future. This service delivery method was designed to take mundane tasks away from operators, but in some cases, it put more pressure on them. Now, technology has made the meaning of self-service a reality and it will empower our future by not only making services simpler for the supplier but for the consumer too.

This piece uses data from the Transforming the Norm survey.