Human vs Machine

John Krautzel
Posted by in Customer Service

The classic struggle of human versus machine plays out in customer service every single day. As technology makes customer interaction more automated, a self-service customer experience is becoming the norm for companies looking to efficiently take care of common customer concerns. These self-service modules are more than just a simple FAQ webpage, an automated phone line or video tutorials.

Customer service expert Shep Hyken, writing for Forbes magazine, points out that a self-service customer experience works great until a snafu happens, and then someone needs to speak to a real person. As such, companies continue to invest time, money and effort to make the best possible customer service. The investment may cost a lot now, but it pays off in the future when customers interact with humans less and less once these automated systems start to handle the most common concerns.


One area that has a fantastic self-service customer experience is the airline industry. Instead of calling an agent to book a flight, customers go to the airline's website or smartphone app, book the flight, pay for it with a credit or debit card, and then show the online boarding pass to the agent at the gate. Due to this automation, buying an airline ticket no longer requires human contact except to check baggage at the airport and to board the plane.

Self-checkout systems at retail stores also provide this type of service. Customers can independently weigh produce on a scale, scan their own items and then pay for them without handing them to a clerk. Typically, one store employee oversees up to a dozen self-checkout counters as opposed to just one lane in the store. This system works great for people with few items who need to check and go.


These two models of a self-service customer experience work well until the technology breaks down or someone is unfamiliar with how to use these tools. This is when a real person has to step in to teach the customer how to use a ticket kiosk at the airport or the bar code scanner at the retailer. Eventually, the clerk's workload goes down once enough people know how to serve themselves. However, these machines may not be able to handle customers with unique needs that fall outside the most frequent customer issues.

Because of people's special cases, a self-service customer experience may never fully replace humans. Even with the advances of chat bots and virtual agents, a real employee typically needs to intercede to handle certain aspects of customer service.


The trick for companies is to make the transition from automated customer service to personal interaction as seamless and as worry-free as possible to alleviate any human versus machine problems. The person on the other line should have access to the customer's file quickly, and the agent should be empowered to solve the person's dilemma expediently. Big data and analytics help in this regard, but friendly people make a huge difference when customers need to talk to a live person.

The self-service customer experience is a great innovation for companies that rely on customer interactions. However, customer service ultimately comes down to humans investing time and energy into the system to make it happen.

Photo courtesy of Grant Wickes at


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  • Nancy Anderson
    Nancy Anderson

    @Doreen thanks for your comment. Sadly that is true that companies do not pay their customer service reps very well. Personally I think that is crazy because the CSR can make or break a company and you would think that a company would want to hire the best and brightest and pay them what they are worth.


    I'm a professional customer service rep (phone & in person) with many years of experience including escalations. Sadly, most companies do not pay experienced customer service people well...

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