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There's a Fine Line Between Self-service and Self-serving

October 1, 1998
Related Topics: HR Services and Administration, Service, Featured Article
A few years ago, while visiting friends near Princeton, New Jersey, I wandered into a supermarket to buy a few grocery items. It took only a few seconds to notice that this was no ordinary market.

Although the food aisles, meat counter and produce section resembled every other grocery store in the known universe, the lack of checkers and baggers was immediately obvious. Shoppers, it seemed, were supposed to check out their purchases all by themselves and then pay a cashier at the exit. And to ensure that total self-service was possible, the store had installed elaborate scanners with product charts, photos and pictographs.

It seemed straightforward enough—at least until I reached the check-out counter with a handful of items. As I began to search for the appropriate codes to ring up vine-ripened tomatoes and white corn, a wave of utter helplessness descended over me. I simply couldn’t find the right codes to punch into the computer. So, after frantically searching through page after page of a disorganized flip chart (with the line behind me growing longer by the second), I took it upon myself to assign codes for similar products.

Just as I congratulated myself for remarkable ingenuity and resourcefulness, I reached the cashier. She eyeballed the receipt and peered into the bag. Noticing my flawed system, she dutifully marched me back to the register where she voided the order and rang it up again. By the time I tossed the bag of groceries into the car, I had devoted 20 minutes of my life to a task that shouldn’t have taken more than five minutes. The cashier didn’t look too pleased, either.

Someone’s Utopian vision of self-service had become my nightmare ... and ultimately his or her own. I suspect I wasn’t the only one flummoxed by the market’s attempt to become more efficient. In its zeal to cut costs and boost productivity, the management had completely overlooked the golden rule of self-service: If it doesn’t provide a clear-cut benefit for both the business and the customer, it’s doomed to failure.

In this case, why would anyone want to ring up his or her own groceries, especially using such a poorly designed system? Even a mediocre checker could handle the task faster and more efficiently than some corn-waving shopper.

The value of ESS must be clear.
Cut to the typical human resources department. For the past several years, consultants and senior HR managers have engaged in an ongoing lovefest with employee self-service (ESS) systems. They’ve trumpeted the benefits and evangelized the ability to cut costs; yet there’s an often-unexamined side to the self-service equation.

Although management might view today’s interactive voice response (IVR) systems and intranets as tools to boost the organization’s bottom line, employees often have a different take: They view these technologies as inconvenient and intrusive. They see limited value in using employee self-service because they believe it benefits the organization, but not them.

And, quite often, the employees are right. They dial into an IVR and spend 10 minutes punching buttons to get their 401(k) balance, when a customer service representative could have easily handled the task in 15 seconds. Or employees log onto the intranet, type in their passwords, and attempt to update their W-4 information. After they’ve added the name of their new child, they log off. A week later, they discover they also need to fill out insurance forms and a half dozen other documents, which means another visit to the intranet is required. A trained HR rep could have briefed them on what they needed to do and saved 15 minutes of time online.

Frequently, IVRs and intranets that are supposed to improve processes fail because they don’t have the appropriate buy-in from employees. All the education and rewards in the world won’t help if the system is flawed to begin with.

David Link, a consultant for The Hunter Group in Baltimore, puts it this way: "Unless there’s a compelling reason to use the intranet, and the site is attractive and easy to use, you’ve lost them. Once they log on and have a negative experience, it’s tough to get them back. It’s a bit like going into a restaurant and not liking the food."

Design systems with the employee in mind.
Naturally, it’s easy to point fingers at technology. There’s a bit of Luddite in all of us. We revel in news about technological snafus and computers gone haywire.

But the real problem lies with the people who design, implement and oversee these ESS systems. If using an IVR or online network takes longer or requires more work, most of us are going to revert to picking up the telephone and talking to a live person at the other end, instead. That, of course, defeats the entire purpose of establishing the system. And, in some cases, this shortfall makes automatic data collection and tracking that much more difficult.

Today’s IVRs and intranets have the ability to provide a higher level of self-service, but only if they’re designed with the employee in mind. For instance, at Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft Corp., all 18,000 of their U.S. employees can obtain pay-stub information 24 hours a day by accessing their corporate intranet.

This self-service process has helped convince 95 percent of the firm’s employees to participate in direct deposit and has generated a paperless payroll environment. In fact, employees rarely ever dial into the payroll department for information and assistance. But the real, tangible payoff is that the software giant is saving $860,000 a year on this single initiative alone.

MCI Corp. in Washington, D.C. also understands this paradigm. Workers eagerly log onto the intranet to update their records, check 401(k) account balances and reallocate funds, enroll in distance learning and more.

More than 1,500 interactive pages provide useful HR information for virtually all of the firm’s 55,000 employees. The system is quick, it’s easy to use, and employees recognize that it presents a simpler way to view information and process transactions. Meanwhile, MCI has benefited by crumpling layers of bureaucracy and paperwork.

A system’s usefulness measures its level of success.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out when a self-service system works and when it fails. Most of us recognize that an ATM is faster and more convenient than trudging into a bank to stand in line. That’s why we use it. Anyone who ventures onto the World Wide Web at midnight to purchase a book at or orders a custom-configured PC from Dell Computer understands the promise and power of online shopping.

Ultimately, human resources should view ESS as a product that must meet the needs of its customers. Although it’s possible to force employees to use a poorly designed system by pulling the plug on live support or getting rid of the paper used in the transaction, that kind of inefficiency doesn’t benefit anyone in the long run. Employees wind up grumbling and dissatisfied, and they frequently find a way to undermine the full potential of the system.

Says Susan Obijiski, an analyst with Stamford, Connecticut-based Gartner Group: "Success happens only when employees decide they want to use a system and recognize the advantages." And that means spending long hours constructing a system that will work for everyone.

I certainly hope I never see another supermarket like that one in New Jersey. Frankly, I don’t mind pumping my own gas, and I can deal with checking my retirement account balance online. I’d even consider self-service shopping if someone could figure out a way to make it faster and more convenient than the regular supermarket. But I don’t feel like having people make my life more complex simply so they can make theirs simpler. And I suspect most people feel the same way.

In the end, there’s a fine line between self-service and self-serving.

Workforce, October 1998, Vol. 77, No. 10, pp. 125-129.

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