My thoughts on the cost and value of face-to-face customer service


Over the weekend, I stopped by a local food establishment with the intention of grabbing a donut and a cup of coffee. Seeing the drive-thru line wrapped around the building, I opted to go inside and place my order since I was in a bit of a hurry. Although I expected a quick and simple transaction since no preparation was required, I ended up waiting 15 minutes for my cup of coffee, even though I received my donut immediately. While I wasn’t pleased with the situation, I understood that getting upset wouldn’t speed things up. Several people were expressing their dissatisfaction to the staff, who politely explained that they were understaffed. Despite the challenges, the staff was doing their best to handle customer orders efficiently. As I observed and waited, I contemplated the value and cost of face-to-face customer service, both from the perspective of a consumer and an employer.

A robot serves dinner to the author at Dua Vietnamese restaurant in Fayetteville, GA. Photo/ Joe Domaleski
A robot serves dinner to the author at Dua Vietnamese restaurant in Fayetteville, GA. Photo/Joe Domaleski

As a community, it’s essential to consider the value we place on face-to-face customer service. In the not-so-distant past, many industries relied heavily on human interaction—restaurants, retail stores, healthcare providers, financial institutions, support centers, professional service companies, hotels, airlines, entertainment venues, and more. However, in nearly every one of these industries, automation has become a prevalent alternative, offering self-service options without human intervention. Automation can take various forms, such as apps, kiosks, websites, chatbots, or automated phone systems. This shift towards automation is not new and has been occurring for years. Some local businesses even employ robots to deliver food directly to tables, replacing human servers.

While some individuals don’t mind utilizing self-service automation, many people still expect to “speak to a real person.” However, it’s worth considering whether they are willing to pay for that privilege. How much value do we place on having an in-person customer service provider? The truth is, in many cases, automation is more cost-effective than employing human staff. As a consumer, I also prefer interacting with a human representative, but as an employer, I am well aware of the expenses associated with labor. Businesses aren’t necessarily being frugal; they often struggle to find and afford the necessary workforce. A friend of mine who owns a couple of well-known restaurants in the area confirmed that labor shortage is his number one challenge—he simply can’t hire enough people and retain them.

The labor market in the United States has been significantly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and inflationary pressures. The pandemic resulted in widespread job losses, leading to business closures and disruptions. As the economy recovers, the recovery has been uneven, with some sectors bouncing back better than ever while others, particularly service industries that rely on front-line workers, continue to face challenges. Businesses are still struggling to find qualified talent and manage the associated costs. Inflation further exacerbates the situation for everyone. Speaking from a middle-aged perspective, I am uncertain how young people can afford housing, childcare, and other basic necessities. Inflation affects wages, and those wage increases impact pricing.  Reminiscing about the old days may be therapeutic, but it doesn’t really address the present economic situation we find ourselves in.  How do we balance automated and in-person customer service?

Recently, the editor of this newspaper and I had a discussion about wage inflation. We both agreed that the future model for most industries will involve fewer, higher-paid individuals carrying out the bulk of the work, supported by technology. The challenge lies in maximizing the utilization of scarce and expensive human resources to achieve efficiency and effectiveness. Honestly, this isn’t a new problem. Technological innovations have disrupted certain industries and spawned new ones for hundreds of years.

As a business owner, I have made a sincere effort to hire local talent and prioritize local talent retention. Unlike some counterparts in my industry, I have resisted the temptation to outsource professional services overseas in search of cheaper labor. While we do utilize automation where it makes sense, our primary focus has been on maintaining a traditional model that emphasizes human interaction and activity. This approach has proven successful leading up to and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Now that the pandemic is behind us, there is a growing desire for human interaction. The demand for in-person meetings and conferences has soared. Among the services we offer, in-person meetings with our team are the most expensive. I can easily calculate the cost of each meeting by multiplying the number of employees by their hourly rate. In the past, the phrase “let’s have a quick meeting” wasn’t a significant concern. However, we must acknowledge the economic reality of meeting costs. It is important for me to continue exploring ways to keep expenses down while maintaining the high quality and personalized nature of our services.

Here are some areas where it makes sense to use automation:

  1. Routine and repetitive tasks: Automation is ideal for tasks that follow a predefined process or involve routine transactions. A notable example is banks allowing check deposits through smartphone apps.
  2. Self-service and convenience: Automated solutions are great when customers prefer self-service and find it easier to handle tasks themselves. Grocery store self-scan lanes and “pay at the pump” gas stations are prime examples.
  3. Scalability: Automated systems work well for handling large volumes of mostly transactional activities. Well-designed online stores, though not suitable for every retailer, can help businesses scale their operations and serve more customers compared to brick-and-mortar stores.
  4. Research and pattern recognition: Even before the advent of user-friendly Artificial Intelligence (AI) on desktops, many industries have employed automated research and pattern recognition systems. Utilizing computer systems to gather information and conduct research is an excellent application of automation. In fact, automated systems often have the ability to detect trends, patterns, and correlations faster than humans – just ask any stock trader.

Here are areas where in-person customer support is more suitable:

  1. Complex situations: Human interaction is valuable when customer inquiries involve complexity or require empathetic handling. Customers appreciate the ability to communicate their concerns, receive personalized attention, and have their unique needs addressed. People are best suited for crafting custom solutions and handling complex problems.
  2. Relationship building and selling: Building strong customer relationships and capitalizing on upselling opportunities are better accomplished by human agents. While sales can be automated in some industries, many require human involvement to understand customer preferences, provide personalized recommendations, and establish rapport.
  3. Handling exceptional or unforeseen scenarios: Human agents are crucial for addressing exceptional or unforeseen scenarios that fall outside the scope of automation. Complex troubleshooting, unique customer requests, or delicate situations that require judgment, discretion, or emotional intelligence are best handled by skilled human agents.
  4. Brand image and reputation: Human customer service plays a vital role in shaping a brand’s image and reputation. Interactions with knowledgeable, friendly, and helpful human representatives contribute to positive customer experiences and differentiate a business from competitors. Human labor enables the personal touch and individualized attention that leave a lasting positive impression.
  5. Explaining or interpreting data: While automated systems are proficient at generating reports and analyzing data, people are better suited to explain that data to others. Humans possess the ability to understand the context in which data is presented and provide nuanced interpretations based on interactions with the target audience. A computer lacks the capability to perceive the emotional reaction of people during a presentation.  A real person has awareness of an audience’s reaction and can adapt accordingly.

In short, sometimes using automation is advantageous for cost reduction, while in other scenarios, using human resources is preferable to deliver high-value services. Here’s a personal example. I have been experiencing knee pain for the past few months, and like many people, I turned to the internet to self-diagnose and find a solution. Although I was able to gain some knowledge about my situation, I wasn’t able to accurately identify the problem. Eventually, at the insistence of my wife, I decided to visit a local healthcare provider. They conducted an x-ray and immediately identified the issue. I left the clinic pain-free, finally knowing what was wrong. In this instance, face-to-face customer service was able to achieve what automation couldn’t – it solved my problem. It may not have been inexpensive, but it was incredibly valuable to me.

What value do you place on face-to-face customer service, and are you willing to pay for it?

[Joe Domaleski, a Fayette County resident for 25 years, is the owner of Country Fried Creative – an award-winning digital marketing agency located in Peachtree City. His company was the Fayette Chamber’s 2021 Small Business of the Year.  Joe is a husband, father of three grown children, and proud Army veteran.  He has an MBA from Georgia State University and enjoys sharing his perspectives drawing from thirty years of business leadership experience. ]