Why your best employee doesn't work for you

Ian Hawkins

The comedian Ian Moore has a joke about automated checkouts, the idea of which is that he spent his school life being warned that if he didn’t buckle down, one day he’d be a checkout clerk. And now, thanks to automation, we are all our own checkout clerk.

The entire ‘no frills’ concept is built on customers doing a lot of the work themselves: pick your airline and the price you pay will reflect how dignified the journey is. If you have to pay extra for the airline to print your ticket, or  to sit next to your spouse, don’t expect a complimentary mimosa to be waiting for you on board.

Getting the customer to do some of the work, though, might be a great strategy going forward – even if AI could do the same tasks more efficiently, and it’s not all about price. Marketing expert BJ Cunningham is fond of saying that ‘discounting is a one night stand.’ He warns that if you train customers to be ultra-sensitive to price, you set yourself up for a fall when they switch brand loyalty for bargain hunting – even over utility. On more than one occasion, I’ve been driven to an airport in a £100 taxi in the small hours, in order to save £20 on a plane ticket that someone else has booked at the ‘best possible’ price.

A process that includes customer participation and gives them the opportunity to ‘opt in’ to services will enable them to work out what they really want: if they are particularly price sensitive, they may go for the basic package. Increasing the services in increments is an opportunity to build a relationship with the customer, and tell them something about what it is you actually do. During a conversation with Mathieu Rubiero from RBC we discussed a customer who wanted the most basic insurance cover required by law – and nothing further. Mathieu used this as a springboard to figure out what the customer really wanted, and found that there was a conflict between what they wanted to pay (as little as possible) and their desired level of protection (as high as possible). Eventually a compromise deal was struck.

In short, the discount route is risky: transparency isn’t rewarded (I wonder how many all-inclusive $10 price tags have been shunned in favour of a $9 price - with a $2 booking fee), and it’s hard to add value.  

But if discounting really is a one night stand, it’s a relationship both parties understand. It is unseemly but honest. Compare the environmentally conscious shopper who drives to the Welsh farm to select an expensive organic lamb shoulder; in reality the planet would be better served by picking up a cheap frozen New Zealand joint from the supermarket.

Very often, it is the less-than-perfect that appeals to us emotionally. The service that just works might get a solid but unexciting four star rating. The one that makes a mistake – and then delights us by putting it right with empathy and speed is more likely to get the extra star.  

Business processes then can enable organisations to find new ways to please customers – or mitigate annoyances, appeal to their prejudices and serve their non-monetary needs: allowing people to choose their own hold music, masquerading a product as environmentally friendly, or obtaining their data via a gamified survey

We are starting to build a case for process transparency, and indeed this already happens with products: you’ll always expect to pay more for the handmade chocolates than you will for the machine output.

Getting the customer to do a task rather than a robot may be inefficient, but it’s the customer’s own time you’re using – and in that time, they are building their relationship with your brand, especially if you’re making the task easy and fun.

The trick is to make the inefficient parts of your business appealing to customers to do themselves while streamlining the rest of what you do. For all the advances in AI, it's still quite acceptable to get the customer to do some of the admin - blaming them if they do it wrong and paying you for the privilege (as you'll know if you've ever mis-typed your name into a flight booking). 

So look at your process and ask what a customer could do before you deploy the machines. And if you get the opportunity, do go and see Ian Moore tell that opening joke properly.