Self-service is transforming commercial relationships and will, one day, become the norm, says John Hughes.
Economic prosperity in the 21st century owes its origin to one overriding development - not the oil industry, transport, or the development of the computer, but the introduction of self-service.
This was the argument presented in a report by analyst firm Butler Group. It said that although self-service technology is now widely taken for granted, it has transformed the way business operates.
One of the most widely used "bricks-and-mortar" applications of self-service is the cashpoint machine. Barclays Bank is said to have installed the UK's first cash machine in June 1967. Since then, self-service kiosks in train stations, petrol pumps and even check-out tills in supermarkets illustrate how pervasive the concept of self-service has become.
Provided that both the supplier and the customer stand to gain from a self-service initiative, it can transform the way business is done.
For the consumer, the ability to make transactions in a way where timing, method, and manner are all under the user's control is attractive - particularly if it saves time and effort. Suppliers, for their part, can offload the administrative costs of selling to the consumer and give a better service.
The internet has further transformed business and is perhaps the ultimate form of self-service. For example, internet banking saves the consumer considerable time and hassle. Until recently, even the simplest transactions would require a visit to the bank - now it can be done online in an instant.
Consumer expectations have also evolved. Although a few years ago people might have grumbled about having to use a computer to manage their bank accounts, consumers now expect this option and are even willing to pay more for the convenience.
Where companies provide online self-service as an alternative channel, rather than the only channel, customers can still make direct contact for complex queries or complaints - improving the customer experience.
Although at the moment it is a minority that uses the online self-service approach, take-up will continue to grow and is likely to become the norm for particular market segments.
As the mobile phone industry prepares to roll-out the next generation of technology, self-service is increasingly seen as a significant part of the jigsaw.
Mobile self-service has evolved from the user finding out information on the internet or from interactive voice response systems, to the mobile portal concept.
The consumer can now activate or turn off mobile data services, check free minutes, view their bill and download games without calling a customer service representative.
Mobile customers will soon be analysing their bills on mobile handsets and changing rate plans themselves. In this way, self-service becomes not just an alternative channel but, for many, the primary channel in the customer/supplier relationship.
Self-service has evolved. It is no longer simply a channel for businesses to sell or deliver products and services, it allows consumers to choose and define to businesses the products they want to buy.
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John Hughes is founder and executive vice-president of Netonomy