Service in many ways is about doing the customer’s work for him or her. I can iron my own shirts or I can have them done at the dry cleaner. In that light, “self service” becomes an odd idea. The service firm is supposed to be doing my work for me but now I am being asked to do some of their work for them. There are two recent articles that touch on this notion of self service as a way to relieve some burden on the firm. One is from Harvard Business Review (The Power of Unwitting Workers, Oct 2009) and describes a number of examples of how firms are having customers create value for them (ie the firms) without necessarily being aware of that fact. Several of these have to do with capturing energy – think revolving doors powering ceiling fans – and no I am not making that example up.
The more interesting examples relate to things that people are really good at (interpreting images and data) that machines aren’t necessarily great at. That gets us CAPTCHA – those distorted letters and numbers you need to enter in order to buy tickets at Ticketmaster. It turns out that those are used to help clean up digitized old books that would otherwise stump optical scanners. These are interesting ideas but one wonders whether they can move beyond novelty (the energy generation numbers are not particularly impressive) or whether customers will at some point demand a share of the value. CAPTCHA serves an obvious purpose (not letting automated ticket buyers grab all the Cubs tickets) and the ancillary use of the information servers a broader good. It is less clear that customers would work so generously when the firm has a more direct benefit from their efforts.
An article in today’s New York Times (Getting the Guests to Sort) relates to this last point: If it were easy to sort recyclables in your hotel room would you do it? When you are traveling, do you really want to ponder whether that recycling bin is just for newspapers or can you throw a soda can in there? It’s a meaningful question. In part because actually taking advantage of a guest’s effort requires an investment on the part of the property. Separating plastic from paper in the room is pointless if they are thrown in the same bin on the housekeeping cart. What’s at stake here beyond offering an appearance of being green? According to the article, recycling can cut a property’s waste stream 50% which sounds impressive. However, that works out only to $50,000 or so per year in an expensive market.