Self-Service Innovation – The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Self-Service Innovation – The Good, the Bad, and the UglyIt’s a funny thing, really. I like the sandwiches at Which Wich well enough. I think their prices are reasonable. And I’ve not had any poor service encounters during my several visits. But I get a bit anxious thinking about visiting Which Wich. I really don’t look forward to eating there for lunch. In fact, I avoid it, and it has nothing to do with the classic understanding of quality, food, or service.

Rather, my issue with Which Wich is what they expect of me. You see, at a Which Wich sandwich shop, the burden is placed on me as a customer to grab a bag, snag a Sharpie, and select among the myriad of options for sandwich type, style, size, and ingredients. While doing this – usually with my four children in tow – I am struggling to determine how the process works, what my options are, what can be combined with what, and what I am supposed to mark where.

Self-Service Innovation

Is Self-Service at Which Wich Good Service?

At the Which Wich website, they tout that “Ordering is different at Which Wich. We give you complete control and give you the time you need to create something craveable.” Like many companies, Which Wich seems to operate with the belief that more control by the customer is always a good thing. If some control over ordering is good, then surely more ordering control must be better.

Is Which Wich correct? Should more customer control be a key goal of service design? Are grocery stores, hotels, banks, and airlines safe in assuming that self-service is better service? Even more to the point, is there a risk as these companies and others increasingly move toward self-service only options?

The Benefits of Self-Service – Research Weighs In

A recent paper, published in the April 2015 issue of the Journal of Service Research, is enlightening regarding these questions. The paper, “Effect of Customer Participation on Service Outcomes: The Moderating Role of Participation Readiness,” considers whether the impact of customer participation on satisfaction and service quality depends on the level of customer participation and customer readiness to participate. In other words, might customer participation be good, but only to a point? And, might the favorable impact of customer participation vary by customer ability and willingness to be involved?

To investigate these questions, the researchers conducted two experiments in which they described a service scenario and asked each study participant to rate satisfaction and service quality. Some participants read a scenario with low levels of customer participation while others read a scenario with medium or high levels of customer participation. In the first experiment, the scenario focused on a study abroad service for students. In the second experiment, the scenario described the set-up process for new Internet service.

For example, in the first experiment, participants in the low participation condition were asked to choose between two study abroad plan options designed by the university. In the medium participation condition, participants were asked to make some choices for the trip such as a weekend trip location. And in the high participation condition, participants were also asked to choose among a list of possible company visits and among a list of sightseeing destinations for the study abroad trip.

Separately, the study 1 participants were asked to indicate their perceived ability to participate in tour planning, the perceived benefit of participation in tour planning, and their belief that participation in the tour planning role is reasonable and even enjoyable (called ‘role identification’ in the research). And this is where it gets interesting.

The results of the study abroad experiment show very clearly that both customer satisfaction and service quality go up as customer participation goes from low to medium to high for customers who are high perceived ability, high perceived benefit, and high role identification. However, for customers who are low perceived ability, low perceived benefit, and low role identification, there is either no benefit of higher customer participation on customer satisfaction and service quality or there is only a benefit in going from low to medium participation.

The customer satisfaction results are similar for the second experiment focused on installing new Internet service. In that study, however, the service quality results are different. Specifically, there is no added benefit in going from medium (working with a technician to set up the Internet) to high (working alone with a manual to set up the Internet) customer participation even for high ability, benefit, and identification customers, and the impact of going from medium to high participation is actually negative for individuals who are low in perceived ability, low in perceived participation benefits, and low in role identification.

Should the Goal of Service Innovation Be More Customer Participation?

So the research makes it clear that the favorable impact of increased customer participation on customer satisfaction and service quality depends on the readiness of the customer to participate. And for more complex services, in particular, a modest level of customer participation may be beneficial, but a high level is not. In fact, while very high levels of customer participation may satisfy operational objectives of the service provider, they often offer no added benefit to customers and they run the risk of having a negative impact on service quality perceptions. In some situations, self-service equates to “no service” to customers.

If service firms desire a shift to increasing self-service, this research makes it clear that care should be taken to select customers who are high in their ability and motivation to participate. If it is not possible to selectively target high readiness customers, then plans must be put in place to provide tools, guidance, and rewards for participation to transition customers from low to high readiness.

The research also makes it very clear that firms should take care to find the optimal level of customer participation for their service. Some customer input and control leads to a service experience that is more customized to individual preferences. However, expecting more skill and effort of customers than they are ready and willing to contribute is a surefire way to frustrate customers and keep them from coming back.

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Image credits: Flickr user Ron Cogswell; Flickr user Wesley Fryer

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Lance BettencourtLance Bettencourt is a partner and co-founder at Service 360 Partners. His desire is to make a difference to my clients and the broader professional community. I do this by thinking creatively about how service can be improved, sharing new insights via speaking and writing, and providing strategic insights to my clients.

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