We are all on the receiving end of online automation every day. Every time you receive an email about a sale, an online petition, a newsletter, or an upcoming concert, that's been automated. After all, no one at your favorite local golf course is likely to be crafting a sale just for you, personally, and taking the time to email just you about it. We surely all know this, and aside from the combined volume of these automated messages sometimes being overwhelming, we accept it. After all, we opted in to that marketing list, political campaign, or event notification list, and we can opt-out at any time.
That said, we are also being served automation in other ways we don't realize, and this can return pretty mixed results for us and for the companies who have put it in place. Today, I'd like to talk about two examples of customer service automation that I experienced recently -- one crummy, and one great. It might help companies and organizations who are trying to lighten their employees' workload decide which processes are good candidates for automation and which processes should retain a human touch.
If you've read my blog before, you know that I'm a jogging photographer. I also have pretty specialized running shoe needs, and I'm very careful to replace my shoes every 500 miles. At the end of November, I realized that I would hit that magic number within the week, so I went online to order a new pair of the identical shoes to the kind I've been running in for several years. When I found out that they were being discontinued, I snapped up the last pair from a major online shoe retailer. I was going out of town the next day -- a Saturday -- for five days, but at least one of them was Sunday and one was Thanksgiving (two postal holidays), so I figured that the 5-7 day shipping option would deliver my shoes just after I returned home. Perfect.
I went on my trip, had my last couple of runs in my old shoes, and returned home. After a few days home with no shoes delivered, I checked the status of my order through the retailer's web site and found that they had been delivered while I was gone -- in fact, they had been delivered two days after I ordered them. They had been delivered by UPS, who left them on my porch, where they were stolen because I wasn't home to receive them.
After a call to the online retailer, I got credited back my money, but they didn't have any other pairs of my shoes. It turns out that they had given me a complementary upgrade to two-day shipping. This had been automated by their systems, probably triggered by the location of shoes in the warehouse, other shipments in my area, or some other circumstances having nothing to do with me. In the end, here was the fallout from that automation:
Automation Grade: D (They didn't get an F only because they quickly credited back my purchase amount.)
In total contrast to the above, I recently had a great experience with the company who sells replacement filters for my refrigerator's water dispenser. When I bought this fridge about two years ago, it came with a filter good for six months. Six months later, I searched online for a replacement and came upon a very humble site that just sells filters -- filters of all kinds, but including the exact one I needed for my fridge. This retailer offers a discount if you buy two or three instead of just one, and though I was wary of buying an 18 month supply of anything (what if the fridge dies? what if they're the wrong filter? what if we move?), the discount was just enough to make me take the risk.
Here's where the automation became super-useful to me and added a ton of value to a pretty boring purchase. About six months after my order arrived, I got an email from the online retailer. Here is what it said, in part:
I got this same email twelve and eighteen months after buying my three filters. The first two times, I got out the filters I'd bought and replaced the old one with no trouble. The third time, I clicked on the red button to "Re-Order Online," and the link took me to the right product page online, which, once again, offered me the option of buying one filter (full price), two filters (small discount), or three filters (bigger discount). On the product page, there is also a video explaining how to remove my old filter and install the new one.
Here's what happened as a result of this great automation experience:
Automation Grade: A- (would be an A if there was a way to set the date of the reminders myself -- just in case I order filters earlier than I need)
What sets good automation apart from bad automation? It's a combination of assumption and intrusion. Are you assuming things that, if you act on them, could be intrusive to your customer? Both of these companies acted on a hunch that I might like their ideas, but only one of them actually showed up in my physical space with their assumption. An online retailer needs to consider the potential upsides and downsides to automation for themselves and their customers -- and when in doubt, ask the customer to opt-in.