Self-Service: From Sketchy Backwater to the Mainstream of Customer Service–Or Not?

Keynote Speaker Customer Service Speaker Micah Solomon

 From keynote speaker – customer service speaker  Micah Solomon

Richard Carlile, a British publisher, bookseller, and campaigner for press and voting rights, spent 1819 until 1823 in prison for distributing the banned works of radicals and reformists and exposés of officially sanctioned massacres.

As soon as he was sprung from prison, Carlile tried to skirt the law and prevent his re-incarceration by creating the world’s first version of Redbox-for-books: a machine that “dropped a customer’s desired book after money was inserted and a dial positioned to a corresponding number,”[i] thus not technically involving Carlile in the selling.

For nearly two centuries following, as vending machine historian Christopher D. Salyers notes, self-service similarly seemed a bit like getting away with something: Snacks with more salt than the doctor recommended, condoms, hangover remedies, cigarettes for minors with exact change, or in certain machines in Japan even more sketchy products–all dispensed far away from onlookers.


It’s tempting to think the secretive era of self-service is emphatically over: Out in the open using airline kiosks or shopping online from their mobile, self-service is right smack in the mainstream of what today’s customers expect from the service experience.  But we should also remember that the impulse to privacy, to isolation really, is alive and well and driving many self-service interactions (or should I call them anti-interactions)?

Some customers are inherently, or temporarily, ill at ease with other human beings. Gun-shy from previous encounters with surly desk clerks. Hung over or, most likely late at night, bombed out of their minds. But they still want to do business with you (and, by and large you still want them to).  Remembering that the trend toward self-service owes some of its momentum to these factors is an important, if odd, reality to keep in mind when designing and refining it.

[i] Christopher D. Salyers  quoted by Radley Balko. Reason June 2010


By Micah Solomon – keynote speaker, customer service speaker, customer service consultant, and #1 bestselling author of “Exceptional Service, Exceptional Profit: The Secrets of Building a Five-Star Customer Service Organization.” Visit with Micah at Or, click here for your own free chapter  of Micah Solomon’s #1 customer service bestseller, Exceptional Service, Exceptional Profit: The Secrets of Building a Five-Star Customer Service Organization