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The Supposedly Looming Spectre of Automation in the Service Industries

Automation is an interesting outlier within the modern canon of political topics of discussion. Views aren’t split down the usual left-right divide; instead, opinions tend to diverge along free market–protectionist lines. Fellow travelers on the same side of the political aisle, like conservatives Ben Shapiro and Tucker Carlson, can be divided on automation. When asked on Shapiro’s Sunday Special whether he would restrict automated trucks to save truckers’ jobs, Carlson said he would, “in a second.” Carlson clearly cares about working-class people and doesn’t want to see their employment under threat.

But it isn’t. At least, not in the customer service industry.

Very few public figures write or speak about customer service jobs from a position of immediate experience—if they ever worked at such jobs, it was in the distant past. Current customer service workers tend not to write op-eds or get invited on major podcasts or radio shows. How many of these talking heads know what they’re talking about when it comes to low-wage work and automation, an issue receiving ever increasing air time? Those ranting about automated checkouts in grocery stores and self-service kiosks in fast food restaurants killing jobs don’t know the industry, don’t know what those jobs involve, and don’t know what value those workers bring to their jobs.

It is almost certain that the employment landscape will change as technology progresses. Some jobs are destined to die by automation: transportation, warehouse and manufacturing jobs, for instance. There are jobs currently performed by humans that it will eventually be cheaper and more efficient to leave to machines, jobs to which humans don’t add value. I urge people within such industries to hone their interpersonal skills and choose career paths that will utilize them.

Retail and food service, in which helping the general public is the primary goal, are growing industries. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics project 5% growth in customer service representative jobs between 2016 and 2026, an average level of growth, and 14% growth in food and beverage serving and related workers, a level of growth faster than average. By contrast, metal and plastic machine workers, who mostly work in factories, are projected to experience -9% growth over the same period and logging workers -13%. Customer service jobs are not becoming dramatically less available. From what I can see, these jobs will only become more important in the future.

I started my customer service career at McDonald’s at fourteen years of age, despite my debilitating shyness. I worked at that restaurant for ten years, part-time while going to high school and university, and full-time during breaks and after quitting university, becoming a manager at age nineteen. After ten years, I swapped out burgers for books, and I’ve now worked for a major book retailer for three years. I know customer service. As an industry, it has only one aim: please the customer so that they’ll spend their money with you again and tell their friends to do the same. That’s it. Minimize inconvenience, complications and unpleasantness, and make it as easy as possible for the customer to be parted from her money. This aim is both simple to define and complex to execute, because humans are fickle and pleasing them is a subtle art—one that only other humans can master.

Customer-facing automation technology now plays a role at most McDonald’s locations. In 2019, you can walk into most McDonald’s restaurants and place your order at a kiosk. Humans make your burgers and fries and assemble them in a bag or arrange them on a tray to hand to you at the counter, but, if you like, you can dispense with the human interaction that used to be necessary to place and pay for the order. I no longer have access to metrics, but automating this aspect of the process has probably been a boon for McDonald’s. It eliminates the possibility of your order being entered into the system incorrectly (or at least your ability to blame someone else for this error) and the awkwardness of interacting with a stranger. I’ve come a long way in my social anxiety, but I’ll still sometimes travel a little further to shop at the supermarket that has self-checkout on days on which I don’t feel like making small talk with a cashier. Kiosks also tend to be faster. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I can walk into a McDonald’s restaurant, step right up to a kiosk, and place my order, while the single manned register has at least a few people in line.

However, while automation performs rote roles like order-taking and payment processing just fine, there are things it simply cannot do. It cannot listen, empathize or offer meaningful support. It can’t read between the lines. It can’t hear I need a book to give to a family member who’s going through a tough time and discern I’m deeply hurting, too. It can’t listen to a customer’s story and recommend products, strategies and courses of action, based on personal experience and deep empathy. It can’t play the roles of trend-savvy influencer, salesperson and therapist in a meaningful way.

It’s hard to hear some of the stories customers tell you, and employers don’t exactly equip their low-wage workers to confront the darkest corners of humanity in their roles as sales associates. I’ve worked with customers dealing with a litany of chronic illnesses, mental health crises and family emergencies. I’ve had customers who want to put together a gift basket of books and toys in a desperate attempt to comfort neighborhood children both of whose parents have just died in a car accident, and customers searching for the perfect book to help acquaint their eight-year-old with the concept of death, because the beloved family dog must be put down while the child is at school that day. None of these situations is easy, but they get a little easier each time.

A few months ago, I was walking the sales floor, offering help to customers and tidying displays, when I greeted a woman lingering near the front of the store. We had a pleasant how about that weather? kind of interaction, but when I asked her if she was looking for something specific, she hesitated. I immediately realized that I was dealing with someone who was suffering. Most customers are looking for a specific item—or want a book recommendation for their flight to Hawaii. You find what they’re looking for or suggest the latest bestseller and you’re done. But, with the customer who hesitates, weighing whether or not she should say what she wants to say, you feel the interaction move into different territory, almost physically. You move from order to chaos, safety to vulnerability.

The customer told me that her grandson had recently passed away, and her son was not handling it well. He was retreating into himself and treating those around him with anger and resentment. She could tell he felt helpless, but he was lashing out, hurting others and seemed likely to self-destruct.

I immediately thought of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. I lead her to where the book was displayed and told her about it, very carefully, out of earshot of any other customers or employees. I emphasized its message of personal responsibility and the pursuit of meaning, with much trepidation. There’s always a moment of doubt when you’re describing a book to a customer. Often, the book is deeply meaningful to you. You’re exposing your deepest self when you describe it to them. To sell it, you have to both emphasize and downplay the way it changed you. It’s an amazing book and it taught me about x and y is good. I realized I often place my pain at the center of my identity and bring more pain upon myself just so I can benefit from my own victimhood or I realized I secretly loved being bullied in high school because it made me feel beleaguered and deserving of pity is overkill.

Every once in a while, you take that risk because the customer’s need is so profound that you can justify committing an impropriety in order to reach them. I told this customer about Jordan Peterson and about his daughter’s illness, and about what I learned from the twelfth chapter of his book: take the hard times moment by moment. Savor the sweetness of small, everyday interactions and draw strength from them. Take refuge in the small moments of beauty that you find. As the chapter title says, “Pet a Cat When You Encounter One on the Street.”

To my relief, the customer’s eyes lit up. I held it out to her; she took it. That’s something they train us to do—invite the customer to hold the book in her hands. If she does, she’s a lot more likely to buy it. The woman’s fingers folded over the book’s spine.

She said, “I think this is exactly what my son needs.”

You can tell when a customer buys your pitch—although there are varying degrees of conviction. Most just nod or toss the item into their baskets and move along to the next item on their lists. Every so often, you meet someone with a gaping hole inside him. When your pitch promises to fill that hole, you get an entirely different reaction. It isn’t mere satisfaction—it’s a hunger being fed. That was probably my most successful hand sell so far. I never saw her again, but I think about her and her son often. I hope they both found what they needed.

Automation cannot do what I did in that interaction. While artificial intelligence could have aggregated books for that woman if she had done some Google searches, it couldn’t have told her any personal stories or lessons gleaned from them. AI can find reviews of books written by people whose lives have been changed by such books, but the impact ultimately comes down to those very human reviewers. If you remove humans from the equation altogether, you leave out the impact of the stories that only humans can tell.

Customers also need a human touch in the physical store. Most of the items they need are there somewhere, but only a human can connect the dots and relate a statement like I’m looking for a gift for my daughter, who is an artist to the handmade pencils or ink pens in the store’s corner art display, or the book I read when I was eighteen about a sculptor who creates gargoyles and a man lying in a burn unit and the love that develops between them. Perhaps a computer could think up those three things, but could it measure the weight of emotion appropriate for that customer and prioritize which recommendation would best work for her? Even if it could, no truly meaningful connection can be established between an artificially intelligent algorithm and a customer.

Aside from the fact that the warmth of human authenticity and truth are clearly better than an algorithm’s aggregated search results, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how frustrating it can be to deal with automated customer support systems like Apple’s. I’m a tech-adept millennial and even I was spewing profanity recently while trying to get help with an iTunes issue. The online support directory was useless, and when I finally found an email address I could write to detailing my problem, the response I got was just a list of completely irrelevant tech support articles. I received a cheery follow-up email asking me to rate the service I received. The whole experience did not, as Marie Kondo would say, spark joy.

Meaningful connections do spark joy—that’s why they’re the new currency in customer service. As our world becomes increasingly technological, human contact adds value. Every day, I encounter customers who are not technologically adept. The broader world sometimes forgets that there are still people out there who don’t have email addresses, home computers or even so much as a flip phone, and these people feel left behind. They need the help of a sales associate just to type the name of a book into a search kiosk. Computer illiteracy is now as big a handicap as actual illiteracy. It isolates people. I hear daily from customers who have a list of stores they can’t shop at anymore, because those stores rely on technology to such an extent that customers who need human help can’t shop there. These customers complain that there’s nobody there that they can talk to, who can help them when they have a problem, and they detail the many times they’ve walked out of stores in frustration. Not using computers doesn’t mean these people don’t have money to spend, and guess what? They’re going to spend it at businesses that excel at creating meaningful human connections.

Eventually, everyone alive will be technologically adept, but, even then, connections will only become more valuable. We’re a social species: we can’t get what we need from screens. If society becomes more and more atomized and the family unit continues to lose strength, businesses that place a firm emphasis on face-to-face customer service will prosper. Forward-looking businesses should spend less time and money developing slick new consumer-facing tech and much more time on hiring strategies to recruit and retain the most emotionally intelligent, people-focused employees they can find. Automation won’t put service workers out of work—it will create a huge market of jobs whose sole purpose is to create meaningful connections with customers. That will enhance and maximize the efficiency of the automation that businesses do use, so that those employees can spend less time doing rote tasks and more time interfacing with customers, and will help those companies beat competitors who fall into the trap of thinking that more customer-facing tech is always better.

The power of humanity is the future of customer service. Smart businesses should get on board now.

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