A daily bulletin of news & opinion

15 February 2012

A design hotel in Davos recently claimed to have the world’s first fully automated check in, seemingly with some pride. A quick scan of Google proved that this wasn’t strictly true, there being something of an epidemic in electronic receptions the world over, but the automated part was alarmingly accurate – you could make it all the way from taxi to room without ever having to confront another human being.

This is not progress, in my books. Now I know that hotel reception desks often appear to be manned by infuriatingly cold, metallic automatons – where an otherwise warm blooded human delivers a set script of “Welcome sir slash madam” – but at its best, the hotel reception is a warm welcome at the end of a long journey.

It should be the service equivalent of a roaring hearth, an experience that acts as a full stop marking the point when your travels are done. It should say: welcome weary traveller, you’ve arrived, here’s where you eat, here’s where you drink, here’s where you lay your head. Rest and tomorrow you will be as new.

Hotels aren’t the only part of service culture taking a gamble that machines will serve us better in the long run. Supermarkets are perhaps the most common example, where a solitary 19 year old can often be found manning a till while a rank of bleeping self-service counters make up for the rest.

Now I’m no luddite but I often find myself opting for the slight queue with a human at the end rather than going head to head with the supermarket machine. This isn’t because my chats with the checkout guy are particularly inspiring, although they can sometimes be, but because humans will rarely fail to recognise a bar code, complain that I have too many items in the checkout area, or give me all my change in two pence coins.

And I have to admit I do the same in pretty much all areas of my life. On the tube in the morning I’ll normally make a beeline for the human ticket office before I check the self-service one, and if I’m running into a shop to pick up a specific item then I’ll grab the nearest shop assistant rather than trawl the shelves aimlessly. Maybe this makes me an annoying and demanding customer but for me having a human on hand defines good service.

There is also the question of where it all ends. Will we all be served a beer in the pub from a vending machine, or get our meals delivered down a chute (some clubs and restaurants have already introduced this, of course). The vision of a fully automated future is a terrifying thing, where we’re left stabbing at buttons, howling our frustrations into the electronic ether.

One encouraging trend though – there could be an uprising against our electronic overlords brewing. Recent surveys and studies of automatic supermarkets in the UK have shown that they may actually increase queuing time, and are also accompanied by a rise in customer complaints. We may not be heading for a Philip K Dick dystopian scenario just yet.

Finally, my objection is on more than just practical grounds – there’s a philosophical angle too. The fact is we’re more than just individuals; we exist through our interactions and relationships as well. We are “dividuals” – divided people very much affected by those around us.

However small our interactions with shop assistants, hotel receptionists and ticket office staff, the quality of these interactions really does matter.


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