Should Your Customers Really Do the Work?

When I was a kid, once a month my mom and dad would sit down at the table and pay the family’s bills. I remember that it was a time-consuming process where my parents would put all of our invoices in a distinctive brown envelope, fill out a lengthy form with the charges, and then mail it to the bank.

In this day and age, our financial lives are thankfully much simpler. With just a few interactions, you can now log onto your online bank, and effortlessly pay your bills (at least in Sweden).

The digitization of products and services, such as online banking, has saved us a lot of time and energy.

But I question whether there is also a flip-side.

Let’s put it this way: before the emergence of the Internet you relied more heavily on people. You visited travel agents to book your flights, you interacted with bank tellers to handle your finances and you went to stores to get their opinions about what products to buy. Now, with online travel websites, digital banks and eCommerce, we are expected to do much of the work ourselves.

On one hand, we appreciate the flexibility it gives us. We can do things on our terms, whenever and wherever we want. But it also means that the onus is on us to get stuff done. The expectation is that we check into flights on our own, pay for groceries by ourselves and buy subway passes using a machine rather than interacting with a human.

In a Medium story by Sangeet Paul Choudary, he describes what he calls Platform Thinking. How companies can leverage platforms to solve problems, essentially delegating jobs to customers.

”One of the ways to infuse platform thinking into your business is to look at a problem that is being solved manually, and repeatedly, and see if it can be solved by external users instead.”

Platforms like Quora and Stack Overflow are formidable in the way they help users to essentially help themselves. However, the topic around Platform Thinking may also reflect a trend: are we essentially outsourcing too much work to customers?

Steve Cadigan questioned in a recent INC article whether new technology is actually helping us. The storyline surrounded how he was invited to speak at a company conference around the topic of digital innovation. The quote below is quite telling of an attitude most of us may share.

”What surfaced in each session was a collective feeling among the employees of being overwhelmed that the digital revolution was creating a world that seemed more impersonal to them. Among the insights they shared were that the digital revolution was accelerating an obsession with phones, tablets and apps and that time spent on these devices and tools was taking away from authentic interactions with each other.”

Are digital technologies making products and services more impersonal?

A company that has taken a radically different turn is the Swedish bank Länsförsäkringar. They feel that you shouldn’t just contact your bank once a year, for instance, to renegotiate your mortgage. Rather, you should have an ongoing relationship with your bank. I’ve had countless meetings with my personal banker (sounds fancy) to discuss pensions, mortgages and savings plans. Even though my personal funds are limited, the bank makes me feel wealthy and — most importantly — that they care about my situation.

Another example of a similar company is Zappos, which has been an example for many years around how to provide a superior customer service. At Zappos customer service employees don’t use scripts and are encouraged to go the extra mile to solve customers’ problems. There are for instance no limits on how long you talk to customers and the longest call was 10 hours 29 minutes (I wonder if the discussion was still around shoes).

These two corporations are differentiating themselves from the crowd. They are digital businesses: Zappos as an eCommerce store and Länsförsäkringar as a niche bank with advanced digital channels. However, to bring value to customers, both companies are investing in the human-to-human relationships, as well as, the human-to-machine interactions.

As a customer, you should expect to receive the same service whether you contact a person or push a button on a website. Digital channels should compliment personal relationships and vice versa.

When you are designing digital experiences, a suitable test is to answer the following question:

Is value greater than pain?

value > pain

Is the value you are bringing greater than the pain it creates for your customers by not talking to a person or learning to use the new tool.

If you look at a subway ticketing machine for instance: is it bringing more value to you as a customer than if you would stand in a queue and then speak to an agent? Is it more time-effective? Does it cause less frustration than waiting in line?


Digital channels shouldn’t be impersonal. In our business, we should always strive to design experiences that are human and personal. Technology must be used as a tool to augment the existing relationships that customers have with companies. Designing digital products and services should never remove value, they should always bring more benefit.

If your company wants to cut costs by leveraging digital channels, always make sure that the customer value becomes greater than the pain it creates by not talking to a real person, or to learn the system.

If you let your customers do the work themselves without any gain, they will most certainly not be your customers for very much longer.