Roadblock: The Customer

By John McCormick Print this article Print

Airlines, railroads, grocery stores and hotels racing to deploy self-service check-in devices have discovered two things.

Airlines, railroads, grocery stores and hotels racing to deploy self-service check-in devices have discovered two things: First, it's a lot cheaper to install a $10,000 or $15,000 electronic kiosk than it is to employ a $20,000 or $40,000 check-in or check-out person. After all, there are no health benefits, breaks, eight-hour shifts, weekends or personal days to worry about. Second, the more quickly customers get comfortable using the devices, the sooner the labor savings are realized.

Banks were among the first to embrace the computerized self-service machines, when they deployed Automated Teller Machines more than two decades ago. Now, airlines are reaching the same point with check-in kiosks in airports.

And the biggest obstacle is not the technology, but convincing customers accustomed to dealing with an agent at the counter to be happy trusting a machine to take care of a vital transaction.

With travelers already skittish about security-imposed delays, the thought that a device will jam up and that no one will be around to help can be stressful and an impediment.

Here are some of the tactics airlines are employing to get customers to embrace self-service check-in kiosks.

ADVERTISE THE ADVANTAGES Delta promises customers using its kiosks they won't wait in an airport check-in line. Among the pitches: "Experience Waitlessness," and "Delta Air Lines." The signs have been pasted all over New York, in subways and along expressways, for instance, and have gotten New Yorkers interested in finding out what's behind the ads. Visits to Delta's LaGuardia Airport gates found most passengers walking right up to the kiosks. If people still haven't gotten the message, a Delta representative was seen recently walking up and down the traditional check-in lines pointing out to customers that the kiosks were just a few feet away, that there was someone there to help them use the machines, and that there were no lines. The majority of those in the queue eventually went over and gave the kiosks a try.

MAINTAIN THE MACHINES David Melnick, the chief executive officer of Kinetics, which supplies kiosks to Delta and a number of other airlines, says self-service machines are just that, machines. First-time users need clear, easy-to-follow instructions so they use the systems properly. Also, the machines need to be properly maintained, so they work when asked. Airports are particularly rugged environments—lots of people, lots of dirt, lots of big, heavy bags. Neither the airline nor the customer benefits when a machine is out of order.

BE THERE TO HELP Even though the machines, in general, are easy to use, customers can get confused. Live employees should be available to hold the hands of everybody using a kiosk at any given time. The key is to win customers over the first time they use the machine—the experts say people who have a good, initial experience instantly become kiosk converts.

DON'T ASK, TELL Some airlines aren't giving passengers much of a choice. At Alaska Airlines, unless you're a first-class passenger, you must first try to check in using a kiosk. While this is one way to get people to use the machines, experts such as Kinetics' Melnick don't think it's the friendliest way to treat a customer. Still, a number of other experts say this method is one sure way to get nearly everyone to at least try the kiosks.

This article was originally published on 2003-04-01
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