Shifting left: the good, the bad and the ugly

As competition becomes ever fiercer and companies try to gain an advantage over their competitors, whilst also controlling costs, there has been a movement towards automation. However, whilst going through the various trials and tribulations of a recent password reset, I was met with an automated voice dictating me through a series of yes or no questions. Despite no one else being able to hear the other side of the conversation, it almost felt embarrassing to answer these questions in front of others. It seems as though people tend to become robotic themselves when answering. Often, deciding to enunciate the “yes” or “no” as though they are speaking to an extra-terrestrial being. Perhaps they do not trust the machine to accurately capture a simple yes or no. A cause of this movement towards automated systems is the ‘shift left’ theory.  Popularised through the IT service center (ITSC) industry, the ‘shift left’ theory is designed to shift the process, information, and technology closer to the customer. Through some recent experiences it seems other industries have now caught wind of this idea. Whether for the good or bad, it seems we are moving into a ‘do it yourself’ world, but is this desirable?

Whilst travelling through an airport, it is now possible to get to your destination with a grand total of zero conversations. With designated drop off machines for your luggage, which display instructions through the universal language of animation, alongside face scanning passport machines, the most common interactions are at WHSmith or Costa coffee. In an effort to reduce costs, companies such as Ryanair have widely started to replace human interaction with check-in machines. However, being relatively untrained in this procedure, it does not provide much reassurance that my bag will in fact be travelling to the same place as I am. These changes seemingly happened overnight, with security measurements blindly accepted by the public. On the other hand, companies on the upper end of the market, such as British Airways, tend to retain the customer facing aspect. Whilst there are options for a customer facing experience, it will come at a cost. This trade-off restricts customers, some of which would consider human interaction a bare minimum standard.

Although airport visits are generally infrequent, trips to the shop tend to crop up more often in day to day life. Comparatively, getting on a plane and buying groceries are widely different ideas but a self-checkout machine could easily be mistaken for a self-service check-in kiosk.  This means that customers of a wide range of industries are experiencing this ‘shift left’ movement. During my numerous visits to Lidl whilst studying at University, the self-checkout felt like a compulsory part of the ordeal. Luckily I was happy to oblige for the cost saving, however it begs the question whether it is fair to the older generation who may not find packaging and carrying groceries as easy. Whilst I’m sure Lidl do offer assistance at manned checkouts, it is evident that they do not prioritise this and I can imagine it being a rather stressful experience.

Imagining customer service as a spectrum, ‘shifting left’ will naturally create a trade-off with customer facing services and automated services pitted against each other. This creates a divide between those in favour and those against.  It challenges companies to take risks between which socioeconomic group they are targeting, and how far they go with their targeted approach.