Self-Serve Revolution: How Touchscreens Are Replacing Human Customer Service

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Back in the day, screens allowed you to do one thing: Sit down with popcorn and watch Blade Runner. Today, they can do things that even go beyond what last generation’s science fiction could imagine. Those old sci-fi writers did get one thing right, though: We’re communicating with machines more than ever. As self-serve automation replaces humans, our face-to-face customer service interactions are increasingly becoming face-to-screen moments. And this technology lets us do an astonishing array of stuff. Never mind getting a few $20 bills or a parking garage voucher; that’s as old as R2D2. Now, you can manage everything from getting a new driver’s license to springing someone from lockup. It’s not fiction: The automated future is here. Here are a few of the more interesting and surprising ways that screens are replacing old-fashioned human customer service.

Bail a Friend Out of Jail: Beginning last month in Orange County, Calif., people can now use one of four kiosks that accept cash, credit or debit cards to bail scofflaws out of jail. EZ Card also has kiosks in a few dozen county jails throughout the country that let friends or family deposit money into an inmate’s account.

Buy iEverything: Perhaps predictably, the Apple Store has the most advanced self-checkout system in the marketplace to date. It debuted this option, which it calls EasyPay, late last year. A customer with the Apple Store app on their iPhone can scan something they want to buy using the phone’s camera and enter their iTunes password. The price is put on the credit card associated with their iTunes account, including sales tax. (EasyPay uses the iPhone’s location service to figure out where the customer is so it can apply the correct amount of tax.) Just watch out that the iShopping spree doesn’t turn into an eye-popping moment when your monthly statement comes.

(MORE: Why You Should Be Happy Online Shopping Checkout Is Such a Hassle)

Search For That Missing Scooter: Missouri is tired of your stuff cluttering up its attic, so come get it already. The state recently added lost-and-found kiosks at government offices in a trio of cities. Residents can conduct a search and see if any of the roughly $700 million in unclaimed property Missouri’s treasurer estimates the state is in possession of belongs to them.

Order a Healthier Lunch: A McDonald’s franchisee in Texas rolled out a touchscreen to help diners build healthier meals. A 42-inch LCD touchscreen in the lobby gives nutrition information about the calorie, fat, sodium and carbohydrate contents of the entire menu. A “build your meal” tool lets you put together combinations and figure out whether or not the items you planned to wolf down in the car are an artery-clogging nightmare — even if you’re ordering a diet soda with it. Although McD’s customers can get nutritional information on the chain’s website, having it spelled out in high-definition when your stomach is rumbling and the temptation to order the extra-large fries might motivate you to choose something a little healthier.

(MORE: The Redboxification of the American Shopping Experience)

Buy Candy and a New Hammer: Although self-service checkout stations from grocery chains seem to be on the way out, retail is still a place where people can expect to see more people replaced by machines in the future. Walmart and CVS now let customers scan and pay for their items without interacting with a cashier. Just think — no more avoiding eye contact because you’re buying a trunkful of junk food or wart remover. USA Today reports that self-service checkouts will grow by 10% in the next few years, primarily at hardware stores, drugstores and convenience stores.

Renew (or Reinstate) Your Driver’s License: Hate standing in line at the DMV? If you live in Nevada, you’re in luck. The state added kiosks at DMVs throughout the state as well as in other “partner locations,” such as grocery stores and AAA offices. At the kiosks, residents can renew their registrations or driver’s licenses, order a duplicate license or driver history printout, or reinstate a registration suspended due to lack of insurance coverage. This is a popular option for Nevada drivers: The department’s website says these kiosks handle 38,000 transactions each month. Ohio even added a self-service vehicle emissions testing kiosk at which drivers can conduct the test needed to process their registrations any day of the week, any time of day.

Print Your Own Luggage Tags: Airlines have had print-your-own kiosks where fliers could get their boarding passes without having to wait in line and speak to a ticket agent for a while. Alaska Airlines is taking self-service a step further by letting customers print their own luggage tags from kiosks recently installed in Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. It plans to roll out the program to other airports this summer, so more travelers will be able to reassure themselves that they and their bags are both (fingers crossed) going to wind up in the same city.

(MORE: ATMs With Human Faces: How New ATMs May Replace Bank Tellers)

Prevent a Kid’s Tantrum at a Restaurant: Uh-oh: You’ve just settled in for what’s supposed to be an enjoyable restaurant meal, but the toddler in your life is having none of it. Before, your best bet would be to grit your teeth and ask the server if you could get that order to go — ASAP. Now, if you’re lucky enough to be at one of the chain restaurants conducting touchscreen pilot programs, you can stay in your seat and eat your food hot because these devices give you access to kid-appropriate games and other content. They also let patrons place orders and pay their checks — receipts are either printed out right at the table or sent to the diner via email, the Wall Street Journal reports. Some charge a buck or two for access to the games, but for a parent who wants a few distraction-free bites, that might seem like a small price to pay.

Now, if you’re bailing someone out of jail, it’s probably a huge relief not to have to make small talk to a clerk. And for transactions with a high hassle factor — nearly anything at the DMV, for instance — being able to do things quickly, and in some cases on your own timetable, is definitely appealing.

Some people say this growing self-service movement costs jobs and they worry that every supercharged ATM or grocery scanner is stealing a job once held by an actual human. But let’s be realistic: How much hand-wringing should we do over the loss of what were mostly minimum-wage jobs, often held by part-timers with little or no benefits? Even as the shift from a manufacturing to a service economy makes people decry the dwindling number of factory jobs, no one’s clamoring for the return of sweatshops. And while it’s a stretch to compare a supermarket cashier with, say, a seamstress at a shirt factory a century ago, the jobs these machines are taking are largely bottom-of-the-barrel employment. It’s better for these companies and government agencies to take the money they’re saving and funnel it into other projects — initiatives that have the potential to yield more high-quality employment.