There's a trend in customer experience that goes against customer loyalty: self-service devoid of human interaction. Online customers are used to self-service, because the entire online shopping experience is based on this concept. Offline customers are just starting to see self-service kiosks across all major industries.

Customer loyalty, however, is generally based on customers' desire for enriching user experiences, online and off-. Though personalization technologies have enabled automated online experience to be rich and needs-based, offline user experiences are usually only personalized when a human is involved. This flies in the face of self-service and automation. Some careful thought, however, shows how self-service and customer loyalty can exist side by side and actually improve one another's effectiveness.

Major hotel chains have thrown their hats into the self-service ring. They enable easy check-in and -out via lobby kiosks (and the more traditional "express checkout" available from in-room TVs).

Though all this self-service certainly speeds up processes that were once major bottlenecks for customers, it also removes the human touch from these interactions. In an age when customer loyalty is increasingly based on what brand provides the best customer service, it's difficult to imagine how these machines can breed loyalty.

Additionally, once a store, hotel, or airline is completely automated, doesn't the actual core business become a commodity? Removing the human brand elements of these establishments turns them into Web sites you visit in person. If all these stores, hotels, and airlines have a similar computer interface, what differentiates them? A hotel becomes a bed with a computer for check-in. A store (especially those selling prepackaged items, such as CDs or DVDs) becomes a Web site with real inventory.

What makes us loyal, then? In a hotel, it's often the customer service that makes us want to return. Fairmont Hotels probably have the best customer service in the industry, as far as I'm concerned. Whatever loyalty program it may or may not have, I return to its hotels because of the quality of service provided by the employees. I once checked in at the San Francisco Fairmont for a conference I was keynoting. I was dreadfully sick and could hardly breathe. The man at the front desk knew I had to speak early the next morning. Five minutes after I arrived in my room, there was a knock at the door. The man at the front desk had ordered me matzo ball soup with a "get a good night's rest and feel better" note. Wow. That's customer service. That's why I love the Fairmont.

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