Appreciating the Human Face of Automation

May 1, 1999
What's the most negative perception you have concerning automation? If you worked in a manufacturing plant, you might fear the idea of robotics indiscriminately

What's the most negative perception you have concerning automation? If you worked in a manufacturing plant, you might fear the idea of robotics indiscriminately replacing people. But because you work in the rental business, which is a service business, you're more likely concerned that a computer will dehumanize the personal interaction between your staff and your customers and will actually impair the service process.

In reality, however, just the opposite is true. Over the past two decades, good point-of-transaction rental systems in our industry have earned the right to be called an employee's best friend at the rental counter.

One important attribute that defines an employee-friendly system is ease of use. Easy-to-learn application software empowers your staff in a number of ways.

It builds a better team. New employees get up to speed more quickly, gaining the personal confidence that's a hallmark of good customer service. And employees, such as mechanics or bookkeepers, who don't typically work the counter, can step up and help with customers when you're short-staffed. These employees don't have to be familiar with rates or inventory availability because the system is familiar with everything, all the time, and prompts them through the transaction process.

In effect, automation creates an equal playing field for all customer service employees engaged in routine transactions. Everyone, from the newest hire to the most seasoned employee, has access to the same level of "cyber-knowledge" about rates, availability or product specifications.

The computer places knowledge literally at employees' fingertips and thus offers them the gift of time: to concentrate more fully on the customer's needs, to ask the right questions and to give satisfactory answers. And it gives them time to relax and smile, thus making customers feel comfortable.

Ben Shipper IV, vice president of Chicago Party Rentals, Countryside, Ill., says, "Good transaction software takes some of the cognitive steps out of the service process and lets the employee focus more on the customer." Shipper notes that his employees do most of their business on the phone, so they are well-trained at listening.

"It's important that we provide customers with everything they need for their events, which may be more than they initially express," says Shipper. "We do a lot with software features that offer recommended items and kits."

Savvy business operators in the rental industry know that a truly successful rental is one where the customer walks out the door with 100 percent of what he or she needs. This includes the item requested for rent in good repair, any additional resale or rental items that will make the job easier or better, safety and warning messages about operation, advice, a fair rate, and a sense of value received.

A good computer system can ensure item availability, maintenance scheduling and automatic prompting of related items. It can automatically print safety messages and operational tips on the contract and calculate rates with absolute precision, even during holiday periods.

Do those services constitute removing the human aspect from customer service? No, just the opposite! Because the computer handles these necessary but routine parts of the transaction, counter staffers have more time to do what they were hired to do: Give the customer their attention.

Have you ever worked alongside someone who was intelligent, personable and a hard worker, but made too many mistakes caused by poor memory or weak math skills? A person like this has almost all the traits necessary to provide superlative customer service, but is hampered by a flaw that is not directly related to personal contact or attitude. When a good system teams up with a good employee, the system assumes tasks like "remembering" inventory availability and "doing the math" on rate calculation, so the employee is free to focus on the customer contact. The strengths of both man and machine are used to best advantage.

The benefits of automated inventory sharing in multi-site rental operations is well-documented, but some operations also use the computer to create healthy competition between branch teams. The manager of a large Virginia equipment rental firm told me that his company takes a team-oriented approach at the branch level. Each store has monthly revenue targets to reach, with performance incentives built in. The system lets branch managers know instantly, at the end of each day's activity, whether they are keeping pace with the company's objectives for that store.

In this case, as in so many others, automation has energized the entire business process. The common bond of shared information translates into shared opportunity, tearing down the mental cubbyholes that used to isolate one store from another, one job description from the next.

The positive dynamics resulting from computerization of the rental process are borne out by similar findings across many other industries as well. The boost in productivity through automation, which lagged behind expectations until the mid-1990s, is now in full bloom. In a recent interview, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said that the United States is heading for its ninth consecutive year of growth in part because of technological advances that have increased efficiency.

In direct contrast to some dire predictions of a decade ago, an increase in productivity among service businesses typically leads to an increased demand for quality personnel, rather than the opposite. Computerization aids productivity, which in turn aids growth through the proper application of human resources - people in touch with people, rather than saddled with tedious tasks better done by a machine.

And the power of automation can make it feasible to provide customer services that would be unthinkable manually. At Centreline Equipment in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, owners Al and Louis Bertoia created a new service around computer reports that show the status of everything customers have out on rent. "We pro-actively keep in touch with our customers, and they really appreciate having this information available to them," says Al Bertoia. "A lot of our accounts rent from us two or three times a day, and they may lose track of things. They love the fact that our customer service staff can save them unnecessary charges."

Automation, in fact, is a cornerstone of what is being called the new business model for the 21st century, and the rental industry is a perfect fit. In a March issue of The Wall Street Journal, Thomas Petzinger Jr. describes this new organic model as one where a company's objective is unity of purpose rather than economies of scale and where employee autonomy means more to the success of an organization than does management command and control.

Computers, long perceived as the ultimate control tool, actually provide the bricks upon which the new business model is built. "The breakup of the mainframe computer," Petzinger writes, "once accessible only to its anointed brotherhood and now reborn as desktop units, not only taps the intelligence of everyone in an organization but redistributes it to everyone else."

Here's an example of freedom through automation: Say your rental transaction software automatically enforces rates, grace periods and credit limits, but also allows for employee overrides. Detailed override reporting keeps management informed as to the number and types of overrides, the authorizing employees and the reasons for the override. Your busy staff values the enforced consistency of the transaction process, while at the same time each individual is given autonomy to "step outside the lines" when his or her own judgment warrants it. This empowers front-line employees while providing for full accountability.

Far from dehumanizing employee-customer interaction, computers can provide your staff with the quality time, quality tools and personal confidence they need to provide top-notch service to your customers. It's the very human face of automation - people working better with computers than they ever could without them.