How do I shop, let’s say, for a new digital SLR camera? I go to the internet and search for cameras, read the reviews, do product comparisons and shortlist the brands and models that meet my need (want?). Then I search for the best price.

Next maybe I’ll go to a retail store like Best Buy and play with the display models to further narrow down my selection. I don’t remember the last time I went to a store and asked sales associate ‘Can you please suggest a good camera?‘. If I see something in the store that wasn’t on my list, I quickly pull out my smart-phone and look for reviews and prices.

I find this access to information quite liberating. I’m not at the mercy of store ‘Genius’ or ‘Geeks’ to help me pick what I need. At most I’ll ask them for the aisle where the stuff is located and then hope they leave me alone. I didn’t think of this behavior much until I came across two articles:  Retailers Add Gadgets for Shoppers at Ease With Technology (The New York Times) and How Amazon, Google and Apple made self-service the new customer service (The Washington Post). Reading these made me realize that my shopping behavior has changed in recent years. I am longer dependent on store employees for information. And this trend is on rise with more and more customers having smart phone and tablets and walking around with information many times that of Encyclopedia Britannica (RIP) in their pockets. The only store associates that I have sought out and spoken to recently are from Home Depot and Lowes to help me pick the right shade of wall paint and correct gauge of wiring. Even for that I had gone to DIY videos on You Tube and gotten bill of material I needed for my projects.

Customers are empowered with a lot of information and they’re using it to their advantage. Now service providers and retailers can use this trend to their advantage or feel threatened. I still remember when Circuit City stores provided kiosks with internet access to browse products –but only allowed access to CircuitCity.com! Of course, they were concerned that customers would browse other stores and ask for price matching or maybe they thought patrons might check their email at the kiosk but I doubt that was the reason. But now everyone is carrying internet enabled devices with them.

I asked myself this question ‘Is self-service just another form of labor arbitrage?‘ Have we made a deal with vendors? – “Let’s share the burden of service. I’ll do my homework, you provide me what I need. I’ll manage the transaction. We’ll split the savings”. But I think there’s more to this rise in self-service adoption than just cost savings.

The scope of self-service is expanding and I think customers love it, whether it’s checking-in for flights at home or self-checkout at grocery stores. Don’t we love flying Virgin America where we can self check-in, use electronic boarding pass at the gate, order food and drink right from our touch-screen, credit card enabled, seat entertainment system?

Service providers need to do their part, need to enable customers to let them conduct these transactions effectively. They need to make sure the customer experience process is smooth and pleasant. And if customer gets stuck, they need to be sure that is help available to carry on with the transaction, rather than frustrated abandonment. At the heart of this self-service experience is information or knowledge.

As far as product and market knowledge is concerned, today customers have an easy access to it. Retailers have lost the bargaining power based on unequal information. Customers have same access to information (mostly) and at the same time (almost) so they tend to make more informed decisions. Retailers can add to this knowledge by providing contextual information about transactions and business policies to enable customers to do more business with them.

Self-service is not just about saving costs. It is not just about customers resolving issues on their own. It is not just about call-deflection. It is about customer empowerment throughout the customer journey.

Ron Johnson, the JC Penny’s CEO summed it upWe want customers to shop on their terms, not ours. By setting our store monthly and maintaining our best prices for an entire month, we feel confident that customers will love shopping when it is convenient for them, rather than when it is expedient for us.’

This idea of ‘We want customers to shop on their terms, not ours’ should be the motivation for offering self-service.

Ajay Khanna is Senior Director, Product Marketing. KANA