What Hays Travel's new Leeds branch and Booths dropping self-service tills have in common

With the rise of chatbots, Amazon delivery drones and increasingly incessant warnings that AI is about to steal everyone’s jobs, it is interesting to detect something of a mood change around the value of old-fashioned human contact in our digital age.

Hays Travel has recently opened a new branch in Leeds and I was intrigued by what the independent holiday agent’s chair, Dame Irene Hays, told my colleague Michael Crossland about the rationale behind the decision.

Dame Irene explained the personal touch is one that many customers still very much value. That comes despite, or perhaps slightly because of, the plethora of online options there now are for booking a break.

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She said: “Anything that is high-cost or complex, the evidence we have is that people still want to book with a human being and know who they have booked with and at which shop.

Dame Irene Hays, chair and owner of Hays Travel. Picture: Will Walker / North NewsDame Irene Hays, chair and owner of Hays Travel. Picture: Will Walker / North News
Dame Irene Hays, chair and owner of Hays Travel. Picture: Will Walker / North News

“I think there is a degree of confidence and reliability in people knowing their money will be looked after by a person.”

The proof in that approach is in the pudding – Hays has recently delivered its best ever trading year with pre-tax profits of £51.6m, a 259 per cent increase on the previous 12 months.

The Hays approach is far from unique.

In the run-up to Christmas, the family-owned supermarket chain Booths made approving headlines around the world for its decision to axe almost all of its self-service checkouts in response to customer feedback.

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Chris Burn,  Head of Business and Features for The Yorkshire Post. Picture Tony JohnsonChris Burn,  Head of Business and Features for The Yorkshire Post. Picture Tony Johnson
Chris Burn, Head of Business and Features for The Yorkshire Post. Picture Tony Johnson

A spokesperson explained: “Since 1847, the Booths founding philosophy is to, ‘Sell the best goods available, in attractive stores, staffed with first class assistants’. Delighting customers with our warm Northern welcome is part of our DNA and we continue to invest in our people to ensure we remain true to that ethos.”

Booths subsequently recorded an eight per cent increase in its Christmas sales.

The move was a great PR win – anyone who has been to a “self-service” till in a major supermarket recently will have noted how the system increasingly entails one or two harassed members of staff running between multiple counters, trying to keep an eye out for shoplifters and having to manually sign-off alcohol purchases. ‘Self-scan’ systems also regularly throw up customer checks where unfortunate shoppers have to unload several items to be inspected and if anything has been missed or incorrectly scanned, the entire trolley has to be gone through by hand.

Everyone generally has a miserable time and the “efficiency” saving for most supermarkets appears to be in favour of reducing staffing costs rather than the supposed rationale of cutting waiting times for customers.

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The push to promote customer service as a way of differentiating your business has also reached the financial world.

As major banks continue to close satellite branches in towns around the country, Nationwide Building Society has launched an advertising campaign to hammer home that very point and try to stand apart.

Starring a deliberately over-the-top Dominic West as the uncaring boss of the fictional A.N.Y. Bank who laughs about his extravagant lunch expenses while ordering bank branch closures, a voiceover for Nationwide ends the advert with a promise that, “Unlike the big banks, we aren’t closing our branches”.

Brands are realising that the personal touch increasingly makes good business sense.

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