Self-service supposedly empowers consumers and gives them more autonomy. Personally, I prefer the days when you drove to a gas station and an attendant asked what grade of gas you wanted, filled the tank, checked the fluids, wiped your windshield and took your payment.Gas stations switched to self-service pumps not because consumers begged Exxon or Shell for the privilege to fill their own tanks. The switch was made so that gas stations could save money by cutting the number of attendants from a handful to just one clerk.

Excellent customer service has tangible value; if consumers are treated well, they'll remember the experience and become repeat buyers. Today many corporations believe that consumers want to take matters into their own hands. But there are a lot of people-not just your typical couch potatoes-who prefer full-service treatment, who don't want to be burdened with making simple decisions.

Remember the classic sci-fi TV show, The Outer Limits? "There's nothing wrong with your television set. We control the horizontal. We control the vertical . . ." For many consumers, that's the level of customer-service they expect from businesses.

On an entirely different subject, I'm intrigued about the staggering underwriting losses that State Farm reported for fiscal 2001 (see page 8). State Farm's underwriting losses from its property/casualty lines totaled more than $9 billion last year. As a State Farm policyholder, I worry about the ramifications of this huge loss. As a journalist, I'm curious about whether the loss is more a reflection of poor underwriting standards, inadequate information systems, low-ball pricing to gain market share, or a combination of these and other factors.

What's even more intriguing is how State Farm intends to dig itself out of this financial hole. Given its mutual ownership structure and the company's long-time emphasis on customer retention, it's unlikely that State Farm can significantly raise rates in the short term. My bet is that State Farm will follow the examples of Prudential Financial and MetLife and raise cash through an IPO.

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