How Stellar Service Design Differentiates Service Companies

By Kristina Woodburn

January 16, 2017

I used to have the best job in the world. I dined at the finest restaurants and stayed at the most exclusive hotels and resorts across North America. And I got paid to do it.

Being the director of inspections for the Mobil Travel Guide had a few drawbacks—like endless paperwork and 250-plus nights a year on the road. But as a young woman, I thoroughly enjoyed learning what amazing service was all about.

Today my title and field have changed, but my focus on service hasn’t. In essence, I used to be an uninvited service-design consultant for the properties I inspected. Now I’m part of a team that’s hired to provide consulting and design remarkable service experiences.

So What Is Service Design?

Ten or twenty years ago, the term “service design” wasn’t used much. But top-notch service companies were certainly practicing it.

Service design identifies the elements of high-quality customer service and creates processes for delivering them. It researches and outlines the specific steps required to consistently deliver positive customer or guest experiences. But just as importantly it sets the stage for the intangible impressions—the je ne sais quoi that can foster lifelong loyalty to an establishment or brand.

I was delighted by many such things during my inspection years—doormen greeting me by name, perfectly paired cordials and cheeses, tiny little tables for my handbag. But it was a minor experience at the Four Seasons hotel in Manhattan that made me a fan for life and showed me what’s possible with good service design.

A Magical Laundry Service

I was missing a button on the jacket of my pantsuit. I saw it pop off and roll down the sidewalk into a stormdrain earlier in the day.

I made a mental note to see the tailor about it back home. But when I pulled the plastic off my newly pressed suit the next morning, I found the button had magically reappeared. No note, no explanation, nothing.

The Four Seasons staff simply improved the situation, and I didn’t even have to ask. It was an exact match.

I didn’t interact with any of the people involved in replacing the button, but a whole series of actions undoubtedly came together to pull off this little bit of magic. First there was the housekeeper who checked the closet to see if a dry cleaning bag was full. She may have noticed the missing button while checking the pockets for personal belongings. Or it may have been the laundry attendant who discovered the flaw while performing a routine inspection before pressing the suit.

He likely passed the suit along to a seamstress who perfectly matched the button and sewed it into place. While I’m grateful to each of these people for the attention to detail, ultimately it was the service-design process that allowed it to unfold as it did, winning my loyalty and delight. Somewhere in the service blueprint steps were included to not only promote the detection of the missing button, but also allow the staff to proactively fix the problem.

The Most Valued Customer (MVC): The Employee

The Four Seasons didn’t know in advance they would have the perfect opportunity to leave a lasting impression with me. But through coordinated service design, they were ready to put their best foot forward when the opportunity arose.

It is important to understand that service design addresses not only external customers, but also internal customers.

Service blueprints typically have a front stage and a back stage. Touchpoints are identified for the customer facing aspects: the advertisement, the website, the call center, the doorman, bellman, guest service agent, and on and on. Touchpoints also are identified for the back of house (BOH)—the suppliers, the cooks, the laundry attendants and so forth.

If a BOH process is hindering the work of frontline staff, you can bet it will have an impact on the guest experience. But if those BOH processes are designed to help employees support and work with one another, the results can be simply delightful. That’s why detailed and thoughtful design work is so important for service blueprints.

The design work includes considering all the non-customer facing touchpoints, thinking through the interactions that happen behind the service door, and treating employees as a valued customers. For service companies it’s the path to differentiation and success.

Out-Research the Competition

According to Bureau of Labor statistics, 86 percent of the U.S. workforce is employed in service positions. And the CIA reports that services account for roughly 80% of GDP. A couple things to note here: 1) services are vital to the health of the economy and 2) it is a saturated market.

In order to stay ahead of existing and future competitors, it’s important to meet (and by industry standards exceed) the needs of the customer.

But we can’t just guess at what the customer’s needs are. There’s way too much margin for error. That means we need to do the research. Research is at the heart of service design.

To do the research right, we have to get in on the ground level—talk to the people using the services, and to the ones who aren’t. We need to understand what’s working and identify what’s missing.

But we need to go beyond the customer survey, or online review. The first isn’t enough, because people may not be able or willing to articulate what they really want. The latter is platform for bias, and prone to manipulation. It’s our job to go to where people interact with services to watch and observe. What “work-arounds” are people using to get what they need? Where are the pain points? What is the “not yet discovered” service differentiator that could change the game?

To succeed at service design, we let their actions tell us what their words might not. And that’s how we begin to stand apart from other service providers.

In my next post I’ll talk about how good service design and the co-producing experience can protect your products from commoditization.

Want to learn more about design for innovation or biomimicry?

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