Our Economy Is Mostly Services. But How Do You Design Great Service Experiences?

When overhauling a client's relationship with its customers, Continuum's Craig LaRosa adheres to a few core principles, from soliciting widespread input to always designing with future flexibility in mind.

Every time you ship a package, withdraw cash from the ATM, or call your health insurance provider, you’re experiencing a service system. We’re a service-focused economy: In 2010, Americans spent more than $7 trillion on services—amounting to 67% of total consumer spending. Service design—choreographing the dynamic interactions between companies and people—cannot only transform a company’s image; it can improve people’s lives. But successful service design is complex and complicated, and many companies get it wrong. At Continuum, we have four rules for designing services with purpose.

1. Set the Right Expectations

Many companies make the mistake of overselling their service—a strategy that backfires when customers are inevitably disappointed. (And a disappointed customer is not a return customer.) United Airlines’s recent animated commercial of a father flying aloft on a bird paints a fairytale fantasy of modern-day air travel. Southwest Airlines has a better approach. The discount king has an ad in which a dorky business traveler at a small-town airport can’t contain his glee at having been upgraded to Business Select. (Reward points! Free drinks!) Guess which airline consistently scores higher on consumer satisfaction surveys? Southwest. Because the airline sets its expectations low, it can and does over-deliver.

2. Get the Right People in the Room

Executing successful service experiences requires all silos of an organization—marketing, operations, sales, finance, and so on. But these silos most often only connect at the top of the organization; they’re not communicating with one another at the consumer level. Successful service design depends upon getting one empowered person from each of these silos in the room. This collaboration cultivates trust and respect within the company, but it also ensures that each silo has a sense of ownership in the project. At Continuum, on every project, we advise the client-side team to include people from human resources, operations, marketing, sales, construction, and even frontline employees like chefs and front-desk staff.

We recently worked with Holiday Inn to develop their new hotel lobby experience called "The Hub," that combines all ground-floor activities into one contiguous space: check-in, cafe, bar, Internet, lounge, and game area. From the beginning, we had every silo represented on our project team. Because we had people from operations on the team, we were able to design within the company’s operations capability, and because the marketing and advertising departments were included, we were able to pro-actively align The Hub with the companies new "Stay You" brand positioning, which is directed at a younger, value-seeking customer.

3. Design for Flexibility

How do you create a service that works in today’s context but can also evolve as new technologies and behaviors emerge? The simple answer is from one of my colleagues, Continuum Digital Design Principal Toby Bottorf: "Always be in beta." At Continuum, we design flexibility into every project. We recently worked with a global medical diagnostic and testing service company to design patient rooms. To meet their need for flexibility, we created movable fixtures that can be adjusted or removed within hours and a customized wall system that can be rearranged overnight to accommodate unknown future services. (An added perk: If the company relocates offices, they can take their walls with them.)

4. Make It Real

Rather than delivering a splashy, innovative idea to our client and then washing our hands of it, we collaborate with the client through the often challenging process of bringing the new service design to life.

Partly, we do that by making the intangible tangible early in the process—showing our client how the final design will work and what it will look and feel like, so they can get everybody in the company on board with the idea. For the global bank BBVA, we created a series of demos in the atrium of the bank’s Center of Innovation in Madrid that showcased the interactive banking touchpoints that would be used in the new retail banking model. This was viewed by more than 1,500 people, including bank leadership, thought leaders, and members of the media. We then took a portable version of this experiential model on the road to share it with other members of the global organization. Ultimately, BBVA’s entire global management team embraced the vision and new direction of the organization.

Like any creative process, service design can be challenging to get right. But when you keep these four tenets in mind, you’ll create a smoother, more enjoyable experience. And a happy customer is a return customer.

[Images: Robyn Mackenzie, J. Helgason, and ssguy via Shutterstock]

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  • Xavier Tyalor II

    Right on point. I feel like this article has a hand on the pulse of every consumer.

  • drgolden

    Great discussion here!  Much of my career has been focused on designing processes for flexibility.  One of my favorite teachers on the subject (Steve Towers) discusses that:
    1) Moments of Truth should be minimized and optimized.  That is, the interactions with our customers should be simple and complete.  If you are talking with a customer it must meet expectations.
    2) Breakpoints should be removed.  When sharing information between people, people and systems, or systems to systems, there should be little or no chance that expectations are not aligned.
    3) Business rules should add value.  All business rules should play a fundamental role in meeting the expectations of our customers and stakeholders.
    I believe these three items complement your 4 items well.

  • Ramehtar

    I agree, customer service makes the most sense when promising the least, yet delivering more. 
    However, does that only work  with discounters (motel 6, food4less, 99 cent stores, big lots etc )  or other places serving more sophisticated tastes (hilton, nordstrom. etc?)

  • Craig LaRosa

     I would say that Hilton and Nordstrom or any brand that is--what we might call luxury or high touch--is doing the same thing. After all, Nordtrsoms is still a department store with the same expectations of any department store, but they consistently over deliver on customer service for a department store.

  • Jason Gabrieli

    Why isn't share via email an option anymore.  Social media is nice, but businesses still communicate via email!

  • brandon cotter

    Some great points. I would add a 5th point: Design From the Heart

    Your customers can see through marketing programs to where your real motives are. Have a product that meets a real need with your customers? Know the real pain they are in and how to help? Then, you are in a much better place to put your design thinking to work to deliver greatness to them and for them.

    We started ZenCash because we have been freelancers, and small business owners long enough to know what it's like to not get we can empathize with our customers in a very real, in-the-trenches sort of way.  That passion, that heart, is what fuels the passion of real design thinking.

    Just sayin.....

    Brandon Cotter  
    founder, ceo  

  • Craig LaRosa

     I agree with your 5th point, but I would change it to "Design for the Heart". We constantly remind ourselves and our clients that we are not the target customer.

    Don't let your own emotions get in the way of designing for your customer's emotions. However, do all you can do to develop that rich empathy that comes from delving deep into your customers lives to understand their true needs. These two may seem in conflict, but being able to hold these two things in conflict is what makes a great Design Strategist.

  • David

    Intresting ideas, the starting point should be the concerns / ambitions of the end client and/or distribution partner. We recently reached the finals of the national insurance awards for customer experience by starting at this point. Would be happy to share our model with you

  • Craig LaRosa

     David, I would like to hear about your project.

    I would also share, that although we start with the customer, our approach is focused on aligning our clients ambitions with their operational proficiencies. I think most Design and Innovation professionals can recall an engagement where the clients ambitions over-reached what they could actually accomplish and the project ended up as a PowerPoint deck on someone's shelf and was never made real.

  • Ian Clayton

    Craig - nice piece.  I work within IT helping organizations realize they are service providers not infrastructure farmers.  Its a struggle and I have pioneered with the business side of the house the concept of 'outside-in' or customer first thinking to drag them screaming to the customer (service) experience.
    We use tabletop simulators to take a real scenario and map, inspect and hopefully improve it using a lexicon that includes 'interaction, moments of truth. front/back stage actions, and support processes'.  It works everytime.  We get the epiphany light go on bold and folks suddenly appreciate how the customer experience drives satisfaction and how interactions drive work effort.  Those who are favoring 'lean thinking' also get it that process improvements are dangerous unless you know how they impact the experience.  So thank you for raising the awareness of the experience!
    Ian Clayton, Service Management 101

  • Craig LaRosa

     Thanks Ian, it's nice to hear about how this approach is working for others.


  • markusfei

    Truth well told! 
    If a company is not eager to implement the essence of a well designed service into its core it will fail at another touchpoint. 

    Director Business Design at Designit

  • Wesley

    Our Economy Is Mostly Services. But How Do You Design Great Service Experiences? read more m a k e c a s  h 4 . [c o m]

  • OrionAdvertising

    As someone who has recently worked at a service organization (a university), I found this very interesting. However it is achieved, good service is priceless and often overlooked. I disagree though with your comment about Southwest. It did not succeed because it promised low but delivered high. It succeeded because the story    being told resonated with travelers--free upgrade, whoopee! It was something we all dream about and Southwest implies that this wish will be granted. 

  • Craig LaRosa

     I think you might be missing the point of the reference. I was not commenting on the commercials themselves. I am sure they were effective in delivering whatever metric ad agencies are using these days. What I am saying is that a poorly aligned marketing and experience can cause cumulative damage to a brand.

    Southwests whole positioning, as I see it is no frills travel. So if you get to your seat and there is even a small amount of "frills" like free upgrades or drinks, Southwest has succeeded in delighting it's customers. The reason why it resonated is because Southwest customers can usually only dream about upgrades. When they get upgrades they are getting something unexpected.

    Thanks for the comments.

  • Lois Gory

    "EVEN frontline employees"?????

    If you're going to make an improvement in your organization you need to listen to the people who listen to your Clients/Customers. At this very moment there's someone cleaning your toilets, someone washing your tables, someone taking orders, someone presenting the latest service who is burning with the desire to do it better.

    They each have at least 3 ideas that will improve the product, improve the service, improve the experience of the people whose business you want. (And yes, save the company money while doing it)

    Find those firebrands and get them in the discussion from the beginning.

    OK, I'll get down from my soapbox now. 

    I agree with what you say, but jeepers! you said even!

    Lois Gory

  • Craig LaRosa

    Lois, thanks for the comment. One thing I will add to your comment is that it's not just about getting ideas. It's about getting the right ideas. While front line employees are usually the best source for those small changes that have big impact. Which is a big part of Innovation, they need to be vetted to make sure they are relevant to the customer, brand and can be operationalized profitably.

    Front Line Employees are the "tip of your brand spear". Many companies don't see them that way.  I think those companies are the ones who don't listen to them, who don't mine them for their insight and ideas. Those companies who do--like Zappos-- constantly benefit from this amazing wealth of ideas, but they also have a process for vetting those ideas.

  • Trevor Gay

    I agree 100% with Lois - in fact I'd say you START by asking your front liners. In my experience the best ideas ALWAYS come from front liners rather than from the comfort of the warm office

    Trevor Gay, Coventry, England