A Consistent Experience Is a Better Experience: Service Design

The following is a post from Mark Eberman, TIG Global User Experience Architect.

If there is one thing that has held the test of time, it’s that history is bound to repeat itself. What was once old will most certainly become new again in the cycle of time because good ideas never go out of style. Service design is a shining example of this fact. In spite of the fact that the conception of service design is nearly 30 years old, it is an idea that is more relevant than ever today.

Service has become a serious topic of discussion in the design community these days and it’s being recognized more and more as a key to business success in competitive markets. Good service design breeds satisfied, loyal customers. This post will walk you through the basics and how you can begin using it to your advantage to turn travelers into your very own brand ambassadors.

What Is Service Design, Anyway?

The term service design dates back to the 1980s, when researchers began to realize that US and European economies were moving rapidly from traditional manufacturing to providing services. While it was long a given that manufactured goods needed to be carefully designed if they were to succeed, little serious effort had been put into designing and conceptualizing the services that were increasingly the stock-in-trade of major businesses.

Service design, viewed narrowly, is crafting each service your company provides so that the customer’s experience is a good one. All services should be designed experiences—nothing is unconsidered, and the needs and desires of all audiences are front and center. Instead of serving only the needs of business, a balance must be sought between business requirements and consumer desires.

Service design is also sometimes called holistic design or multi-channel experience design. On a macro scale, this practice urges that, in addition to providing carefully designed experiences, all the services a company offers should be designed to the same standards and with the same customer focus, ensuring a consistent, unilateral experience across all channels.

Executing service design properly results in a consistent brand experience no matter how a customer chooses to interact with your company. Consistently good experiences lead to increased customer loyalty, and are a strong differentiator between your company and your competitors. With all other things being equal, I’ll spend my money with a company that delivers a consistently good experience over the one that’s cold and impersonal, confusing or disdainful of my concerns.

With all that said, it’s worth noting that it helps nobody if a business goes broke dropping prices to suit customer whims. But a business that ignores the quality of service it provides will lose out, even to more expensive competitors, if its competitors are providing superior service. The old model of “what’s good for business is good for consumers” is outmoded in our service economy.  A balance point must be found.

So service design probably sounds pretty obvious at this point. Of course your services should be tailored to your customers so they can get what they need, consistently and efficiently. What business would do anything else? But you only need to get stuck in an automated phone system or try to get help with your new cell phone to realize that many common services deliver an outright bad experience. In the worst cases, it becomes obvious that the service provider’s focus is solely on their own needs, even when those needs are in direct conflict with the customer’s needs.  In spite of the obviousness of the merits of service design, it’s plain that not everyone has gotten the hint.

Who’s Scoring Big With Service Design?

Apple is a company that really gets service design (and design in general). Every interaction customers have with Apple is consistent, and laser-focused on producing a delightful experience. Their devices look good. Their stores look as good as their devices. Their website looks as good as…you get the idea.

Beyond this consistency of look and feel, Apple focuses on the true interactions: Is the device easy to use? Does it work well? One of their core concepts is that if you know and like your iPhone, you should find their stores, website, laptops or call centers familiar and just as easy to deal with. Mind you, Apple doesn’t get every single thing right, but they have more hits than misses these days.

All in all, there’s a reason that people are willing to pay more for devices and services that, on paper, are not any better than their cheaper counterparts from other companies. That reason is Apple’s strong attention to service design.

It may be hard to imagine an online shoe retailer as a leader in service design, but only if you’ve never interacted with Zappos. Their commitment to an easy, satisfying, delightful experience is second to none. That commitment is at the root of their ability to take dubious-sounding business idea (Selling shoes online? How could that work?) and turn it into billion-dollar company.

Zappos may not have an obvious focus on multi-channel service design, but they are obsessive about offering a great service experience. It begins with making bold promises about the kind of performance customers want, and then exceeding expectations. Free shipping both ways takes a lot of the risk out of buying shoes sight-unseen. Promising four-day free shipping, even for returns, is a winner by itself, but Zappos’ habit of beating that promise on a regular basis (they routinely deliver next-day) is a recipe for lasting customer loyalty.

Zappos is equally famous for excelling at one thing most companies do poorly: telephone service. Their carefully chosen, meticulously trained, super-friendly customer service representatives are all authorized to do whatever it takes to satisfy customers. Calling Zappos customer service works like everyone imagines any customer service call should work. If you call with a complaint, you really just want a swift and reasonable resolution from a single friendly person. Zappos delivers that every time, not an endless litany of, “that’s not our policy,” and, “I can’t authorize that.”

Virgin Airlines
Virgin Airlines is my final and perhaps best example of great service design. Everything about flying with them is obviously a part of a carefully thought-out, designed experience. Virgin Airlines routinely gets rave customer reviews, which is a remarkable achievement when you consider we’re talking about air travel, one of the most universally unpopular experiences around. Virgin understands that flying can be frustrating, and they make the most of every opportunity to make things better.

They begin with a corporate voice that is informal and relaxed, with a slight emphasis on coolness. The message is that it’s hip and smart to be flying Virgin Airlines. This is carefully balanced with the need to also be confidence-inspiring, giving customers the sense that they will be safe and looked after.

This voice is carried throughout every part of the company—any place you could conceivably interact with the company, you’ll hear the same voice. Whether it’s seeing CEO Richard Branson on TV, booking a flight on their website, or watching the onboard safety video, that confident, chummy, slightly irreverent tone comes across.

Beyond a cohesive message and voice, the company presents a unified visual aesthetic which not only provides the consistency consumers crave, but also reinforces their message of cool confidence. This is not limited to websites and printed materials. Virgin’s planes have mood lighting before take-off, their check-in kiosks are sleek and modern, even their in-flight amenities come in packaging that carries the look and messaging of the brand.

Virgin has even made the flight experience itself a little better, by offering best-in-class in-flight entertainment, free Wi-Fi, and including many small perks for free that other airlines have begun to charge for.

To top it off, Virgin takes great pains to select and train staff, which results in a uniform and friendly experience whether you’re talking on the phone with a booking agent, checking in or talking to a flight attendant.

How Can My Company Get In On This Service Design Thing?

The notion of digging into every corner of your business and revamping your messaging, your training and even your back-end systems can be so big as to freeze any business in its tracks. The bigger your company, the more customer touch points it is likely to have, the less centralized control there is over them, and the more expensive it is to make changes.

This is why it’s important to realize that service design is a continuum, from companies that get every interaction wrong on up to companies that get it right from end to end. All companies sit somewhere on the service design spectrum, and it’s unlikely that you’ll jump from the left to the right of the dial in one go. The important thing is not making a huge splash and solving all your issues at once. The important thing is to always work to move the needle in the right direction. Any positive changes you can make will have a direct impact on customer satisfaction, loyalty and eventually your ability to compete.

Some things that can move the needle:

  • Learn, understand and respect the needs and concerns of your customers. Always compare your actions to customer needs, whether you’re standing at the front desk or designing a marketing strategy.
  • Have a plan. Focus on the easy fixes (which quickly and cheaply repair and improve relationships) first and then set goals to address places where you are farthest off the mark.
  • Keep your promises, both the overt and implied ones. Honor guarantees quickly and courteously, and present the type of experience your marketing materials imply.
  • Work toward a streamlined and consistent experience across all service touch points.
  • Create loyalty and delight your visitors with unexpected value or performance. Simply meeting basic expectations will only stave off bad reviews. It is the extra details and going beyond the expected that will spark loyalty and make your customers your best promoters.

Interested in ramping up your online strategy? Check out the full suite of TIG Global interactive marketing tools, send us an email, or give us a call +1 301.841.4700(US) | +44 (0)20 3004 9468(UK).

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