I’ve been a fan of service design since my introduction to it in grad school —and an active champion of the discipline since my initial involvement with the Service Design Network back in 2010. In fact, I’ve spent a significant amount effort over the past five years helping companies understand what service design is and how it can benefit their organizations. But it’s been a hard slog for two key reasons.
People don’t know what “service” is.
For cultural, social, and economic reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, the term “service” is much more broadly used and understood across Europe than it is in the United States. When I speak with my U.S.-based clients, and even with my friends and family, they equate “service” with one of two things.
The first is the support organization you call or visit when you need to resolve a problem with a company or product: “I had to call customer service to get the charge reversed” or “I need to take my car in to the service department.”
The second concept is limited to the interactions customers have with in-person employees in certain industries. When someone in the U.S. asks, “How was the service at the restaurant?” they’re specifically asking about how friendly the wait staff was, how quickly the food came out, and perhaps how generous the waiter was with his pours of Chianti. They’re not referring to the food, drinks, décor, or cleanliness — and they’re certainly not thinking about the systems of people, processes, and technologies that enable the restaurant to serve customers every day. In short, there’s zero recognition that the entire restaurant is a service in and of itself.
People are scared of “design.”
Despite the best efforts of designers, educators, journalists, and industry analysts, the word “design” still strikes fear in the hearts of business people around the globe. For many, traumatic memories of junior-high school art class combine with distrust of anything not firmly rooted in spreadsheets or computer code — and they instantly reject any notion of design.
In a meeting several weeks ago with a big tech client, I used the word “design” with a group I had assumed to be familiar with design thinking concepts — but their sudden silence, blank stares, and crossed arms told me otherwise. I quickly backtracked and started talking about “understanding the real problem and prototyping solutions.” They nodded, and disaster was averted!
The innovation team at a government agency I work with also met with strong resistance when introducing design methodologies to the organization several years ago. It now uses the term “HCD” when describing its approach to design projects — and cross-functional project team members go along for the ride, compliant with this new acronym and blissfully unaware that they’re practicing Human-Centered Design.
The prevailing attitudes towards design in the business world are so rampant that a pair of co-authors I spoke to recently admitted that they consciously try to omit the word “design” from their design workshops — and even tried to cut the number of references to it in their book, which (you guessed it) is about design.
We Can’t Wait For The New Guard
I expect that both of these problems — misunderstanding about the nature of services and fear of design — will correct themselves over the next decade, as more design-educated (or at least design-friendly) professionals make their way into top management positions around the globe. But the service design community can’t wait that long to advance our discipline and apply our expertise to weighty problems in both industry and the public sector.
We need to find a way in.
Service Design’s Trojan Horse: Customer Experience
Several years ago, IBM conducted a study of roughly 4,000 C-level executives from around the globe. The study, titled The Customer-activated Enterprise, stated, “We identified three key themes that will help you shape your organization’s future: Open up to customer influence, pioneer digital-physical innovation, and craft engaging customer experiences.” And in its 2014 survey of 200 companies, global analyst firm Gartner found that 89% of respondents planned to compete primarily on the basis of customer experience by 2016. And to that end, 65% of the companies surveyed had already appointed the equivalent of a chief customer officer within their organizations.
Well guess what? 2016 has come and gone, and the good news is that customer experience has proved to be a lasting strategic imperative among today’s executives. The even better news is that customer experience and service design go hand-in-hand. They’re certainly not the same thing, but in the words of Forrest Gump, they go together like peas and carrots.
For service designers who want to make inroads with organizations that just don’t seem open to something as seemingly nebulous, confusing, or scary as service design, my advice is this: Talk about pain points in the organization’s current customer experience and what those issues are costing the organization from a business perspective. Lost revenue and increased cost to serve are good starting points. Inevitably, the conversation will turn towards what exactly they’ll need to do to make improvements — and this, of course, is the perfect entrée for service design. But, following the lead of some of the designers I mentioned above, I’d encourage you not to start immediately waving the service design flag during these sales conversations.
Instead, talk about your approach in terms of the activities you’ll do and what the tangible outcomes will be. Sell your clients on your ability to take a smart, effective, and innovative approach to solving their customer experience problems.
Once your client has experienced a successful service design initiative, is comfortable with the approach, and can understand its business benefits, THEN it’s time to broadly market the approach as service design and turn your clients into advocates for service design both within their organizations and across the industry at large. And then, they will help to sell service design on your behalf.