The Problem with Service Design
I’m afraid service design is futile. We’re wasting our time. Every innovation we deliver, every process we streamline, every touchpoint we craft will eventually be taken for granted. Reduced to a commodity. We’re simply delaying the inevitable.
Does a restaurant merit attention these days for having clean facilities? Not really. Thirty years ago that might have been noteworthy in some parts of the world but today it’s simply expected. Does Starbucks win any extra points for getting your order right? How about for providing those little cardboard sleeves to keep you from burning your hand? Do they receive special praise for comfortable chairs? How about wireless internet? Courteous staff?
Most of the time we only recognize service by its absence. In the 2005 book The Paradox of Excellence, David Mosby and Michael Weissman introduce this paradox through a short parable about a crisis at a fictitious trucking company called Premiere. That company defines its value through outstanding delivery performance — the best in the industry. But as they deliver better and better service, they become more and more invisible to their clients; at least until something goes wrong.
As designers, every time we improve a service we’re simply ratcheting up expectations. That isn’t sustainable.
So what’s the answer? Obviously I don’t believe that service design is a waste of time or effort. But I can’t shake the knowledge that human beings can be a bit capricious when it comes to judging our efforts in this regard.
A while back I wrote about a waiter who regularly notified his customers of mistakes, after correcting the problem, simply to get people to appreciate his service. In the Premiere parable above, the company decides to start making their excellent performance more visible to clients through regular reports. I’m not sure that’s the answer. I pretty much expect FedEx never to lose my package. In fact, I expect overnight delivery to anywhere in the world. How crazy is that? It’s taken fewer than 30 years for something magical to become a commonplace.
At what point do we hit the wall with services? Are they ever actually good enough, or is it an endless arms race against mediocrity and commoditization?
Maybe the answer itself is counterintuitive. Rather than offering reliably excellent service, what about unpredictability? What if the answer lies in random acts of kindness? The bits of business that add value to a service, but that aren’t part of its core offering. Something we can’t anticipate, something that captures our attention — randomly exceeding our expectations. A foil to the capriciousness of human perception.