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What is Service Design?

Historically, customer experience has always focussed on the end customer, the recipient of the service. This makes sense. When all’s said and done, like most in the industry, I prescribe to the fundamental that when it comes to delivering excellent experiences, you need to start and end with your customers.

However in todays world of multiple channels, complex interactions and organisations with large and complex internal structures, there is the risk that if we place too great a emphasis on the actual moment the customer interaction occurs,  then we risk missing out on the opportunity to introduce a more valuable, strategic service proposition for that customer.

For this reason when I speak with businesses struggling to make the leap between offering a good standard of customer service to truly exceptional experiences I find exploring the precursors to the customer interaction assist in defining the problem in a different way.

Perhaps to better understand why this is important, the following quote may be of use.

“It used to be thought that the events that changed the world were things like big bombs, maniac politicians, huge earthquakes, or vast population movements, but it has now been realised that this is a very old-fashioned view held by people totally out of touch with modern thought. The things that change the world, according to Chaos theory, are the tiny things. A butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazonian jungle, and subsequently a storm ravages half of Europe.”

— from Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

In essence when customer service ceased to be delivered through simple, human to human interactions and became an interconnected web of channels, processes, systems and devices, it transformed into a highly complex system where even small changes made within that system could have a profoundly significant impact on the outcome of that system.

Most of us reading this article will recognise that few of the customer interactions we have stewardship over are ever simple. To prove this, take the example of the supermarket delivery driver who delivers shopping to your doorstep. On the surface, at a veneer-level, the interaction is seemingly between two people, the driver and the customer. It’s tempting to see it this way, however, the simplicity of that interaction belies the complex set of processes and procedures in play that has led up to that one interaction. In this case, the customer may first have placed the order online through the supermarket website or mobile app, that order would then have gone to a processing unit before being forwarded to a distribution hub where the products were picked and packed. The products will then have been handled by a distribution team, before finally ending up on the van with the delivery driver.

The interaction with the driver is no doubt important, but we must remain cognisant to the reality that this one interaction is but a single step in a complex web of interactions, that must come together and work efficiently and in harmony in order for a brand to deliver on its promise of excellent customer service.

So why is there a need for Service Design.


Designing customer interactions is not really a new concept. If you think about traditional telephony channels for instance, there are well embedded metrics to understand the level of service we offer and to identify potential issues. Call waiting queues, average handling times and post-call surveys all make up the landscape of measures we use to understand and improve customer experience.

Consider how you manage the performance of your digital channels, in that instance the metrics we use similarly seek to define the nature of the customer interaction. We look at referrer domains, clicks, conversion funnels and post-submit percentages.

While offering obvious inherent value, these systems also fall foul of an over reliance and sometimes misguided focus on the moment customer service is offered and the channel through which that customer interaction was facilitated. Rarely is focus given to how a customer traverses across and between these channels and brand touchpoints throughout the entirety of their interaction with a company.

Traditional UX may not be the answer


Even newer disciples such as digital user experience (UX) struggle to address the challenges presented by such complexity, as they too have their foundations firmly planted in ‘channel-specific optimisation’ and while it is fair to say that many of the traits associated with good UX are also to be found in Service Design, User Experience is equally blinkered by its relatively narrow focus.

The primary aim of Service Design in contrast is not to necessarily optimise a single interaction in one channel. It can be used for this purpose, but its real value comes from taking a more holistic view of the entirety of your customer experience ecosystem and customer journeys.

It charts the complex web of customer interactions, formed from your multitude of channels and customer touch points. It defines how those interactions are facilitated, by looking at the operating procedures that have been adopted within the organisation designed to deliver those services. Finally, Service Design looks at the make up of the underlying systems and IT capabilities that act as the foundations for how you manage and control your business.

Front Stage and Back Stage


These aspects of Service Design are often referred to as Stage Theory.

Stage Theory is typified has having both a ‘Front Stage’ and a ‘Backstage’.

Just as in the theatre, Front Stage refers to what the customer will see of your business from their perspective. In effect it is the outward facing visage you either choose to project, or inadvertently project to a customer.

This visage is formed from all the direct and indirect actions your organisation has with the end customer. Those interactions could, and will very likely, take place across all your distribution and sales channels and across the full range of devices used by the customer.

As you’ve probably guessed ‘Back Stage’ refers to the aspects of your company the customer should not see. In our theatre example, we may see the scenery and props move on stage, that would be our Front Stage, however Back Stage, or Behind the scenes, there will be a complex system of pulleys, ropes, mechanical elements and IT that all needs to work together to make the scenery and props move as they do.

Due to these complex interrelationships between the Front and Back Stage operations, it is therefore essential that any change, transformation or improvement considers this complexity, as failing to do so may at best lead to missed opportunities, and at worst deploying solutions that are destined for failure.

Don’t only focus on Front Stage


You may have seen the consequences of not considering both the Front and Back Stages as a whole before. One of the most memorable examples I can recall is when a large financial services firm I worked made the decision to push sales of their new credit card.

The company had actually done many things right. They had spent many months researching the proposition with customers. They had deployed a team of user experience professionals and designers to make the online purchase experience as fast and efficient as possible worked extensively with the digital compliance team and the marketing department had developed a high-profile campaign to get the message in front of customers.

In the first week of the Credit Card going live sales exceeded expectations. The Balance Transfer proposition the product teams had created was the best in the market. The conversion through the online application was well above industry averages and the marketing team was hugely successful in driving awareness, with the Credit Card becoming a ‘recommended buy’ on sites such as

Everything seemed to be going great.

Issues started to arise


However, despite investing significant time on their ‘Front Stage’ at no time had the business stopped to consider how the ‘Back Stage’ would cater for the massive increase in traffic generated as a result of the new card going live.

Within 3 days, the number of applications had far exceeded the back stage teams ability to cope. It transpired that all applications received through the online channel had to be re-keyed into the processing system, a completely manual task. This was fine when volumes were low as the teams had time to react, however faced with such large volumes of applications this process failed.

New applications were taking up to 4 weeks to process, the contact centre was overwhelmed with customers chasing to see whether they had their application accepted and complaints volumes went through the roof. Many applicants started to cancel their applications due to the lengthily delays, queues to get through and poor service.

At that time, the Back Stage started to become the Front Stage. Word of the issues, delays and complaints filtered from customers and into the media causing a whirlwind of bad press causing the sites that had once heralded the launch to retract their recommendations and apologise to their customers.

In total the Card proposition was live for only 6 days before the proposition was abandoned by the company. The company had achieved record sales, but this came at the expense of causing significant damage to both their reputation in the market and to the trust of their customers.

Find out more


If you would like to learn more about Service Design, or discover how adopting a Service Design approach to identifying and resolving some of your customer experience challenges why not get in touch we’d love to have the chance to discuss how we can help improve the experiences you provide to your customers.

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