When it comes to explaining service design, you’ll often find this analogy by 31 Volts Service Design: “When you have two coffee shops right next to each other, and each sells the exact same coffee at the exact same price, service design is what makes you walk into one and not the other.”

At its core, service design seeks to deeply understand the habits, motivations, social context, and the environment in which service experiences take place. What’s interesting is that even at the earliest efforts to formalize the discipline – and prior to the web – practitioners and academics advocated that marketers should embrace a renewed treatment of all touchpoints as service-like. It’s not so much that the service design brought the customer into the coffee shop, but incorporating the service experience into the entirety of the brand experience.

Fast forward to today and that same argument holds weight, perhaps even more so. Marketing’s primary role is to identify customers and create value for both the organization and customers. And as the distance between marketing communications and commerce decreases, the more important the understanding of how value is created between people and people, people and platforms, and people and organizations. In a sense, the known environment in which a brand now exists has become flattened – an amalgamation of digital, physical, and service touchpoints. Customers can quickly toggle between social content to shopping cart or from customer service to a brand community, creating new opportunities to create value and distinction.

The expansion of these many brand interactions – from the perspective of the customer – has evolved to be described as service-like. This presents an opportunity for marketers to develop a framework to align the interrelationship between each touchpoint and define how value creation leads to brand outcomes. Thus, an argument could be made that the basic principles of service design should – more than ever – be used from the underpinnings of this framework.

To get there, let’s first define service design.

Service-design thinking

Service design helps weave together the many experiences customers have with a brand to create an ongoing relationship. The goal is to enhance customer experiences, employee satisfaction, and the integration of technology and platforms to support these relationships. Rooted in the social sciences, marketing and service design are both concerned with value creation, thus should be viewed as interrelated. Marketing defines who the customer is and the relationship between business and customer, while service design “brings shape and form” to the marketing channels used.

As early as the 1970s, practitioners and academics argued for a breakdown in the conventional distinction between products and services. In fact, in Evolving to a New Dominant Logic for Marketing, both authors argued for a service-dominant logic, recognizing the importance of always viewing the customer as a co-producer and that value is now built when they are involved throughout the entire value and service chain.

The authors wrote: “A service-centered perspective disposes of the limitations of thinking of marketing in terms of goods taken to the market, and it points to opportunities to expand the market by assisting the consumer in the process of specialization and value creation.”

A more modern view has evolved to suggest that everything is a service – that every additional touchpoint is simply an added layer of service. Or, as Peter Dunn argued in Brand New Brand Thinking, “this position makes the job of the modern brand manager more difficult as layers of service experiences are created.”

So, as brand environments continue to expand, the opportunity arises for deficiencies and gaps in the customer experience. From a brand perspective, this means that no matter how much is spent communicating a brand promise, if the customer experience doesn’t align the opportunity for marketing to reinforce value, position or brand perception can be lost.

Recognizing these shifts in customer experience and the rise of digital-first brand building, service design presents a renewed logic to align the many touchpoints that encompass integrated multichannel marketing efforts. Just as a brand strategy acts as a bridge between an organization’s mission and marketing and branding, service design helps to bridge (or translate) these many experiences into brand outcomes.

One worthy service design tool to help is “AT-ONE”. Primarily used to improve service innovation, AT-ONE combines business, design, and research perspectives into a plan for combining various service elements into a customer-centric plan or process. It can also be an effective tool for aligning each touchpoint in the customer experience and defining how value creation leads to brand outcomes.

A: Actors

As the customer experience has become an interrelated series of service and brand touchpoints, creating value should be viewed as a collaboration, creating a value network. In Service Design Thinking, the authors advocate for the strategic goal to shift to creating an “ever-improving fit between the network’s competencies and its customers…[placing] the customer at the center of the network and to consider how a different actor set can give improved value.”

Instead of defining the customer in relation to the brand, brand outcomes can be improved by defining the customer in relation to people and platforms, creating a network of interactions with different customer segments at the center. This map will allow brand managers to get a better sense of all the interactions that take place and how expansive a given customer’s network may be.

T: Touchpoints

And just as marketers look for the most impactful channel at the most impactful moment to communicate, service designers establish the most relevant touchpoints and look for opportunities to innovate at the most impactful touchpoints. So, as each network is being mapped, weak touchpoints can be identified as well as “hubs” in each network. These “hubs” often overlap in either human-to-human interactions or service platforms (i.e., banking app) and are more than likely opportunities to coordinate customer experience and brand message. These focal points should provide a blueprint for strengthening this ecosystem as well as creating a common language for improvements and innovation.

O: Offering

In service design, there is an implicit link between service experience and brand perception. As it relates to service design, the goal of this part of the tool is to understand how customers experience a service at a functional and emotional level.

In driving brand outcomes for marketers, an emphasis should be placed on uncovering the functional and emotional response at these “hubs”. Next, identify the ways the brand offering – from a product or promise perspective – plays a direct role in driving key responses. Similarly, weak hubs or deficient responses should be identified and realigned on key brand and customer experience offerings. Finally, create an assessment to measure the combination of brand and customer experience’s effect on desired responses.

N: Needs

Understanding customers’ need-states shouldn’t be a new concept to either marketers or service designers. A customer’s jobs-to-be-done can help to establish how the combination of touchpoint and marketing can be leveraged to reinforce desired responses throughout the customer journey. For example, if a desired response is successfully driven by a service touchpoint, how can brand communications reinforce the feelings and emotions around that desired response?

E: Experiences

Experience is the final component of the service design tool and rightfully so. Not only are customers seeking to have emotional connections and experiences but experiences have the ability to strategically reinforce a brand position. To reinforce the strength of its algorithms and a user’s connection to the app, Spotify creates an end-of-the-year experience. “Wrapped” is an in-app, personalized experience, users are treated to surprisingly interactive experiences that, in a sense, define one’s year-in-listening. Whether it brings back fond memories or highlights a new artist uncovered by Spotify, “Wrapped” reinforces the functional benefits and emotional benefits of the platform. Not only does this strengthen brand outcomes from an experience perspective, but Spotify uses ad campaigns to reinforce the in-app experience.

So much of what service design seeks to improve forms the underpinning of how customers experience a brand. As the many ways in which customers experience a brand continue to expand, developing a unified approach to manage each touchpoint and align each interaction with a brand’s integrated multichannel marketing efforts should only help to strengthen brand outcomes. Service-design thinking provides a unique lens for brand managers to develop this approach, provide a common language, strategic alignment, and method to measure and improve.

Cover image source: 愚木混株 cdd20