Delivering Great Services: Merge the best of people and technology (Part I)


In the last few decades of service design we’ve gone from one extreme (people serving people without computers – *engaged tone*), through an intermediate stage (people serving people with computers – “Sorry, the system’s down at the moment”) to another extreme (computers serving people without people – “Error. Invalid service request.” or the exasperated frustration of millions in front of their computer screens).

This is often hailed as progress – yet services today are just as frustrating to deal with and customer satisfaction is poor. Everyone has their own computerised service nightmare story.

Why is this? It’s because in our haste to believe that technology would solve all our problems, we’ve misunderstood how services work and jumped straight to the wrong solution.


What's the problem?

People are obsessed with standardising service delivery work.

It is as if prescribing the exact methods, their precise order and generating a hefty volume of paper and process diagrams somehow means something useful has been accomplished.

This enormous exercise in waste (time, money and paper) appeals to the seductive idea that if only we could simplify the world into a few basic rules, everyone’s lives would be so much easier.

This is all utter nonsense and it has to stop.

Misguided consultants that think what works for manufacturing must also work for services have a lot to answer for. There’s no neat production line in a service organisation. Trying to create one is to try and bend the world into a different shape. Millions are wasted every day in pointless efforts.

To make a service fit customers well you need to provide a single person making sense of all their needs and circumstances.

Providing a service means dealing with people. People are fuzzy, messy and don’t conform to simplified stereotypes.

Everyone is their own unique mix of connected needs and circumstances. To make a service fit customers well you need to provide a single person making sense of all their needs and circumstances. Then they adapt the service to best fit whilst shielding the customer from complexity and implementation detail.

It’s not the same with commodities – with commodities you already know what you are getting. That’s why buying from Amazon just works. You look for what you want. Once you’ve found it, you buy it. It’s the exact same product for millions of people. Simples. Done.

There’s no neat production line in a service organisation. Trying to create one is to try and bend the world into a different shape.

While computers and websites can appear convenient for complete service delivery, they are more often than not extremely frustrating because economics dictates that they be limited, computer-shaped and only offer a few simplified choices. Automating complexity is too expensive or just not possible. So they unhappily force the service user into one of these pie-in-the-sky happy-clappy-clunky standardised service flows.

As I mentioned in Bringing the Citizen back into Digital Service Design this is the path to unhappy customers, unhappy service delivery staff, poor reputation and high costs.

Nobody wants that. So what do we instead?

What's the solution?


We recognise:


Service delivery staff are not robots; they are people who can be creative, improvise, handle complexity, take initiative and solve problems

Full automation of non-trivial services is hugely expensive, usually fails to a significant degree and/or massively over-runs on budget and timescale

Computers are great at automating simple tasks, repeating the same tasks and terrible at improvisation and handling complexity

Which leads us inevitably to these conclusions:


Maximising return on investment means taking full advantage of service delivery staff skills

This means re-engineering their work so that they can take responsibility, ditch scripts, gain freedom and deliver more

Work like this is a lot more enjoyable and productive, raising staff morale

It also leads to a much better service, improving reputation and significantly lowering service failure costs

Staff doing more means less that computers do, so we can reduce IT budgets, costs and timescales

Technology is designed differently: we no longer aim to automate everything the customer might need to do; instead we look at providing a flexible expert toolbox for operational service delivery staff

Customer-facing technology is kept simple, largely informational and limited to truly simple service needs

This is the path to services that are low cost, highly effective and enjoyable both to deliver and receive.


If you’re working somewhere with wrong-headed service design thinking, I encourage you to find a way to challenge it. It’s amazing in how many workplaces people simply keep repeating the same approaches that are known not to work.

A good place to start is to gather some factual evidence: What’s the real nature of the service enquiries you get? How many are simple and how many are complex? Are there any repeating patterns? And how well does your current service design match up to this demand?

Gathering data like this will provide a powerful argument for change.

In Part II, we’ll use the example of a Retail Banking Service provider to explore implementation in more detail and what the customer experience can be like if we follow this thinking.

In Part III, we’ll look at a day in the life of operational staff delivering one of these great services and the implications up the management chain.

Until then, good luck starting to shake up the service design thinking in your workplace.

Posted in Demand, Engagement, Ownership, Processes, Public Sector, Service Design, Trust.

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