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Launching service revolution

Over the last decade, new technological disciplines and processes have revolutionized manufacturing. Can similar techniques transform ...

By Marc D. Silvester and Mohi U. Ahmed 01 June 2008

Over the last decade, new technological disciplines and processes have revolutionized manufacturing. Can similar techniques transform the service industry? Marc Silvester and Mohi Ahmed advocate new principles for a service revolution.
Launching service revolutionThink about today: perhaps you were at the supermarket, the post office, a restaurant, a bar, a garage, a hotel, a taxi, a bus. Perhaps you had an interchange with someone on the telephone. Take a moment to think about the service you received today. Think about how many service experiences you have had in the last 24 hours. Now, weave into your thoughts any online purchases or interactions with businesses. Add in your impressions of any queries to help lines. Now, with all those thoughts on the forefront of your mind, consider the extent to which interacting with the service industry is both inescapable and incredibly important to the quality of our lives. Now, think of what matters to you when you consider being served.

Strangely, when you ask people what they value in terms of service, there is almost universal agreement. Whether in an airport or a retail store, at a bank counter or the queue to a customer service centre, service is at its best when the technologies behind it are unobtrusive – when it efficiently delivers exactly what customers want, when they want it. This concept applies even when you think about services provided within large corporations, by one department or function serving another. For example, many chief executives and chief information officers have told us that they don’t want to see information technology (IT), they just want their computers to work. When services are provided as flawlessly as possible, those being served can focus on enjoying their travel, shopping, banking (or operating their own business) without the fret and fury that arise when getting good service becomes a challenge.


Now you see it, now you…


Service is superb when you can savour what it does and appreciate its benefits without getting wrapped up in the mechanisms that provide it. Imagine what it would be like if you went to the airport car rental counter and the person behind the counter asked you to come around and help him with interpreting his computer screen. Or what if the rental agent asked you to help add fuel to the car or do a quick wash before you take the keys and drive to your destination? Sure, that’s all a can’t-happen stretch, but the point is that service is best when you do not need to unnecessarily understand how technology and processes behind the service works.

Indeed, what goes on behind the scenes of great service is typically invisible – and it’s better that way. When you turn on your PC, for example, you do so in the firm belief that the document you created last week (or last year, for that matter) will still be there. The benefit is clear and the service subconsciously appreciated. Happily, there is no need to have an in-depth knowledge of how the PC achieves this remarkable feat. The same applies to myriad other services. On this, most people agree. The trouble is that this often is not the kind of service that most people receive.

To fully understand why this happens and how it can be changed, we need to go back to the first principles of service. For an age in which many of our service experiences have an element of technology, we need to redefine the state of the service art.

Principle #1: Service is about people Service is delivered by people to people. Some truths are selfevident. First and always, service is about people. There was a time, before modern technology, when service was the human part of commerce. Good service was taken for granted as part of buying a product. This has fallen by the wayside in many organizations, but great service is resolutely and inspirationally about maximizing the power of people to provide customers with great experiences.

Principle #2: Service is optimized by technology and processes Indeed, service is now often a story of people, technology and processes working in unison. Service must, as a result, uses the appropriate technology to help deliver personal, cost-effective and reliable service. This is not always the case. Think of call centres. For billing, press 1… for tracking, press 2… to place a new order, press… When you’re offered the chance to “press 9”, most people’s patience wears thin. Overuse of technology, by failing to understand or prioritize on the customers’ experience, often produces service that drives away customers.

The call centre also demonstrates how service can produce a totally unhappy experience. With a traditional call centre, the experience for the customer is impersonal and often inexpert. Problem calls are received, and the service organization merely manages the flow of that call as it wends its way along the virtual corridors of the organization. Success is too often measured by the efficient management of the call (call duration, number of rings to answer and so on), not by whether the customer’s problem has been resolved. This is avoidable. By empowering call centre agents, many customers’ problems can be more easily resolved. By providing the agents the tools and capabilities they need to understand what is important to the customer, truly excellent service can be provided.

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