Written by Richard Hawker, Jeff Melton, & James Wright
Customer interactions ranging from the ordinary, in-moment (“Alexa, order me a pizza”) to the life-changing (“Will my health insurance cover this procedure?”) share a common trait: Their success hinges on excellent design. And the discipline of design, while not new to business, has ascended as more companies shift from transactional product sales to ongoing services, with the goal of creating longer relationships with customers.
In the experience economy, customers’ expectations for what constitutes an acceptable―or even exceptional―experience keep rising. Customers expect an easy, highly personal experience from their vendors, accessible in multiple channels, but increasingly centered on the smartphone. Management teams are under pressure to deliver at ever-decreasing costs and at a pace that matches these expectations
1. Put the customer “episode” front and center
From the customer’s perspective, the value of an experience goes well beyond the functional benefits of a given product. Customers often find value in the emotional elements of an offering, such as the ability to make connections or get organized. Human-centered design furthers these potent elements, and a growing number of firms have found the most authentic and practical design unit to be the customer episode. An episode consists of all the activities that the customer and the provider perform to fulfill the customer’s need. Episodes range from simple interactions (“I need to change my password”) to multistep, multiparty endeavors (“I need to move broadband to my new place”).
Some leading firms approach large-scale design efforts by creating a clear taxonomy of episodes, determining how they fit together and what people, capabilities and systems need to be joined up within each episode. For example, a North American retail bank now organizes its departments according to major episodes and runs design improvement projects through Agile sprints that systematically test and refine episode features. One cross-functional team refined the “I want to transfer my balance” episode, generating a tenfold increase in the overall response rate and volume of customers, increasing revenues by $20 million per year.
2. Design to cover your performers and your economics
The best design devotes ample attention to employees, contractors and partners who will actually deliver the experience. Giving each of these performers the right tools, and removing barriers in their way, goes a long way toward raising their motivation and the quality of the experience.
An Asian energy retailer recently designed a new electricity product incorporating several innovative features. The company realized that the product’s success depended on redesigning how contact-center agents would field customers’ questions about product features. During the design effort, the episode team created separate online interfaces for agents that mirrored the look and feel of what the customer saw, so that it was simpler for agents to take customers through the features. These agents also joined the design team from the start to ensure that designs made it easy and desirable for this group to sell and serve the new product.
Executing an episode also affects costs, yet designers largely ignore the economics of an episode, or at best relegate them to another group of people for post-design execution. That’s a mistake. Economic imperatives create a constraint that can serve as fuel for better designs.
3. Design for onstage and backstage
Design obviously covers what customers see, hear and touch. Besides these onstage parts of the experience, companies must also design the backstage work—the processes, policies, capabilities and systems required to deliver a great overall experience reliably and at scale. The trick is to simultaneously design onstage and backstage elements so that customer and economic outcomes remain both ambitious and achievable.
Work design is where operational gremlins reveal themselves. Well-intended managers might focus narrowly on performance metrics, without noticing the effect on the experience. For example, building in delays between steps for end-of-day batch processing might be an efficient way to increase throughput, but it will inadvertently create a buffer that conceals failure, such as a defective service or data errors. That, in turn, makes it difficult to find and fix root causes. By designing out sources of waste, such as oversupply of labor, backstage operations can run at the pace and error tolerance expected by customers.
4. Adapt the organization to support the new design
Before performers and systems can deliver an exceptional service experience, their organization itself may itself need to be redesigned.
Consider the common case of a company launching a self-service app for general information queries, which would steer more complicated inquiries to qualified call agents. This has organizational implications: On one hand, fewer agents will be needed as more customers use the app. On the other hand, agents will need higher skills as the remaining calls now include a greater share of difficult inquiries. These changes entail a redesign of call-routing technology, call queue architecture, performer role types, performance metrics and agent training. The company should address and execute these design imperatives before the service goes live.
Questions for managers
Before starting the design process, senior managers can answer a useful set of questions:
- Have we spelled out an ambition that cascades to customer, performer and economic outcomes?
- Do we have an episode “game board” that outlines the full design scope by customer segment, product group and episode?
- How do we perform on each episode, and what standards do we aspire to?
- What key capabilities should underpin new designs?
- What taxonomy translates the challenge into design units and prioritizes by size of opportunity?
Clear-eyed answers to these questions form the basis for designing remarkable customer episodes with better economics.
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