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A Nation of Whiners: The Implications of a Service Economy

Wednesday, June 13th, 2012 | Posted by Jon Kolko

In the past three days, I’ve had three negative interactions with the service economy. Chase put a block on my credit card, resulting in a trying visit to Mexico. I got fed up with AT&T spamming me with promotions for U-Verse, and I complained via twitter. And a TSA agent dropped my camera after I opted out of a naked scanner at the Austin airport.

In reflecting on these interactions, and my reactions to them, I’m beginning to wonder if I, along with most of the country, am embracing an expectant and entitled perspective about service. It’s been 80 years since Harry Gordon Selfridge said “The customer is always right”, and we’ve always just assumed it to be true. But I watch people pick fights with companies in front of the world via twitter with increased prevalence. I too realize the success of and continue to exploit the “public shaming” quality of a twitter-based service escalation. The entire meme of “first world problems” resonates only because we rationalize how inconsequential these problems actually are, yet we continue to vocalize them, complain about them, and make demands for more, better, faster. Although I can’t believe I agree with Phil Gramm about anything, it does appear that we’re becoming a nation of whiners, and the whining is mostly related to misaligned expectations. Either companies aren’t providing a high enough level of service, or our expectations are set too high. I believe both are true.

What is Service Design?

While service design is only just beginning to gain traction in the United States, Europeans have discussed and practiced this form of system design for years. It makes sense, given that the service histories of the US and Europe differ. It’s a difficult profession to understand without an example, so here’s one that’s fairly obvious: imagine the service offering of McDonalds unfolding before you on a large stage. You are in the audience, and it’s an audience of one. On stage before you, things happen: someone approaches and welcomes you, takes your order, asks for your money, gives you change, and then gives you your food. Behind the curtain, other things are happening that you can’t see. Someone receives the order. Someone makes the food. Someone receives a delivery. And so-on. What makes service design unique, though, is that – unlike a passive observer at a play – you are an active participant. You do things, feel certain ways, and react to interactions. You don’t like onions, so you ask them to hold the onions. You are curious about how much fat is in the burger. You ask where the restroom is located. When the cashier sneezes into her hands, and then turns around to grab your order, you change your mind and leave in disgust. Simply, you have autonomy: you do things, most of which are predictable, and some of which aren’t. And, the various employees have autonomy, too, meaning they may or may not follow the policies, procedures, and rules put in place by the larger corporation.

Now, extend the stage idea beyond the confines of the restaurant. Consider all of the other places you encounter the McDonalds brand. They have many stores. Some of a drive-through. Others have a children’s play area.  They have advertisements. They offer coupons. They sponsor charity events. They respond to public policy. They lobby. And so on. Each place you find the brand affords an opportunity for interactions with the brand. And each time you interact with the brand, you are finding yourself in the midst of service design: a large-scale type of interaction design.

Service Expectations

Service design is usually manifested in a design strategy as a service design blueprint: a visual illustration of the stage metaphor, showing the various touchpoints between a company and a customer. It describes the expectations of normal behavior between the customer and service employees, products, supporting artifacts, environments, websites, and so-on. And a good service design blueprint appropriately recognizes autonomy: the ability for both the employee and the customer to act in ways that aren’t “designed.”

If an employee is provided a rigid script, and not allowed to deviate from the script under threat of reprimand or termination, a company can try to maintain “brand integrity” for predictable customer interactions, but will fail miserably at cases outside the norm. Evidence this failure with my recent call-center rep at Chase who simply wouldn’t let me talk to a supervisor before getting my name and social security number. That’s the policy, and she’s literally not allowed to deviate from the script (her computer screen may, in fact, not let her past those questions without answering them). It doesn’t matter how irate a customer is; rules are rules.

But the reality is that a “predictable customer interaction” is a fallacy. There’s no such thing. Each interaction with a customer is unique, as experiences are always unique: an experience literally doesn’t exist until it is “had” by a person, and the “having” of the experience changes it as it shapes it. An experience is active, and it depends on more than just rigid utility: it depends on action, expectation, and emotion. The differences between service experiences may be (and usually is) trivial, particularly in the case of an industrialized process (like fast food or air travel). But it is the non-trivial differences that are critical: the extremely good, or more frequently, the extremely bad experiences that people have are the ones that spread, because these are the experiences we remember. I can’t tell you any stories about 99% of the cab rides I’ve had in foreign countries, but I can remember excruciating details about the ride in Monterrey where a woman threw a large rock at our cab. I’ve gone to Starbucks hundreds of times, but don’t recall any rich details about my experiences – except when my friend Matt dropped his coffee in a messy explosion, resulting in the Starbucks machine grinding to a temporary halt. And I don’t just remember these deviant cases. I tell people about them, because stories are human, and because bad experiences make good stories.

Empowerment and Publicity

When you reflect on service design, you quickly come to a topic of organizational behavior and company culture. Because a service design blueprint assumes autonomy, it must also assume some ethical, philosophical, or moral stance of employees. If you want your employees to react to situations in a certain way, you can tell them explicitly what to do, or you can provide them a framework in which to act on their own volition. The former results in a large group of people having banal experiences, and a small group of people having vivid and problematic experiences that they are likely to share with their friends. The latter results in people having extremely varied experiences, which may serve to “dilute the brand consistency” – a perceived travesty for large companies.

But in both cases, negative interactions with your products and employees will find their way into the internet. I’m concerned that, as our nation continues to transition to become almost entirely a service economy, the implications of poor service and expectant consumers will result in a nearly impossible emotional rift. What’s more, I don’t think the brands that are transforming (or have already transformed) from product companies to service and software companies have the necessary skills and attitude to embrace the level of service necessary to satisfy our demands. A service-design mindset is useful because it acknowledges the freedom for people to act like people – emotional, idiosyncratic, and irrational people.

But service design doesn’t do anything to stop the whining, and to be honest, I’m not sure most companies are willing to deal with the increased entitlement of Americans. Immediately after opting out of the naked scanner at the airport for the hundredth time, watching a TSA agent drop my camera, and doing my best not to scream obscenities at her lest I get arrested, I had a tremendous urge to tweet about what happened. My almost automatic response to poor service was to let the world know about it, as if this public shaming of an organization would somehow make things right, undo the experience, or make me feel better. And in that action – that public tweeting of a poor experience – comes a lose/lose scenario.

For if the company doesn’t respond adequately to my problem, it serves to reinforce the rift between customer and service provider, and it does so in an awkward, public forum. AT&T publicly responded to my tweet about their U-Verse spam by asking me to opt-out: “Sorry you keep getting these.” When I asked why they sent me more than one, they ignored me. If you look at @americanairlines after they screw up a flight, you’ll see tweet after tweet offering a thin and insincere apology to everyone on the plane who complained. It’s like a five year old, ordered to apologize, who is clearly waiting for his chance to get even.

But if the company does respond adequately to my problem – if, for example, TSA offered me a public and clearly sincere apology for slamming my camera down, or for stripping me of my dignity with a pat-down each time I fly, or for being generally obnoxious, the result is even worse. Because by responding to my public complaining in a meaningful way, they serve to reinforce the idea that whining gets results. I write to United about an uncomfortable flight, and they send me a $100 certificate for another flight. Publicly tweet about poor service at Starbucks? Here’s a coupon for a free latte.

I can only think of one way out of the trap, other than ignoring customer entirely (and that’s clearly not a good approach). The one way to avoid this public lose/lose is to provide high quality service every single time, and never get in a situation where your customers are upset. I’m not sure that’s possible, particularly in complex system environments like air travel. But I know it’s not possible when you pay service employees low wages, no benefits, and no long-term opportunities for growth or collaborative ownership; or when you mandate a mindless assembly-line approach to service, where each employee has no potential for pride in their work; or when you enforce demeaning and demoralizing job scripts, uniforms, routines, and practices; or when you add arbitrary audits, checks, and evaluations to enforce equally arbitrary quantitative metrics and production goals.

If we’re to survive the coming service apocalypse, we’ll need to empower service employees to act with dignity and integrity.  It seems like, simultaneously, we’ll need to find the same sense of integrity in ourselves. It starts with less whining.

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