Mary Jo Bitner, Edward M. Carson Chair in Service Marketing at Arizona State University, published a paper in 1992 called, “Servicescapes: The Impact of Physical Surroundings on Customers and Employees. We’re reading this text in our Service Design class to get a perspective on the physical aspects of service design. By “servicescapes,” Bitner is referring to manmade, built environments in which services take place, and she’s interested in their effect on the people involved in the service rendered—both the employee and the customer. Bitner states that, “The relative level of involvement of customers and employees determines whose needs should be consulted in the design of the environment.” I’m not so sure, though. I think that in complex services the needs of the ultimate user—the customer—should be considered even in physical environments they will never encounter.
Where are these places customers never see? Not all services are the same, and it follows that the accompanying servicescapes would be different as well. Bitner creates a framework that separates services by the type of servicescape they operate in. Categories of service are self-service, interpersonal service, and remote service, and these categories create a spectrum of the type of people affected by their servicescapes. Bitner shows that the physical environment of self-service businesses affect customers, while the servicescape of interpersonal services affect both customers and employees, and the environment of remote services, such as a “telephone company” affect only employees. The framework looks like this (I’ve highlighted remote services in gray to focus on this section):
Is it true though, that the physical environment of a service workspace only affects the people directly engaged in the space? I looked particularly at Bitner’s example of the telephone company as a servicescape that affects employees-only. In 1992, when this article was written, telephone companies were mostly concerned with telephones. People mostly had landlines. Cell phones were starting to take off. In the 2000s, cell phones became computers, with data plans and increased complexity. In researching the progression of telephones, I looked at the AT&T site for history of the company. It describes the change for AT&T as “evolving from a long distance company to an integrated voice and data communications company, as an ever increasing percentage of the traffic on its network was data, and to a lesser extent, video, rather than voice.” The websites goes on to say they then launched an Internet service. Not only is the product more complex, but the company becomes more complex as well. There are multiple offerings, and multiple expertises needed to run those offerings. The site goes on to explain that in 2000, “AT&T had three rapidly evolving networks—data, broadband and wireless, and four separate businesses—cable, wireless, business, and consumer.” That array of offerings seems vastly more complicated than what the company started with.
I never worked for a telephone company and can’t speak at all to AT&T’s practices, but one outcome I have seen in instances where businesses face increased complexity is siloed work practices. When there are departments within a business, each has their own goals to meet, and sometimes those goals are in conflict. It’s a small step from grouping employees into departments to physically changing the workspace to make departments more “productive.” Desks get grouped together, war rooms emerge, floors are re-arranged. None of that is necessarily wrong, but it may have unintended consequences. The resulting touchpoints (again, thinking about “telephone companies”) that a customer faces, such as physical stores and a website, etc., may end up the unintended victims of disjointedness within the company. For example, on a “telephone company” website, if different departments are running different portions of the site, or using different advertising agencies to help create the look and content, it’s difficult without extreme, overarching organization to make the site cohesive and simple for the customer. Customers may even come to a point where they need to log in multiple times to navigate between services represented on the website.
Bitner groups servicescape effects loosely into two categories: organizational goals and marketing goals. Organizational goals, such as productivity, motivation, or employee satisfaction, may be the outcome of changing the physical workspace with employee needs in mind. Marketing goals, such as customer satisfaction and attraction, are affected by the impact of servicescapes on customers. But in terms of organizational goals, how can you define employee “productivity” without taking the customer into account? Outside of a monopoly where customers can’t leave, what is “productivity” if it doesn’t involve customer happiness with the service?
With increased complexity of service offerings, it’s difficult to think of a servicescape that just affects the employee. Bitner’s framework for the effect of servicescapes on employees and customers involved in remote services might be updated to look like the diagram below. Note the conflicting goals of employees and the breakdown a customer faces because of it. Depending on the number of departments and conflicting interests, conflicts like this could multiply accordingly.
A feedback loop from the customer, which affects the business practices of a remote company (including the physical servicescape in which the service is conducted) can mitigate the breakdowns that result from complexity. The diagram below represents what that might look like. In conclusion, even in servicescapes the customer will never encounter, user-centered design—with the broadest definition of “users” who are not even physically present—plays an important role in meeting both organizational and marketing objectives.