TM&Th blog
Jean-luc Doumont
A holistically unclear service proposition

A couple of days ago, I received an e-mail invitation to attend
a seminar about “the emergent discipline of Service Design”.
Despite my distrust of capitalized expressions (why not write
service design?), I was intrigued enough to read on. I learned
in this way that “Service Design employs a holistic approach
to assess the demand, offerings, and strategies to deliver
services across multiple touchpoints and channels over time.”
Hmm… well, what is the seminar about? “… the seminar will
demonstrate all the aspects that go into systematic innovation,
proposition development and service delivery — covering
user research, co-creation and empathic techniques, journey
mapping, prototyping, visualisations and service blueprints.”
OK, I confess: even though I understand each word separately,
I just do not seem to get what “Service Design” is all about.

The type of consultant babble above is unfortunately frequent.
Are the consultants behind it actually convinced that phrases
such as “proposition development” and “journey mapping” are
the best way to describe their approach? Or is this yet another
attempt to glorify what are after all time-tested techniques?
In any case, such a writing style exhibits three characteristics
that work against effective, reader-oriented communication:
an overall vagueness, undue neologisms, and overstatements.

Most statements in the e-mail invitation I received this week
and on the Web site of the company that will lead the seminar
are probably correct, but little helpful because of being vague.
For example, one case study on the Web site says: “We worked
with designers to help them develop methodologies to extract
the most valuable and targeted observations from key con-
sumers in key regions.” Any consultants helping their clients
with customer surveys can drop this sentence almost as it is
in pretty much any report. (It reminded me of the Web site
of a communication agency in London. The “clients” section
used to be limited to something like this: “We have done
some pretty cool stuff for several well-known companies.”
No doubt, but could you be slightly more specific about it?)

Closely linked to vague writing is the coining of new phrases
to designate ordinary concepts. Like the conquerors who used
to take possession of a piece of land by having their flag float
over it, consultants and marketing people believe that they can
claim possession of a concept or technique by giving it a name
of their own. Another case study thus explains: “In order to
test and understand the interrelationship between people and
space we involved staff in a process of desktop prototyping.”
Desktop prototyping? Well, they put the new store floor plan
on a desk and used a few chess pieces to represent customers
and staff and, in this way, test the concept (pardon, “facilitate
a critical discussion around roles, responsibilities and behav-
iours”). As another example, “In addition to the human element
of the experience we delivered a practical strategy for the use
of a suite of in store self-help tools that compliment the per-
sonal service provide by staff.” A suite of in store self-help
Do you mean you are going to label the store aisles?
And I suppose you meant complement, not compliment, right?

Finally, and without surprise, much marketing talk is riddled
with overstatements, also known as hype. The intention here
is quite plain, I guess: make a product or service look better
than it really is. Does it work? Well, perhaps… on some people.
On a more critical audience, however, it undermines credibility.
The case study that involved desktop prototyping started thus:
“… With a concept store that significantly expands the existing
retail space, they are offering passengers an innovative journey
between airport security and the departures gate. In order to
deliver this unique experience in a manner that will consis-
tently delight customers, they turned to <name> to help them
define a clear service proposition, underpinned by revised staff
roles, behaviours and responsibilities.” Innovative journey?
Unique experience? Consistently delight customers? All of this
at an airport store? I must definitely be the wrong audience…
(Admittedly, a word's connotations depend partly on culture.
I remember a US manager at Levi Strauss Europe who was just
so disappointed because his manager had said that the report
we had been working on “looks good”. What's wrong with that?
“Well”, the manager explained, “he didn't say great, did he?”
Other Europeans and I had to explain that good means good.)

If vagueness, neologisms, and hype are the way to sell services,
then we at Principiæ must seriously revise our marketing texts.
Take our training programs on effective written documents,
for example. We keep telling our prospects that our approach
builds on active learning (group discussion, homework, etc.)
around sample documents sent in advance by the participants.
The objective? For them to be able to get the message across
to the readers who matter. And what is it that the participants
like best about the program? The focus on structure, especially
the proposed structure for the abstract or executive summary.
I realize now how mundane it all sounds. What we are doing,
really, is deploy various co-creation and empathic techniques
to both facilitate a critical discussion around the writer's roles,
responsibilities, and behaviors, and involve all the participants
in a process of word-processing prototyping of documents,
in order for them to be able in the end to consistently delight
their key stakeholders with an innovative reading experience.
Participants love our journey-mapping approach to documents,
especially the unique executive summary blueprint proposition
delivered as part of our suite of in-book self-help tools.  ;–)

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