Employee Empowerment, Service Design and Japanese Lucky Cats

Customer Experience Designer

January 08, 2018

Better products or cheaper production are no longer key to a competitive advantage. We’re in the midst of the revival of a long lost, almost forgotten industry: the service industry. With employees as an important key to provide great service experiences, employee empowerment can take your services to a whole new level.

I have been examining the following hypothesis: If you empower and support employees throughout the design process of a new offering, you have a better chance of creating a viable service offering, which in turn creates a much stronger competitive advantage than any product innovation.
So how does this fit in a rapidly growing technology driven, experience economy? Everyone is always saying disruption, but perhaps we should consider evolution instead of revolution.

Products will always just be, well... Products.

Technology has always supported the production of products — from the plow to the Macintosh. It’s all just products. As globalisation happened, innovation and replication speeded up. One car company creates a fast, small, safe and cheap car, and shortly afterwards, a 98% similar car from another company is launched. And so the wheels of product copying keep turning…

By the millennium, all the beautiful Dieter Rams German-made products were copied and/or produced in China. And today, Ebay and Amazon has completely disrupted the trading barriers between east and west, which means we can buy a Japanese Lucky cat and the newest smartphone in the same shopping basket online. The competitive advantage heralding from product innovation was declining rapidly, but a phoenix rose from the ashes — the service experience economy. Product innovation 2.0 is service innovation.

(Service) Business as usual

Better products or cheaper production is no longer key to a competitive advantage. We’re in the middle of an experience economy, where products wrapped in good services and experiences are the new black. An old proverb reads: “Old wine in new bottles” — what’s happening is the revival of a long lost, almost forgotten industry: the service industry. In Michael Porters strategic work, Service was a supportive element, but today, it is a primary activity in the value chain.

What makes customers choose between two similar offerings? The answer: Providing customers with a coherent service experience throughout their journey - both physical, digital and in contact with employees. Today, a good product won’t get far without the right service, and vice versa.

Customers will always appreciate remarkable service - also at an added cost. But because of the rapid new technological developments over the last three decades, people have been satisfied with new experiences instead of good experiences. Luckily, times have changed and now service is a growing key differentiation mechanism. Quality, reliance and good service are reasons why service design has risen in popularity the last years.

Making service great again

There are many cogs in the machine that makes a service great; Location, timing, value, experience, quality and so forth. One often overlooked key element of a great service experience is the employees. The employees, be that either a call center employee, a banker, a nurse, an office worker, a consultant or a car dealer, are the ones in direct contact with the clients - often as a key point of contact. Unfortunately, they are often neglected. There is much talk of user journeys, user interviews, user insights etc. But there is less focus on the employees. We have an addiction with new technology and features, but we forget the people who make the services work. Therefore, in order to make services great again, I propose a simple methodology to be utilised: Expand the user journey with an additional journey - the employee journey.

This is a simplified fictitious model, but the core idea reveals itself: it shows the impact of the user journey on the employee’s experience and vice versa. There is no business in the world without employees - there is always a human involved. Therefore, it is important to include the focus on the employee journey - a map of the employee experience in touchpoints related to the user journey.
The idea is to utilise service design as the methodology to design employee experiences. But one question remains: how do you design and support a sustainable employee journey? The answer is through empowerment!

Employee empowerment as strategic leverage

With employees as an important key to provide great service experiences, it is quintessential that the employees have a feeling of ownership and engagement. So allow me to propose the following:

Employee engagement * employee ownership = employee empowerment

By creating a feeling of empowerment and providing the employees actual room and power to work, the service experience will be much greater.
The overarching idea is to involve the employees in a much higher degree throughout the process and map their journey, to support a sustainable service offering.
What I’ve found, is that if the employees play a central part in the design process, where their experiences are mapped and designed, it provides a foundation for a longterm sustainable service ecosystem. The key is to empower the employees in both the design process and their daily work, giving them wiggle room to make actual decisions.

We keep talking about AI, robots, automatisation and machine learning - we are not facing the end of human interaction in the service economy, but a change. With automised labour, new challenges arise to design the robots for the right service and so on in circles. From a historical perspective, even with all the technology around us, we humans want to connect with other humans. We are pack animals that wants to live and connect with each other - not machines. And one way of connecting companies with customers is through services.

Final Notes

To try and summarise, a successful implementation of a service design solution should involve a great deal of employee empowerment. This is not only relevant in the design phase, but also as a strategic initiative. Top-down controlled organisations lack the speed and agility you get from empowered employees. This is one way of creating sustainable service offerings, which today, is a key mechanism for differentiation. Afterwards, with the new and empowered employee, we can design the technology to support their work and interaction with customers. After all, technology is just… technology. Humans connect with humans.

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