Service innovation lost in the wild

I find shopping for shoes notoriously difficult. I only tend to buy them when old pairs are falling apart. I generally prefer something not too flashy, not too high, not too sparkly, and not too expensive. Imelda Marcos I am not.

Walking past a shoe shop in the centre of Melbourne, I saw something sufficiently plain and moderately priced. It fit, so I bought it. The sales assistant put through the sale and handed me my bag of shoes. I walked home across the city.

That looks cool…

When I got home, I opened up the bag to have another look at the shoes. When I pulled the shoe box out of the bag I saw something a bit unusual:

Shoe box

There was some sort of elastic band sitting on the top of the box. Intrigued, I opened it up to see what was going on. Inside, I found a statement from the shoe company regarding their efforts towards conservation:

This unique shoe box has been designed to minimise the need for shopping bags and thus, help the environment! We care about the environment and are implementing new strategies to help preserve it as best we can for future generations.

Shoe box

I thought that was pretty cool – a company making a concrete effort to innovate on the periphery of their core line of business. Personally, I can’t remember seeing anything particularly new around shoe packaging since…well, forever! Not only had the shoe company taken steps to reduce its impact on the environment, but the elastic was a cool way to make their service a bit more memorable.

Shoe box

So what’s the problem?

So, you might be wondering where I am going with the service design angle?

Well, it was only when I got home that I saw that shoe box has the elastic handles – the whole point of the service innovation had been lost. In this case the shoe company had not been able to “minimise the need for shopping bags”, as they had claimed they do – I had come home with yet another shopping bag, and only discovered their service innovation out of my own curiosity.

I interpret this as a service design disconnect. The shoe company, an Australian family company, is a successful one. The company’s website says that the business was founded on the principle that customers should be satisfied with the service provided (incidentally, there is no mention of the shoe box innovation on their website). The management of the company has taken a positive decision to be more environmentally conscious, and although the physical manifestation of this decision – the shoe box – has been implemented, the communication around it is lacking.

Service delivery on the front line

The service innovation has been ‘lost in the wild’ – that is, the employees on the front line have not delivered on the promise made by the company. No matter what decisions are taken at management level, unless the front line service staff deliver them as they were intended to be delivered, the service offering may as well not exist.

I guess that this service disconnect has occurred for one of the following reasons:

  1. The sales assistant forgot that the new boxes don’t require bags
  2. The sales assistant was under too much time pressure to point out the features of the new box (not true in this instance – I was the only customer)
  3. The sales assistant had not been made aware of the innovative boxes
  4. The sales assistant did not like the new boxes (the elastic was kind of hard to get around the box the first time I tried) and so did not use them properly

If the sales assistant forgot to explain about the new boxes, that’s unfortunate, but then we’re only human, so it can be excused every now and then. But if any of the other three reasons are true, then there is an issue. It makes me think that the change to the new boxes has not been properly designed and/or communicated.

In a perfect world…

In a perfect ’service-designed’ world, this change to the service surrounding the purchase of shoes should have been designed with input from the customers (of course!) and all parts of the business, including the sales assistants. The new boxes would have been prototyped and tested in all sorts of service environments. The sales assistants would have understood the reason for the change, and hopefully be ‘on board’ with the new direction.

The bottom line is that without the buy-in of customer-facing employees, this shoe company has missed an opportunity to capitalise on this valuable touchpoint with service innovation.

What about you?

Can you think of any other reasons why the sales assistants might not have used the cool new boxes as they were intended? Have you noticed other good-intentioned service providers fall short at the final, customer-facing hurdle? Tell me about it in the comments!

customer service, service design

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