Improving customer service will rescue a failing service, some argue. Not true. Even though this notion fuels an entire industry around customer service, it is not based on solid ground.

Friendliness, responsiveness . . . are all problems for HR, not designers.

Meantime, all service problems occur from the perspective of a user. For some service providers, that’s a hard concept to work with.

But consider this anecdote: a mid-level consultant at management consulting firm, failed to advance after years watching his peers rise above him. He came to believe his stagnating career was due to others, including direct reports who didn’t endorse a promotion. He just refused to see that he was the problem. Whether it was the quality of his work, or his attitude, who knows, but those were things he could have improved. Even with performance review feedback, he simply couldn’t recognize that he was at fault. Consequently, he retired many years later from the same role.

A positive service experience is the goal of service designers. A successful service leads to a satisfactory outcome, or better yet, the entire service experience is satisfactory.

A successful service is typified by service provider staff who understand their functional roles, functioning technology that serves as the backbone to the service, and process that ensures reliability.

The cause of Service failure is due to:

  1. A service fails to meet user needs and expectations: Once users become aware of the service, they have decided not to participate, or worse, they bail before the service experience concludes.
  2. A service fails to achieve the service provider’s objective(s): In the world of design, failure is when a program or service falls short of the organization’s intended outcome, when it draws too many resources, and, cannot achieve self-sustainment.

Many of us would like to avoid licensing bureaus, but they are critical public services. Despite the public’s grumbling about their experiences waiting in line and rude bureaucrats, the services are mostly ‘quality,’ due to mutually achieved outcomes.

At the Katz deli in New York City, there are times when customers are lined up to get in. And then when it’s their turn to be served, and they can’t decide, they are thrown out. Why? If a customer can’t make up their mind by the time they order, they are taking time away from the restaurant serving others. Bad customer service?  Sure. Does that hurt business? Not at all.

Quality services don’t fail due to poor customer service.

Recognizing Signs of Failure 

1. Users are confused about the purpose and ultimate benefit from using a service.

Root Cause: Communications. The service outcome and expectations have been poorly communicated and remain unclear among users.


  • Seek user feedback to learn of miscommunication.
  • Somewhere along the journey, touochpoints are failing to properly inform. Revise the touchpoints to eliminate misleading inputs.
  • Better prepare functional staff at the front stage, where they interact with users, who themselves may lack information to assist the journey.
  1. Users become frustrated as a service unfolds, or are dissatisfied with the outcome.

Root Cause: The experience doesn’t match expectations. That could be caused by technology malfunctions, or due to staff who are unaware of their roles and responsibilities.

  • Evaluate touchpoint communications, to determine messages conveyed and if they are suitable for informing users.
  • Ensure staff understand the purpose of their role and how it ties to the user outcome. They must realize how the sum of the functional parts progress  service journeys to meet users’ expected outcome.
  • Establish or improve procedures for hand offs between front stage user interaction and backstage operations. Intended procedures should smooth service operation for the provider and user.
  1. A Service Performs Poorly

Root Cause: Technology may be failing to progress a service experience.


  • Implement a journey map to identify the point(s) of service failure. Use a service blueprint to document what is missing-needs to occur, and use that insight for specifications. That will help explore workarounds, and the specifications will help determine whether the technology needs replacing or upgrading.

Failures are inevitable

There will always be times when an individual user becomes dissatisfied with their service experience. Yet managing the performance of a service will help satisfy the important, vast majority.

Available Courses

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The Apprentice
Learn what makes a service successful. The Apprentice introduces service design, the role of a service designer, some of the popular tools, and includes ideation models for coming up with new services. Click here to sign up »

The Journeyman
Learn how to use an Influence Model, a Journey Map, a Blueprint and Touchpoints — the common tools of service design. The Journeyman includes sequential, step-by-step instructions along with case studies. Click here to sign up »

The Master
Learn to prototype a service, work with feedback, diagnose service problems, recover services and test and measure user satisfaction. The Master is the only service design course of its type that helps service designers take their designs and completed services to greater success. Click here to sign up »