“When we recently surveyed 362 firms, we found that 80% believed they delivered a “superior experience” to their customers. But when we then asked customers about their own perceptions, we heard a very different story. They said that only 8% of companies were really delivering.” Closing the Delivery Gap: James Allen, Frederick F. Reichheld, Barney Hamilton and Rob Markey

Services are designed in components. One could imagine each component as a puzzle piece that can be taken apart and fit back together. Using Service Design tools, and following the process and methods, each puzzle piece can be shaped and reshaped to fit in ways to achieve the desired outcome.

Yet when those pieces no longer fit, a service will fail.

Service Failure

  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 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.

Causes And Remedies For Failures

As the field of Service Design grows in popularity, a cottage industry has mushroomed around deciphering the causes of services failing. Many of those who preach customer service as the remedy fail to define the root cause, and when they do, they pin it all on customer service.  They define the problem as poor customer service with a solution to be friendlier, more responsive, and to exceed customer expectations.

This approach ignores the simplicity around the user’s needs: When needs are not met through the service, users are dissatisfied and the service fails.

Many of us would like to avoid licensing bureaus, but they are critical public services to achieve an intended outcome. Despite grumbling about experiences waiting in line and or rude bureaucrats, those services could be defined as ‘quality,’ due to mutually achieved outcomes.

And, many diners roll their eyes over the service at New York City delis, where the reputation of tough servers are well-known. The servers behind the county of Katz’s Delicatessen throws out customers who can’t decide what they want by the time they get to the counter. But those experiences don’t prevent the long queues to order. Great food will always supersede curtness.

In sum, service failures may result due to a number of specifics, but in-demand services rarely fail due to poor customer service.

Service Design Challenges

1. Designers are confused about the purpose and ultimate benefit of using a service.

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

Designers’ Remedies

  • Require better insights from target users, leads to re-evaluating insights from user personas and other forms of feedback.
  • Revise touchpoints, which are likely misleading, or appear at unanticipated intervals, or fail to serve any strategic or tactical purpose.
  • Better prepare functional staff at the front stage who are poorly informed and need improved training. Their interactions with users are misrepresenting the service outcome and expectations through their words and actions.


  1. Users Become Frustrated as Service Unfolds

Root Cause: Providers not fully engaged in achieving success or helping others realize the service outcome.

Designers’ Remedies:

  • Improve alignment of functional activities so staff is better connected. They must understand each others’ roles, the purpose of the service and the outcome. They must realize the sum of the functional parts are how services progress to meet users’ expected outcome.
  • Set minimum standards for individual performance, with proper management-supervision to ensure accomplishment.
  • Help executives, managers and advocates set realistic goals.
  • Procedures need improving or new ones implemented between the front stage and backstage (service blueprint). That will allow for a smooth service operation. The process and procedures will govern a service and prevent it from evolving in unintended directions.
  1. Service Performs Poorly

Root Cause: Technology may be failing to carry a service through to meet users’ expectations, or the technology simply fails to deliver intended results. In both cases, designers should be sufficiently skilled to diagnose, isolate and remedy the failure.

Designers’ Remedies

  • Implement a journey map, literally walking users through a journey experience to identify where the service failure is occurring.

By determining where the service the error occurs on a journey map, overlay the map onto a service blueprint to determine whether the technology error can be re-routed in the service experience, or whether technology needs upgrading before a service can continue operating.

  1. Users Dissatisfied with Outcome

Root Cause: Poor communications.

Designers’ Remedies:

  • Trace existing touchpoints to determine if communications could be improved. These include informing users of the intended outcome and explaining choices along the way.
  • Touchpoints are also used to solicit feedback throughout the service experience. The feedback mechanism can be overt, by querying users, or through observation. They should gauge if the service is meeting users’ expectations and whether there are questions that need resolving.


This article is an excerpt from The Master, Vol. III, Service Design Book of Knowledge. Sign up for the waiting list.

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