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Don't be a loser; the winners think 'total experience'

IN THE FACE of regional economic expansion and competition, every organisation has the urge to improve the competitiveness of its business. To be competitive, one must differentiate. But how can you differentiate from many other competitors and create a unique advantage for your business?

By now, you must realise that the age of competition through mere products is over. Good companies do not limit their "innovation" to products alone. Instead, they aim to combine services into their products in order to create solutions. Great companies that "win" in the market go above and beyond. They aim at delivering a total experience.

Experience comes from a combination of small things or strings of events. It does not happen because of one single product or one single touch point.

Take your definition of a perfect holiday experience for example. You will call your holiday perfect when you have a smooth flight to your destination, the place you visit looks even nicer than what appears in the travel guidebook and you get to visit the places you've dreamed of.

Even when you get lost, you surprisingly find hidden gems outside the tourist map. The local people are kind. Probably you meet a nice guy/beautiful girl - supposing you're not married! - and coming back, you have a lot of great stories to tell. This is a fortunate combination of every little good thing.

But if you are to ensure the success of your business, you can't depend on that kind of luck. Customer experience can and should be induced by design. Yes, I said "induced" because experience is subjective and belongs to the subject person. So, logically, you cannot design experience. The art and science of designing and setting stages to create desirable experiences are called together "service design".

A classic proof of success through service design is Starbucks. Starbucks offers you more than just a cup of coffee. Starbucks gives you a feel-good experience. Every time you walk into Starbucks, you walk into a nice, little cafe with a warm, welcoming atmosphere. The coffee aroma is in the air, nice crowds chat softly in the background, the baristas greet you with a smile, addressing you by name.

You can customise your drink the way you like, then you sit sipping your cup of coffee on a cosy sofa as long as you like. And around the cafe, some pictures or some signs remind you that the coffee you drink means an income for the local communities that grow the coffee beans. This is the experience that Starbucks successfully delivers to its customers around the world. And the magic behind this is service design.

Service design is actually a meticulous discipline. It starts with you understanding the demands and needs of your customers, both explicit and implicit. This is why great companies invest in research that helps them collect the voices of customers and create customer insights.

During this process, you can identify the factors influencing your customers' perceptions and decisions. You will get an idea of what components you need to create or what problems you need to tackle to win the hearts of your customers. Of course, understanding what your competitors are doing will be useful. This understanding will help you stay in touch with your market reality.

Then you create your service vision or service promise, which is the commitment to the kind of experience or value you offer to your customers. The service promise can look like a motto or a statement that shows your passion and inspires your customers and, probably, your employees.

For example, the American discount retailer Target says "Expect More, Pay Less". The Ritz-Carlton Hotel says: "We are Ladies and Gentlemen Serving Ladies and Gentlemen". The fashion brand GAP wants to "Make It Easier for You to Express Your Personal Style Throughout Your Life".

Starting from that service promise, the service designer will draft the customer journey map or customer experience map that allows you to visualise what kind of steps your customers go through before, during and after they purchase your product or service, what kind of touch points the customers interface with and who are the key persons involved in that process or touch points.

Designing the customer journey map requires both art and science. A service designer needs to be a great facilitator, bringing in people from multiple disciplines to help co-design. These people can be from such backgrounds as research, marketing, quality management, process improvement, psychology and even interior design.

Before putting the design into implementation, many companies pilot the design with a small group of customers and improve it until they are happy with the result, then launch it to a wider group of customers.

The last part of experience creation is the actual implementation. This requires systems that help ensure the capability to create consistent experiences. If the major part of customer experience depends on employees who provide the service, your organisation should provide learning and development to ensure services meet the standard.

Theme parks like Disney and Samsung Everland have a service academy that has now grown beyond providing development for internal employees.

All this sounds interesting, but how do you know you need service design? Clue - if you look around and see more and more competitors emerging that offer products or services resembling yours, if retaining your customers is getting unpredictable, if taking control of your customers' perceptions and decisions is your desire, or if you want to make yourself irreplaceable in the market, service design is likely to be your answer.

Orapun Parapob Gilman is a principal consultant at APMGroup. She can be contacted at Orapun_p@apm.co.th


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