The Role of Leadership in Service Design

May 17, 2017

In a prior post, we wrote generally about Service Design and how important the relationship between the customer and the company is to a service. Essentially, services are created at the moment of engagement: unlike a product, which is made and then sold, services are just-in-time: when a customer calls the support number, when a customer walks into the store, or when a nurse makes a house call. The relationship between the customer and the company in many ways is the service, and in the end, “company” means the employees with whom the customer interacts.

“Design for relationships and experiences that evolve and change over time, rather than just short moments of consumption or usage.”1

Designers can co-create service blueprints until they’re blue in the face, but without the buy-in of the frontline staff, those on-brand customer service scripts won’t mean a thing.

It’s not just about buy-in; it’s about getting employees to value their relationship to the customer on a base level, which requires authenticity and a desire to help people, as well as a deep understanding of the overall mission of the company. It requires people have autonomy and ownership over their work, and that they feel what they do is meaningful. 

No easy task. It’s one thing to carefully design each touchpoint, but it’s quite another to have to redesign how a company functions, and how employees relate to this vision.

I’ve attended many company retreats where we try to identify who the company is and where we want to go. I usually felt like we would come up with some good ideas, but without solid leadership the proposed change initiatives went nowhere.

How can any organization affect change in a meaningful way? Even in so-called “flat” organizations, it starts at the top. Employees look to their leaders to model behavior. Does the leadership put an emphasis on the importance of the customer relationship in a meaningful way? Does the organization empower and trust front line employees to make meaningful relationships with customers? 

“When a CEO sits down to talk to customers to find out what they think, it sends an important signal to the rest of the organization and the industry.”1

Giving employees the power to fulfill promises is vital; we’ve all been trapped in a customer support loop where it’s clear that no one has the power to actually do anything (CenturyLink I’m looking at you). Educating employees, giving them power, trusting them with it, and listening to feedback, is absolutely vital. “Paradoxically, empowering the front line starts with senior leaders, who have the authority to ensure frontline voices are heard.”2

Designers can bring a range of tools to the table to help organizations identify the gaps in their communication and inconsistencies within their own processes. But the hard work of connecting the dots lies with everyone and is an investment well worth it.


  1. Service Design: From Insight to Implementation
    by Andrew Polaine and Ben Reason
  2. “Here’s How to Actually Empower Customer Service Employees”
    Chris DeRose and Noel Tichy
    Harvard Business Review

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