How service design helps travel brands woo seemingly irrational customers

Service design consultancies use design theory to find out what delights and frustrates your customers and then designs ways to map your customer’s journeys, create or improve products, and enhance your guests’ experiences.

A case in point: Last year, a Finnish grocery story, Alepa, began taking online orders from travelers returning home by plane and made their groceries ready for pickup at a kiosk at Helsinki Airport. The service was an outcome of research done by service design experts.

To learn more about how service design can help tourism and hospitality companies, Tnooz spoke to Troy Thompson, the founder and principal at Pattern, a global strategy and service design consultancy, with clients such as Visit California, Warner Bros., and the Government of Dubai.

Tnooz: “Service design” sounds like a gimmick. What’s in it for the travel industry?

Troy: Service design consultancies are focused on understanding the customer better, creating more empathy with the customer, and actually understanding why customers are using the service.

Think about all of the steps, interactions, and options a tourist or business traveler would interact or engage with during a typical trip – hundreds, if not thousands of them.

For many in the travel industry we are narrowly focused on our own – important, but very small – step. Service design is an approach to understanding the other steps, discovering how the customer moves through them, and pinpointing opportunities for innovation, better services, and additional revenue.

Look at it this way: Data helps you understand rational customers, while service design helps you understand irrational customers.

For example, why did the customer hire, say Virgin America, to fly him or her from San Francisco to New York — instead of United or American?

It’s tough to find the answer to that from data alone — or at least an answer that will be persuasive to a company’s management team. Why?

Travel companies are collecting many different metrics from their customers’ digital footprints. But some of the data doesn’t add up.

There was a recent study from Forrester where they highlighted new research showing that customers – due to the overwhelming choices presented by digital – were increasingly making irrational decisions — decisions that weren’t mapping to what the spreadsheets would lead one to expect.

We find that that’s pretty true for customers in the travel industry, visitors and tourists alike. We tend to make irrational decisions on everyday sort of services.

I make irrational decisions on why I don’t fly American. I had a very bad experience with American Airlines and now I’m a — as everybody does with one brand or another– I’m making an irrational decision that, even if American could save me money on a route, I won’t take it.

I have literally turned down American Airlines flights that were cheaper because I just don’t want to fly them anymore. But there’s nothing in American’s data collection that will capture or explain my behavior. It just looks irrational to them.

We’ve got so much data now that we’re forgetting to pay attention to what customers are actually thinking, feeling, and doing. The companies that are getting more and more in touch with all of the emotional responses from customers are starting to pull further and further ahead from competitors.

service design

Tnooz: You sound skeptical of Big Data.

Troy: I’m skeptical of the idea that whoever has the most data knows the most the customer. I don’t think that is true.

Tnooz: Do you have any opinions on survey techniques? I’m a member of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and I was visiting it on a late-night Friday and I was accosted, for lack of a better word, by someone carrying a tablet who asked me, “Can I … Do you have time for survey questions?” I wanted to help because I like the organization …

Troy: Sure, sure.

Tnooz: … But twenty questions later, I was like, “I’d like to get on with my evening.”

Troy: Yes!

Tnooz: Are overlong surveys a necessary evil because, while any individual person may feel like it’s too many questions, you need to ask the broad questions or else you miss things?

Troy: You’re exactly right; I feel the same way. Everyone knows that we have very short attention-spans, except for the people creating these surveys.

Even really smart companies like Disney are asking too many questions. I got one for a trip we took to Disney World which was far too in-depth – 30 questions later I stopped, closed the browser and deleted the email.

They were asking me things like, “Were the pillows in the right arrangement on the bed when you came in the room?” I thought to myself, “I barely got out of the room each morning with my kids, a backpack, sunscreen and a stroller — how would I possibly remember something so specific?”

Asking questions is helpful, but there is a big difference between the right question and the wrong – useless – question. A lot of organizations just don’t know how to figure out what the customer is thinking, feeling, and doing, so they try to solve it by asking a lot of questions, rather than a few really good, specific questions.

For a client, the solution is to go in either one of two ways.

Either ask a very open-ended question right up front: “Hey, Sean, how is your evening tonight at the Philadelphia Museum of Art,” and based on your answer, if you say, “Great,” then, “All right, thank you.” You are obviously having a great time, we don’t need to ask you any more questions.

Or if you say, “Eh, it’s okay,” then that’s an immediate signal to me, as the survey taker, that this customer has a problem, that there’s something more here, and maybe I should follow up with other questions.

service design museum

I’ll give you a great example.

A company I use personally is TimeShel. They print out photos from my iPhone every month and mail them to me; it’s a great service; I use it all of the time. One day I received an email from their founder.

It was a simple email that said, “Hey, Troy, you backed us on Kickstarter when we first started. We just want to see how it’s going. Do you have any ideas for improving TimeShel?”

That’s all it was. It was just an email. No form. No SurveyMonkey link. Just a simple question.

I wrote him back and said, “Hey, yeah, here is what I like. Here’s what I don’t like. Here’s what I wish you guys could do.”

I spent ten minutes composing that email and really thinking about my experience because I liked the way he approached it.

The other way to approach surveys is with a standard scoring system, something like Net Promoter Score or NPS. Which is not perfect, not a final answer, but just the start of the conversation with the customer.

That is the key, figuring out where in the service flow each customer is at. “Do they need more help? Do they need less help? Do they possibly have some sort of a problem or idea or issue that if we solved, we would not only solve this for him or her but we would solve it for a lot of other people?”

Ironically, the problem that they need to solve at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for you, is how to stop asking so many survey questions.

Tnooz: So tell us about your consultancy. You’ve mostly had travel industry clients. How has your consultancy evolved over time?

Troy: For a while, we were focused a lot on traditional strategy, and specifically tourism strategy and tourism marketing strategy, including branding, communication, and digital.

We found that a lot of the strategy work was good and it was very prosperous for us. But the results really weren’t where we wanted them to be.

We felt like when we would get a strategy project, we’d go away for a month — sort of to sequester ourselves. We dug through a bunch of research and then came back with an answer for the client. We hoped that our answer would be the right one.

I’m sure from the client’s side, they were doing the same thing. Telling themselves, “Oh, I hope they figure this out. I hope they get us the right answer.”

Over time we started to shift our focus away from the overlong strategy projects to faster and more rapidly developed workshops.

Tnooz: So you rethought how you serve you clients?

Troy: Yeah. We’ve sort of done our own little service design workshop on ourselves and figured out how do we best relate to our clients, what they actually want from us, and what the jobs are actually hiring us to do and what’s the best way that we can do the jobs for them.

That’s when we figured out that we needed to shift away from doing the big strategy project — where we’re producing a 100-page document that, by the way, nobody reads – to smaller, multiday workshops that address the same challenge, with more speed and collaboration. And most importantly, with actionable outcomes.

Tnooz: If companies are hiring service design agencies, what’s your advice, based on your experience? How they should comparison shop?

Troy: First, understand that most companies don’t know when, or if, they need a service design consultancy.

Second, consider the problem you have. Is it a symptom or the cause? Symptoms are easy to diagnose and can be addressed by tool or specialized agency (think websites or mobile).

But causes often occur across business units and could benefit from the perspective of a service design agency.

Third, make sure anyone you hire has a philosophy on the work (everyone’s is different, but it is important they have one), wants to think critically about what the problem really is, and is insistent on involving a lot of people and perspectives.

Those are the 3 keys for me: philosophy, problem identification, and people.

Tnooz: Who do you hold up in the industry as brands or companies that have applied service design principles well?

Troy: If you look at somebody like Virgin America

Tnooz: (Interrupting.) Everyone says Virgin America.

Troy: True, but most people don’t know why.

Internally they might not call it service design or design thinking, but it’s pretty evident that Virgin America places a very high importance on the customer and the customer’s experience.

Everything from actually working with, and interacting with, the gate agent to sitting down in the chair at a gate or on a plane, Virgin is just thinking about the customer first and foremost rather than thinking about the customer’s wallet first and foremost.

Yes, the plane is neat and it’s purple and it’s sexy and it’s got all of these cool things, but the service is absolutely one of the best in the sky.

That’s the difference: Virgin America is very customer-centric, which is just another word for designing a service with the customer in mind.

service design virgin america

Tnooz: Does Pattern work on service design once the customer or guest is acquired? Once the patron of the museum has showed up at the museum? Or does service design extend to the customer journey towards discovering and finding the client?

Troy: Whole thing.

That’s one of the really appealing parts for us and one of the reasons that we got pulled so strongly toward service design as a method, being able to solve customer problems across the entire experience, not just for a part of it.

That is the strength and the point of service design. The companies and organizations that understand the entire experience can command more customer loyalty than one that only understands a part of it.

Tnooz: Okay. How do you manage to convince people with spreadsheets or just wanting to look at the numbers that they need to look at it from a service design perspective?

Troy: You get them out of their office. If they work for a hotel, we have them check-in to a competitor’s hotel. If they work at a CVB, we have them plan a trip to another town. If they run a helicopter tour, we have them book a jeep tour.

Humans are supremely confident in their abilities to understand one another, but they are also always surprised when you actually put them in another person’s shoes.

NB: Interview by Sean O’Neill. Images courtesy Virgin America, Pattern, and Tobias Toft/Flickr/Creative Commons

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About the Writer :: Troy Thompson

Troy Thompson, a contributing Node to Tnooz, is an artist, consultant, and speaker who found a way to combine all three into creative leadership workshops.

He is the founder of Pattern, a strategy and service design consultancy. Troy believes in customer-centric innovation, simplicity, and short bios.



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