Magazine article Management Today

The Vend of the Line

Magazine article Management Today

The Vend of the Line

Article excerpt

For the past 60 years or so, the practice of designers has revolved around three more or less distinct sub-disciplines: graphic, industrial and environmental design. Printed and screen communications, products and product systems, building interiors and exteriors-these highly visible and tangible arenas have defined the metier. And yet we live in a world where things more ethereal have, at least in terms of the numbers of people employed in delivering them, long dominated over hard copy and hardware. Clearly, the designer's triptych needs to be extended to embrace the concept of service design.

it is still early days. There is a very good book on the subject, in the voluminous shape of Ron Zemke and Dick Schaafs The Service Edge (New American Library, 1989). It has no fewer than 101 American case histories in the genre, a foreword by Tom Peters, and a lot of sensible dos and don'ts at the front. Quite rightly, it stresses that solicitous recovery from service errors can do even more for brand loyalty than correct service practice; also, it shows how, if managers empower' them, both employees and customers can improve service quality. However, The Service Edge is, as the authors would no doubt admit, a pioneering work. It outlines five customer-orientated ingredients of effective recovery apology, urgent reinstatement, empathy, symbolic atonement and follow-up). But it strangely underplays another, more strategic ingredient - that of arranging for erring employees quickly, directly and permanently to incorporate the lessons of their mistakes into the design of the service infrastructure they work with.

Perhaps the example is unfair. Yet there can be no doubt that design of many of the services around us needs a radical rethink. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the field of retailing.

We all know the arguments. The hours around which most shops are still organised reflect a social phenomenon 'the housewife' - of diminishing significance. People of both sexes and all classes are more pressed for time, and more irritated by traffic jams and the Saturday morning supermarket checkout queue. Perhaps the most telling point, however, has been made by Prodigy Services Company, a PC-based home information and teleshopping venture which, with the clout of IBM and Sears Roebuck behind it, has reached 250,000 US homes. Prodigy argues that the quantity and academic quality of tomorrow's young American service staff will not be enough to meet the demands put on them by tomorrow's older American families. Demographically, the design not just of retail, but also of financial, educational, leisure and travel services is about to seize up, as the baby boom is followed by a 'baby bust'.

All this, no doubt, applies to Britain too; but if the problems with conventional retailing are apparent enough, solutions are more of a vexed issue. What kind of service design should attend the provision of data, goods and tickets in the home? Now ten years after Alvin (The Third Wave) Toffler forecast the coming of the electronic cottage, we are little the wiser. In the US, Home Shopping Network can claim some successes. Reaching 62 million households 24 hours a day by TV, HSN now boasts annual turnover figures of $1 billion and profits of $66 million. Based in Florida and aided by some fancy IT, HSN sells tacky discount goods (ceramic sculptures, feather dusters), gets stars like Farrah Fawcett to hawk fake diamonds ('cubic zirconia'), and acts as a comfort to lonely single mothers and elderly women, many of whom have three sets tuned to it, as background, all day long: it's akin to NASA organising a garage sale from Hollywood. …

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