The interplay between efficiency and quality in a service experience is often what separates a merely transactional interaction from a valuable and pleasurable one. The former gets the job done; the latter does so while creating a more human connection and an enduring relationship between service provider and customer. Unfortunately, in most cases efficiency wins out. Most organizations lean heavily on analytical methods to define rigid processes and procedures that are designed to reduce waste and increase predictability in service delivery. This approach views the organization as a machine to be fine-tuned and the customer as a rational actor who enters and exits processes like a rat in a well-designed maze.
Yet, customers are less rational than they would like to admit and more complicated (i.e., human) than process engineers would prefer. Much of this derives from how the unconscious mind affects behavior. As Philip Graves wrote: “[the unconscious mind is] a rich tapestry of previous emotions, stories, and experience,” and this legacy of experience in turn shapes expectations of future service interactions. And, the unconscious mind is not only molded by individual experience, but by societal norms and rituals deeply embedded within a culture.
A good example of this phenomenon comes from a recent NPR segment on whether or not the common physical examination is an outdated procedure. In the piece, editorial contributor Dr. Michael Wilkes recalled a recent oral test that he performed of third-year medical students in which each student conducted a medical history and physical examination on a patient complaining of back pain. He recalled:
When it came to doing the physical exam, of course the student examined the back, but he also examined the woman’s heart and lungs and throat and ears. He didn’t quite finish the encounter in the allotted twenty minutes, so I asked him if he thought the exam of the lungs and the ears was really necessary in a person concerned about back pain. He admitted that they probably were not medically indicated. He could think of no disease of the back that would present with abnormalities of the ears. And, in a woman that was not bothered by her breathing, an examination of the lungs was not absolutely necessary. So, I asked: “perhaps next time you would cut those out?” “No,” he answered. He explained that if it were him, he’d feel gypped. “A person who comes to the doctor in pain expects to have an examination that would include the doctor listening to their lungs and looking in their ears,” he said.
Wilkes’ conclusion, after performing additional informal studies: while efficiency studies may dictate the removal of steps and features of the physical examination, patients expect the doctor to perform “an old fashion ritual… with a stethoscope and otoscope, regardless of what the studies show.”
Healthcare is only one example of how ritual can shape service expectations. Take wine. One can imagine a very sophisticated technical solution that could match your taste to the perfect bottle of wine, leaving anything between selection and imbibing an opportunity for process streamlining. Yet, the service of wine is a highly ritualized experience involving presentation, sampling, and approval. Deviating from this ritual may decrease the time from order to consumption but it would also decrease enjoyment.
In the end, designing a great service requires moving beyond viewing the customer as an actor in a business process to being a human in a service experience. It requires unravelling the influences of culture, rituals, and personal experience on customer behavior. And it requires imbuing the service not with processes inspired by machines but with behaviors adaptive to human needs, both conscious and unconscious. Doing so doesn't mean the job doesn't get done. It just means it gets done well.