Understanding the Lifecycle of Service Experiences

As awareness and capability grows for service design, more and more people are talking about “service experiences.” We are “designing for service experiences,” we are “delivering service experiences,” and we are “experiencing services.” But what makes up a service experience? What is this “lifecycle” thing all about? Well, I’m going to break it down for you and stake a claim that all services experiences follow this same lifecycle. Let’s dive in!

Customer vs. Service Lifecycles

When we say “lifecycle,” we’re talking about an end-to-end sequence of “events” or “phases” that happen over time. (The key to understanding lifecycles is to remember that they happen over time.) Think about your own life. You were born, you live, and you die. This is a very simplified model of the human lifecycle.

When we are talking about services, there are two primary lifecycles that you need to understand. The first is the customer’s service experience lifecycle. This is the end-to-end experience a customer has with a service, from before they learned about the service, to beginning their service experience, during their experience, to after it’s over.

Think about your internet provider. There was a time (probably a long time ago) when you didn’t know about that company or the service they provided. Then you learned about them somehow, started your service contract with them, and now get internet on a regular basis (until you decide you can’t stand their customer service any longer and you decide to leave). That’s the end-to-end lifecycle of your service experience.

Now, there is another lifecycle that matters just as much for service design that is often not talked about in design circles, but in reality is the way that most organizations approach delivering their services. This is the service development lifecycle. This is the lifecycle of how a service is created, launched, supported, and sunsetted. These are the activities that make up the day-to-day work of staff in the service organization, and reflect what overall phase the service itself is in regarding maturity (is it a new service? a mature service? a declining service?). These are the things you as a designer need to understand in order to make any headway doing service design in a practical work context.

The customer’s Service Experience Lifecycle and the organization’s Service Development Lifecycle (CSI = Continuous Service Improvement)

Both lifecycles matter.

Without understanding how the service development lifecycle impacts the service experience lifecycle, we will be unable to make lasting, sustainable, positive change to our service experiences. We, as designers, have to be able to “speak the language of the business,” and in this case, it’s the language of service development. It’s understanding how costing and rate development is done, how order forms get modified, how the organization handles the incident management process (i.e. how a service organization handles failures), and how the organization goes about making changes to the service. If we just focus on the customer experience, we won’t understand how the business, or “backstage” is connected to pain points that customers are having, or how to fix them.

Breaking down the Service Experience Lifecycle

OK, now let’s go deeper into the service experience lifecycle, and break down each phase. At the high level, we see four phases:

  • Before: Before a customer uses the service
  • Begin: At the beginning of a customer’s use of the service
  • During: During the customer’s use of the service
  • After: After their use of the service
Four phases of Service Experience Lifecycle

This really captures the high-level of the relationship that a customer has with the service over time. But you can go deeper than this, and you need to in order to understand the needs of the customer at each phase and how to better provide service to them. So let’s break it down.

Phases of the Service Experience Lifecycle:

  • Unaware: Before the customer even knows about the service
  • Aware: The customer learns about the service
  • Interested: The customer is interested in the service, and considering it
  • Buy/Contract: The customer signs up, purchases, or contracts to receive the service
  • Receive: The customer gets the service for the first time (think “onboarding”)
  • Early Use: The customer is setting up and using the service for the first time (think “first time use”)
  • Normal Use: The customer is a regular, more experienced user of the service, and this is their normal experience of the service working well
  • Change: During normal use… the service changes (e.g. “new feature launched!” or “major upgrade”) and it impacts the customer (what is the experience around this change?)
  • Incident: During normal use… the service goes through a failure (e.g. an outage, or a botched delivery) and it impacts the customer (what is the experience around this incident?)
  • Reconsider: The customer reconsiders their service “contract” and thinks about leaving
  • Leave: The customer leaves the service (what is their lasting impression?)

Now, specific wording aside, I believe every service experience can be mapped to these phases, and that seeing this level of detail is useful for understanding how we can design for and improve the service experience.

Even though this lifecycle is presented linearly, there are lots of examples where the phases of this lifecycle could be experienced in a different order. For example: long time returning customer vs. first-time customer, a customer who starts experiencing the service during normal use (e.g. new staff has to use “the system” at work) so they don’t go through an onboarding process… the list goes on. But these phases give us the language to talk about the ways people are experiencing our services.

Customer needs, Business needs

At each phase, the customer is trying to do something—they have needs. Also at each phase, the business is trying to get the customer to do something. These customer and business needs are not always in alignment, which can be a source of customer pain and frustration. By breaking down the phases of the service experience lifecycle, we can better design to align these needs.

For example, at the “Interested” phase, the customer is trying to learn about the service and whether it will provide the right value to them. They are also trying to compare the service to other services and make a smart decision. If all the business is focused on is the marketing and sales funnel, and not providing good, helpful information to the customer so that they can make the right decision, the business is not fully realizing its potential to provide valuable service to the customer at that phase.

Thinking in this way can lead to useful service principles, for example:

When a customer is considering our service, we should provide useful information to help them make the right decision.

In this way, the service experience lifecycle can be empowering for a business to adopt new processes, principles, and practices to better support each phase of the customer’s experience.

Aligning Service Delivery

By understanding all the parts of the organization that contribute to the customer’s experience at each phase (which you can do in-depth through a blueprinting exercise), you can start to connect the dots between how organizations develop and deliver services, and how they are experienced (hint: this is not a 1:1).

In a typical end-to-end customer service experience lifecycle, dozens of areas of the business might be involved in the “backstage” of delivering that service (see example below).

This is an important realization for many organizations, that by nature, service design and service improvements must be done as a cross-functional effort, involving many people from different functions in the organization. This goes against the nature of how many organizations are structured, and requires working across silos in order to make meaningful and lasting change.

The more you, as a designer, can do to understand how the organization moves through its service development lifecycle—how the organization runs discovery on new service ideas, designs the processes that support the service, rolls out changes to the service—the better equipped you will be to make this connection between customer experience and the “backstage” of the business.

Using the Service Experience Lifecycle

I encourage you to socialize the service experience lifecycle as a framework for thinking about, designing for, and improving customer experiences of services. This lifecycle can be useful in many ways:

  • Helping organizations develop service principles to follow at each phase
  • Having the language to talk about the specific aspects of customer experience that need to be improved or designed for
  • A way to provide framing and context for mapping activities (touchpoint mapping, journey mapping, blueprinting)
  • A way to categorize and group customer data insights by phase, and connect them into a more holistic view of service experience

If you want to dive deeper into this world of service design and service lifecycles, I highly recommend the Service Design for Business book by LiveWork. Much of this post was inspired by their fantastic work.

With that, as always, I invite you to join the growing (now 1400+!) virtual community of practice for service design over at www.practicalservicedesign.com and continue the conversation!