How to design business operations with a service blueprint

Updated: Jul 28

Identifying a business’s fail points and bottlenecks is always a headache. Executives and business owners pay high professional fees to gurus and consultants in an attempt to unravel the knot. They come up with the most harebrained ideas and the good thing is that sometimes, they get it right.


Let’s bottom line this.


You don’t need an expensive guru to guess your business’s problems. You need a strategy to diagnose them.


Follow this step-by-step guide and learn how to design and review your company’s processes like a boss!



Table of contents

  1. How to craft service blueprints to design efficient business processes;

  2. How to improve business operational efficiency.






HOW TO CRAFT SERVICE BLUEPRINTS TO DESIGN EFFICIENT BUSINESS PROCESSES




First things first.


Do you have a service blueprint?


I can bet the majority of businesses out there don’t have it. That’s why they are not able to sort their stuff out.


Let me explain. Whether you are starting a brand new business or auditing its performance, you need to know exactly the flow of its processes.


You must know what happens in your organization from the first moment a prospect enters in contact with you to the end of their journey (post-purchase phase).


The duty of a business is to skillfully help customers move from one step to the next.


If I ask you to describe the processes of your company and show me how it works, I’m sure you can be the best Cicero ever.


But have you ever put them in writing? Have you ever drawn your process flows?


A strategy can’t be made upon words and thoughts. You need concrete schemes, maps and plans.



What a service blueprint is

A service blueprint, sometimes also called marketing blueprint, maps out a business’s processes, highlighting contact points with customers and enabling managers to interpret the flows from a customer perspective.


According to Valarie Zeithaml, Mary Jo Bitner and Dwayne D. Gremler in Services marketing: integrating customer focus across the firm published in 2006, service blueprints help businesses develop new services, support a zero-flaws culture and create new backup strategies.


Reworked version of Rehash's blueprint, designed by the Indian UX designer Srishti Rao.

The example above is my reworked version of Rehash’s blueprint designed by the Indian UX designer Srishti Rao. Rehash was a project aimed at collecting and reusing household waste as fertilizer to reduce costs in agriculture. Rehash collected waste from families in exchange for organic food discount coupons. It transformed the waste in manure and sold it to farmers for a fair price. Then, families were able to use their coupons to purchase organic food from farmers at a convenient price.


Another example, extracted from Services marketing: integrating customer focus across the firm, is represented by the image below which depicts a simplified blueprint for overnight hotel stay.


Service blueprint example of overnight hotel stay (by Valarie Zeithaml, Mary Jo Bitner and Dwayne D. Gremler, Services marketing: integrating customer focus across the firm, 4th ed., New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006).

A business flowcharting describes:

  • How processes flow;

  • Time for each process and service provision;

  • Costs for each step;

  • Company’s efficiency during a service provision;

  • Potential bottlenecks.


Service blueprint was first mentioned by a bank executive, G. Lynn Shostack, in Designing services that deliver published by Harvard Business Review in 1984. This tool allows companies to diagnose issues with operational efficiency and nowadays, it has become widely used to manage service operations, design and positioning.



How to develop a service blueprint

A business process chart is always built from a customer’s point of view and consists of inputs, processes and outputs.


There isn’t a good or bad way to construct it, because it depends on the intended application.


Let’s start considering the dimensions used in the Rehash’s blueprint:

  • Timeline: a business flow chart represents all steps in the buyer journey, that’s why it’s useful to add a variable of time. A horizontal orientation suits better for this purpose and, according to the specific need, you can eventually add the time necessary to fulfill each process;

  • Physical evidence: all the tangible elements related to each step of the buyer journey that can influence customers perception. They can be flyers, mail, delivery vans, uniforms, notifications, websites and so on;

  • Customer actions: steps that a customer takes during a service delivery;

  • Line of interaction: you should divide customers actions from service provider ones. In this way, you can attribute responsibilities and understand who has to make the first move to start the next step;

  • Front-stage interactions: visible interactions between customers and employees (visible contact employees). In other words, actions undertaken by a service provider which are visible to customers. They can be face-to-face encounters or online interactions, like social media comments, email/text conversations and so on. They are very important, because they represent the direct contact points between a business and its customers;

  • Line of visibility: you should separate front-stage and back-stage activities. What you put below this line is not visible to a customer;

  • Back-stage interactions: actions undertaken by a service provider which are not visible to customers. Employees still have contact with customers, but it’s not direct (invisible contact employees). Despite the classic literature or Wikipedia, I prefer using the words “direct” and “indirect” contact to help online businesses define their front- and back-stage activities. In a digital business, back of stage interactions can be a website page, a blog or social media post. An employee is still communicating to customers, but the latter can’t directly interact with the employee. For example, I consider a Facebook post a back-stage interaction, instead a comment to that post is a front-stage interaction. An employee identifies themselves with a name and profile image, and starts a direct conversation with customers who can reply with another comment. To better explain myself, we need to take a step back and understand why this dimension is so important. Every front- and back-stage activity is associated with one or more employees, so the organization must know what skill-set takes to cover the position. Employees who fulfill operations in these two dimensions must have both skill-set and training for being in contact with clients. According to James L. Heskett, Earl Sasser Jr. and Joe Wheeler in Ownership quotient: putting the service profit chain to work for unbeatable competitive advantage published in 2008 by Harvard Business School Press, successful businesses encourage positive employee attitudes to generate stronger customer loyalty;

  • Line of internal interaction: you should divide the activities that require contact with customers from the ones that are carried out within the company.

  • Support processes: activities required to service delivery that don’t need any contact with customers.


These are usually the main dimensions used to craft a service blueprint, but you can add as many as necessary. For example, other models require an inventory which represents the resources needed for each step, or a line of implementation which divides management from support activities. The difference is that management is responsible for planning and controlling while support involves preparation.


What are the steps to take in building a service flow chart?


Let’s see step by step what a company should do:

  1. Identifies key activities to service delivery;

  2. Decides what the customers experience will be. Meaning that it has to set a line of visibility and aggregate front- and back-stage activities;

  3. Inserts timeframes by adding the average or maximum tolerable time taken to fulfill each step;

  4. Identifies the responsible personnel;

  5. Notes fail points, excessive waits and bottlenecks.


Since business complexity varies, mapping all operations with pen and paper can be challenging.


So, what digital tools can you use to design a business process chart?


I give you two solutions.


Custellence is a collaborative tool focused on mapping the customer journey with a fool-proof interface and compelling visual design.


Custellence is collaborative customer journey mapping tool.

Custellence has a free version, but it gives access to just one user and allows to generate only 60 cards. When you create a customer journey map (alternatively called service blueprint, user map or experience map), you should add as many cards as many steps are included in the customer journey.


The second tool I want to present is Miro which is a collaborative whiteboarding platform.


Miro enables teams to work in remote on online whiteboards.

Despite Custellence, Miro is not focused on customer journey maps and its scope is much broader. It provides solutions for:

  • Product development;

  • Lean and agile;

  • UX research and design;

  • Innovation and ideation;

  • Strategy and projects;

  • Mind mapping.


You can create a service blueprint by adapting its mapping features to your purpose. Miro offers a free plan where you can add unlimited team members, but you can only edit 3 boards. A board is an online whiteboard which you can use to visualize ideas, work on projects either individually or with a team.



Symbols commonly used in flowcharts

While you craft your service blueprint, keep in mind that other stakeholders have to understand it.


If you are a designer, well, let loose: this is your field of expertise. But if you want to make sure people understand your flowchart, use the following symbols.




Action/process symbol. A rectangle represents one step of the process and you write the related info inside the box.






An arrow indicates the flow direction from one step/decision to another.





Decision symbol. A rhombus is a decision based on a question which is written within the diamond. It may have more than one arrow departing from it, each one pointing to the next step of the process.





This shape expresses a delay or wait (delay symbol). Usually, it points out a bottleneck.





Connector symbol. A circle links to another circle in a different page or flowchart. It means that the flow continues there. The circle can be divided into multiple slices to indicate that the process flow continues in more than two branches.




Summoning junction symbol. A circle with an internal X represents a junction point where multiple branches converge.





Input/output symbol. A parallelogram determines material or information entering or leaving the system like customers’ orders (input) or newsletters (output).





This shape represents a document (document symbol). If more than one shape overlaps, it indicates multiple documents.





Start/end symbol. An oval (or, alternatively, a rectangle with rounded corners) sets an ending or starting point.






Manual input symbol. A trapezoid represents a step where users are prompted to submit information manually.





Off-page connector. This shape is used in complex flowcharts and indicates that the process continues off page. The number of the connected page is usually written within the image.





Database symbol. A cylinder indicates data stored in a system which allows for searching and filtering (sorting).






Data storage or stored data symbol. This cylinder indicates a stage where data are stored.






Display symbol. This image determines where information will be displayed within a process’s flow.






Loop limit symbol. This trapezoid points out the ending point of an automated process or loop.






Preparation symbol. This trapezoid introduces a set-up to the next step in the same process. It is useful to differentiate between steps that prepare for work and others that actually do work.


Subroutine or predefined process symbol. It indicates a series of actions or operations that perform a distinct task embedded in a larger and more complex process. It is usually better described elsewhere.





Internal storage symbol. It is mainly used in software design flowcharts and indicates data that is stored in an internal memory during a program.




There are additional flowchart symbols, but their meaning may vary according to the specific software or language used.


For example, the image on the right has two different meanings based on the source. According to Lucidchart (a product of Lucid Software), this upside down trapezoid indicates a process that must be done manually (Manual operation symbol). Instead, according to SmartDraw, it indicates a repeating sequence that continues until it’s stopped manually (Manual loop symbol).



Why a service blueprint is important and how it can benefit organizations

The two main benefits in making a service blueprint are identifying:

  1. Contact points between service provider and customers;

  2. Fail points: issues or bottlenecks that can emerge during the service delivery.


There are two keys to reading.


The first is the customer perspective. They usually evaluate the quality of a service by considering all contact and fail points


The second is the company point of view which usually starts from fail points, number of clients served during a range of time and costs to serve them.


Companies incur in fail points when:

  • Customers perceive a risk, for example they don’t feel in control of the situation or need more information/feedback from the contact employees;

  • They don’t satisfy customers requests;

  • Customers wait more than expected (bottlenecks). I’ve deepened this point in the next paragraph.


Companies should craft a marketing blueprint to create the best flow of operations or redesign them. In both cases, they will be able to achieve many objectives:

  • Improving productivity;

  • Improving customer satisfaction;

  • Decreasing fail points;

  • Decreasing the time to service deliver (with different words: decreasing costs);

  • Decreasing bureaucracy;

  • Introducing new or additional services: without a blueprint it’s difficult to figure out the best spot to insert them;

  • Adapting the process to new law or regulations;

  • Renewing the process to service delivery when it is perceived obsolete by customers.



The most common bottlenecks and how to fix them

A business process bottleneck occurs every time demand overwhelms production capacity.


There are mainly two types:

  1. Short-term bottlenecks are temporary and can be caused by a provisional technology malfunction (equipment, software, other IT systems...) or employee’s backlog (e.g. when someone is sick, doesn’t work and the company can’t take over them with other employees);

  2. Long-term bottlenecks are recurring delays or waits (e.g. every month someone is behind on their tasks).


Short-term bottlenecks are common in every business, even if you take all the possible countermeasures, there is always a small risk percentage of system failure. The important thing is to identify them as soon as possible and take action to fix them. You should have a manager responsible for each department or business unit who keeps monitoring and checks unexpected issues.


Because of their temporary nature, short-term bottlenecks are easily identifiable: they break up a certain routine.


But what if that routine has been inefficient for a long time?


You get used to it and the corrupted routine becomes the normal routine.


It is as simple as getting used to a bad smell after an extended period of time. It is called sensory adaptation (source: Evolving concepts of sensory adaptation - Michael Webster, 2012 ). The Oxford zoologist Luis Villazon wrote:


Our nervous system has evolved to become progressively less sensitive to a stimulus, the longer it persists. This enables us to concentrate on the newest sensations that are more likely to be an opportunity or a threat.

Similarly, we adapt to new routines after a certain time, even if they are wrong. That’s why you must correct operational inefficiencies as soon as possible.


This brings us to long-term bottlenecks: the most dangerous, because they become part of a business routine.


Here is a step-by-step guide to find (long-term) bottlenecks and their solutions:

  1. Perform a bottleneck analysis by crafting a service blueprint as I’ve explained above;

  2. Identify what causes a bottleneck: is it because of people (performers) or technology (systems)?;

  3. A first solution can be increasing the efficiency of the step. For example, you can eliminate redundant or excessive steps, usually the more simple a process is, the better. You can upgrade the related software to better fulfill the task or list all the processes that can be automated and replace people with technology. You can eventually compare your workflow with competitors and copycat them. Besides, you can interview employees and understand the difficulties that they are facing;

  4. A second solution is decreasing input to the bottlenecked step. For instance, you can drop production, but it should never be a long-term solution, since it causes a reduction of profits. You can add more staff to the process, but it is also a risky solution, since additional personnel raises costs and requires higher coordination efforts. In other words, it decreases profits too.


To solve bottlenecks, I usually focus on flows and tasks first. In my professional experience, the majority of delays are caused by the incapacity of managers and entrepreneurs to prioritize important and urgent tasks. When management understands the difference between the two, workflows start working smoothly again.


If your digital marketing department is experiencing operational inefficiencies, book a web marketing consultancy with me. I can help you.


Another tool that I always suggest to use is Teamwork. This is the best project and team management tool worldwide. I can state this after testing Monday.com, Trello and many others.


Among the many features of Teamwork, you can exploit its powerful reports to analyze employees’ workload and performance. In this way, you will always be a step forward in preventing performers’ bottlenecks.





HOW TO IMPROVE BUSINESS OPERATIONAL EFFICIENCY




As already mentioned before, a service blueprint is a tool to diagnose efficiency problems, but it doesn’t fix them, per se.


Let’s see the strategic uses of a marketing blueprint.



Standardizing business processes

According to Marketing and management of Kotler and Keller, managers should use a service blueprint to standardize performance throughout the organization.


Variable procedures always lead to major risks and unexpected fail points. I’m not only referring to complex processes, but also to small back office tasks like ordering files in a standard way.


In 2003, Harvard Business Review issued The lean service machine where the author, Cynthia Karen Swank, explained how difficult it is for substitutes to find stored files in organizations where employees are free to choose their own storing system. She quoted an insurance company where some employees ordered files by the policyholder (alphabetical), others by policy number (chronological) and others by date received.


A viable solution is adopting a production-lining approach where:

  • Tasks are simplified: they can be designed from scratch or a bigger task can be divided into easier and smaller subtasks;

  • Technology automations are preferred to people to avoid human errors;

  • Employees have clear and very specific assignments without much latitude. In this way, they learn how to fulfill the task faster and better.


Wherever technology can’t substitute human labor, organizations should write policies and best practices. In other words, they should introduce standard operating procedures. They can be instructions for performing a technical task, dress-code policy, social media policy and other best practices for operating processes.


A standardized service delivery allows companies to output quality seamlessly over time and managers can easily audit processes. It improves productivity and decreases costs.


A standardized approach is used by most fast food outlets in which blueprints are designed to support volume operations.


Despite all the advantages, managers should consider the trade off between operational efficiency and tailored delivery for a better customer experience.



Dealing with critical failures

Fail points are always around the corner and employees must be trained to execute plan B when things go south.


For example, based on their role, employees must be trained to deal with objections. Let’s say you are a social media manager and a user starts posting complaints on your company’s page.


What would you do?


In this case, the best solution is moving the conversation to a private channel (e.g. email). You have to reassure the user that their compliant will be taken care of and redirect them to the consumer complaint department or the person responsible for the related issue.



Reducing the number of contact points

In 2004, Journal of Business Research issued Blueprint the service company: managing service processes efficiently by Sabine Fließ and Michael Kleinaltenkamp, where it is explained how less contact points lead to a greater efficiency.


Every contact point between company and consumers generates a risk of failure. For example, an employee can be very tired and gives a bad answer to a client. Human error is always the most risky factor.


A solution can be empowering customers with self-service or self-guided processes that involve technology rather than people.


However, the drawback to this strategy is lacking flexibility and differentiation.



Increasing customer participation

You can use a service blueprint to introduce do-it-yourself services by increasing the level of participation, in terms of effort and involvement, of your customers.


This approach aims at lowering costs of service delivery.


For example, you can implement a co-creative process which is a subcategory of co-marketing and involves customers in the creation of a product/service (also called joint-production).


Besides, bank management should prefer customers to use online banking instead than the over-the-counter service, since it is more expensive (in a bank perspective).



Separating complexity

Management should aggregate tasks with similar difficulty levels in clusters with own procedures and performance.


Reusing the bank example, it should separate retail customers, with easy-to-process transactions, from commercial customers who make large operations. In this way, queue will be remarkably reduced and customers perception will positively increase.



Grouping linked processes

Complex services may require multiple passages of paperwork/data among contact employees, back office and support department. In other cases, the actual customer has to move from one office to another, like in the majority of public institutions.


Placing linked processes close to each other not only helps operational efficiency, but it also widens employees perspective. It enables them to focus on the overall customer journey and see the impact of their actions to the whole system.



Removing loop-backs

Manufacturers shouldn’t return works to previous steps for further processing. A loop-back generates confusion among employees and increases system complexity.


For example, the staff can have troubles to prioritize and schedule tasks. It requires management to intervene and clarify roles and work pipeline.



Dominating fail-points

A service provider can blame both itself or customers for critical failures in service delivery.


In the first case, the service provider fails. A business process flow chart helps understand what’s going on and management can take appropriate actions.


An employee might miss following a script and doesn’t serve customers properly. That’s why diagnosing and analyzing fail points is fundamental in improving business operational efficiency.


In the second case, customers may not understand how to proceed in their journey or omit fundamental actions in the process. For example, they can fail in presenting the necessary documents for a medical visit.


Customer failures are due to a lack of information or company’s resources. Organizations should provide a checklist of what is required from the customer and guide them during the whole process. If a company lacks resources, it must adopt short-term strategies to make a quick fix for the problem while acquiring new resources and assets.





CONCLUSIONS




Now, you have all of the knowledge to audit your business. I want to know from you what’s the first reason why you will craft a service blueprint? Is it to discover bottlenecks or improve customer satisfaction? Increase productivity or discover fail points?


Let me know in the comments below!



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