Introducing the off-stage experience

Imagine having a friendly chat while waiting in line at the local bakery store or sitting next to someone with a too loud iPod in the public transport. In both situations your service experience is influenced even though you don’t have any direct interaction with the company providing the service.
Companies and Service designers alike are missing out on an opportunity to improve the service experience while it’s unfolding right before their eyes.

What is an off-stage experience

Backstage and front-stage should be common terms for any Service designer. The front-stage is where the actual interaction between a customer and company takes place, sometimes this is referred to as the service interface on which touchpoints exist. The backstage is the place where all the organizational logistics take place in order to actually deliver the service. The front- and backstage are the 2 things you always see in a service blueprint. The model below illustrates this situation.

The off-stage model part 1

While this model is correct, it is not complete. It’s missing out on one important fact and that is that most customers usually aren’t alone. Usually there are many other customers at the same time in the service context. Being in the same context these customers constantly interact with each other and thereby influence their own service experience and that of the people around them. These interactions happen on what we could call the off-stage as they don’t involve any interaction with the service provider. Don’t confuse off-stage with ‘not in the service context’. The off-stage is just as much part of the total service context as the front- and backstage are.

The off-stage model part 2

So we could define an off-stage experience as an experience the customer has in the service context in the time he has no direct interaction with the service provider.

I started out with the bakery store and public transport as examples, but almost every service has some kind of off-stage where customers interact. Just imagine how many off-stage interactions happen on your visit to an airport, a cinema or even to IKEA.

While most service providers pay little attention to the off-stage there is one industry in particular where the off-stage experience can make or brake the service; the restaurants! Of course you need to have good food and a friendly waiter but a big part of how you evaluate the service experience in a restaurant depends on how well you spend your time with your dining partner. A good restaurants does everything in it’s power so that you and your partner a have great off-stage experience.

Seize the opportunity

Companies should realize that it is not only how well they deliver their service and how efficient their delivery process is, it’s just as important how their customers experience the time in-between-touchpoints.

In between touchpoints vacuum

The off-stage is just an opportunity to improve the service experience waiting to be seized! It’s time to look at off-stage experiences not as mere by-products of your service but as the place where you can make the difference between your service and that of your competitors.

So, how come (almost) no-one has been talking about this?
We were blinded by the lights coming of the front-stage. What I mean is that service designers are very much focused on the service interface (eg. interaction with the service provider), so much that they don’t notice what’s going on behind them. And you can’t blame them; a lot of the service design terminology points to consumer-provider interaction.

The design of the off-stage should be integrated from the very start of any service design project. Service designers already have a lot of good tools for gaining qualitative customer insights. I would argue that most of these tools are very useful to get a better understanding of the off-stage. The real challenge is to come up with new metaphors and concepts that help to shape the off-stage.

You might say that the off-stage consists of much more then just interactions between people. And you’d be absolutely right! There main reasons I’m focusing on these interactions is because I believe that is were service designers excel and that these interactions makes the biggest impact on the service experience.

Know what to design, and what not

Having a clear view on where and when the interactions take place, is step one. It used to be so that customers only could interact with each other when they were in the same physical space. The off-stage was a thing for services that had of some kind of central physical location like stores, banks, garage, dentist etc.
The Internet has changed this completely. Now also services that have limited physical interaction also have an off-stage. This is a digital off-stage where customers interact with each other. An insurance company, internet provider and electricity company now also have an off-stage that truly matters. Everything from online discussion forums to twitter and linkedin are now the stage where customers interact in-between-touchpoint. UPC and Vodafone are two companies that have a dedicated “web-care” team. Although the web-care team primarily handles complaints on un-official channels, it’s a sign that these companies realize that the online off-stage is also part of their total service context.
The challenge to design a physical off-stage is pretty big, it might be even a bigger challenge to design a digital off-stage as it’s even more intangible.

After you know the where and when you need to figure out the what. I can’t stress this enough, the most important thing is to know what your customers expect and need from the off-stage. Find out if customers already interact a lot or if they prefer to have their personal space, and why. People might come to your local coffee-store expecting that they can bump into an interesting discussion while enjoying their latte or do they expect some peace and quite to read the newspaper?
There are probably already elements on your off-stage that influence the service experience. Now that smoking inside bars is prohibited in the Netherlands an interesting off-stage phenomenon is developing around ashtrays outside the bars. The off-stage element in this case is not the ashtray but the shared social behaviour!
Take into consideration that elements might not belong to you. Especially online a lot of interaction goes on using tools on which you as company have no influence on what so ever.
Talk to your customers, become aware of these elements are and what role they play.

On the off-stage customers are very autonomous. You have to be very careful and subtle when changing this context. Even with good intentions, getting too much into their context can create the feeling that Big Corp. is trying to control something that they should stay out of.
It’s easy to get caught up in the process and ruin the service experience by annoying your customers with an over-designed off-stage. Sometimes a better design might mean getting out of the way!

It’s key that you define the concept of what you want to create before you start thinking about products. When your goal for the off-stage is to get a conversation going between customers you might be better of involving your staff into this than investing in a reading table and magazines.
It’s not about the candle on the table; it’s about creating an pleasant atmosphere. It’s not about the reading table; it’s about creating a shared conversation topic. It’s not about the no-smoking sign, it’s about communicating a policy.

How are you going to be remarkable?

The implications of the off-stage are different for each industry. In some industries the off-stage makes or breaks the service and in others it has little impact. It doesn’t matter if you are running an airport, a hospital or a small ice-cream store. In either case the off-stage always is an opportunity to improve your service and it just might make the difference between you and your competitors.

I’d like to finish with some practical takeaways:

  • Create a map your off-stage as soon as possible. Identify the where, when and what. Start with what you can find on your own and move on to do an in-depth customer insights research. What are you currently doing to influence the off-stage experience?
  • Respect the autonomy of the customers on the off-stage. Be there to help, not just to be there. Staying out of it can also be a conscious design choice!
  • Really take a hard look of whats going on online. Designing the online off-stage experience for anything else then your own website is really hard.
  • An outstanding off-stage experience might actually become one of your selling points. If people start coming to you place for that experience you should reconsider the business you’re in ;)
  • Update your service blueprint to include the off-stage.
  • Focus on people; you’re designing for them, not for the service.
Marc Fonteijn

Marc Fonteijn

Als medeoprichter van 31Volts houdt Marc zich bezig met het verleggen van grenzen binnen service innovatie. Marc helpt organisaties om waarde te creëren voor hun klanten door middel van design.

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  • Comment by Rotkapchen

    Isn’t this effectively looking at the entire supply chain of an experience? Aren’t these the fundamentals of experience design?

  • Comment by errehache

    Interesting view, another aspect to discuss relates to expectations and boundaries. There is the risk, and the opportunity to set new expectations entirely wrong. There could be some confusion by having blurry boundaries of when a service begins and ends (privacy, user control, etc). I remember when I took classes with Christena E. Nippert-Eng she mentioned that home office situations tend to be better when the boundary between home and work is not blurry but distinct (when is it ok to remain with your pijamas all day long…).

    All about service definition and the expectations set

    More on chris

  • Comment by Marc Fonteijn

    Excellent point Roberto! Don’t know if the home/work metaphor applies to services but it’s definitely something to think about. Would the service experience improve with clear or blurry boundaries? It probably depends on the service. And like you say, it might be much more about being able to manage exceptions than to actually define the boundaries. Another thing is that even if you’d have defined boundaries it could be very challenging to actually to put them in practice. Again, great stuff to think about :)

  • Comment by errehache

    Yes, I do agree on the difficulties to apply them in practice, and maybe something that that happens on its own, people setting those boundaries. Still worth to keep in mind. Good article…

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