Smart companies trust people

by Andy Polaine on March 4, 2014

in General, Links

I just backed David Hieatt’s upcoming book, Do Purpose on the crowd-funded publishing site, Unbound. David is a smart guy and a kind of serial entrepreneur. The book explores companies that focus on their purpose. Here’s an excerpt:

Most companies don’t have a purpose. This may sound odd but most people have forgotten why they are in business. The founders are dead. The purpose is no longer there. They think it is just to make money. But making money is a result. It is not the purpose. For me, a business that has a purpose is much more energised. It is the wind for the sailboat. It pushes you and the team on. It is the fuel for the journey ahead.

A lot of businesses fail because they give up. They give up because they never had a purpose so when things get tough, they quit. I would say 90% of businesses haven’t worked out why they are in business. I think it’s vital to do so. It’s important to do so because it gives you great motivation. Understand the why. It’s pivotal to your success. Your team needs to understand it. And sooner or later your customer will get what you are about too.

In a recent blog post David writes about smart companies who understand that most people are good:

For me, I don’t understand bad service. Why wouldn’t you be on the customer’s side? Why would you go to all that trouble to get a customer just to let them walk away? Why would you want a customer just once and not for a lifetime? 99% of customers are good people. Yet, all the rules in place are to protect companies from the 1% who aren’t so good.

The best companies have figured that one at. They have realised most people are good. They give them the benefit of the doubt. Smart companies trust.

As someone involved in service design, this is a question I ask about ten times a day. Germany (where I live) and Switzerland (where I work) tend to have excellent infrastructure, which means things like trains (especially trains) and public services work very well. But they also have terrible customer service when things go wrong, which is the time when you need excellent customer service most of all. I’ve lost count of the times companies have acted unreasonably, even illegally, in order to stick to the point of a contract or terms and conditions. It seems so obvious that you shouldn’t treat people this way, especially paying customers, so why does it happen?

The answer is culture and culture comes from a sense of purpose.

There is a phrase often used by managers in Germany and Switzerland, which is Vertrauen ist gut, Kontrolle ist besser!. It roughly translates as “trust is good, control is better.” It is why organisations still insist on using clunky and useless time tracking tools such as SAP, despite ample evidence that it reduces motivation and job satisfaction and thus productivity. If you can read German, my college, Jan-Erik Baars recently wrote a good post about this (or read the rather average Google translation of it).

This culture of trying to constantly monitor what employees do harks back to the mindset of the industrial age. It might make sense when employees give their physical labour, but their mind is theirs to own, but it makes little sense in any kind of service or knowledge working industries in which the mind-body connection is paramount. That is to say, around 80% of developed nations’ economies. We want to interact with humans, not robots. The irony of this phrase used by corporate managers is that it was originally coined by Lenin.

The worst effect of this culture is the destruction of trust and the cultivation of resentment. If I pay for a product or a service and something goes wrong, I want to be presumed innocent, not treated as a potential criminal out to rip off the company in question. Of course, a tiny percentage of people may try to rip off that company, but the cost of being nice is that some people will take advantage of you.

Germany and Switzerland are cultures that love rules. There is a rule for everything possible, which means there are forever exceptions to those rules. That creates a culture of rule adherence at the cost of empathy and common sense. Companies that turn this on its head do not even have to stretch that far. Simply being reasonable instead of pernickety can feel like a breath of fresh air. Imagine what a customer feels like when they are actually treated pleasantly. It feels so great you want to remain a loyal customer forever and tell everyone else about it. The same goes for employers. Assume your staff are reasonable adults and treat them as such and they’ll be loyal. Treat them as potential thieves who need to be constantly monitored and they will act like thieves and try and get away with as much as possible.

Companies that get this right have a sense of purpose beyond just making money and they usually make money precisely because of this sense of purpose. I’m looking forward to David Hieatt’s book and his take on how to achieve that.

Mentalism for service delivery?

by Andy Polaine on February 24, 2014

in General

I hope I have left enough time between the broadcast of Series 3 of Sherlock, but just in case you are waiting to binge view, the following contains mild spoilers. (You do know he isn’t dead though, right? Otherwise Series 3 would be called Watson).

Sherlock Series 3 involves Sherlock returning from his overseas sojourn and finding Watson about to marry Mary. Sherlock is chosen to be Best Man. During the preparations, Sherlock uses his skills to vet the guests, confronting an ex-boyfriend who still holds a flame for Mary and using his powers of perception and deduction to discern which guests don’t actually like her based on their RSVP:


(handing him an RSVP card)

John’s cousin. Top table?


(looking at the card)

Hmm. Hates you. Can’t even bear to think about you.


(looking up at him)



Second class post, cheap card ...

(he sniffs it and grimaces)

...bought at a petrol station. Look at the stamp: three attempts at licking. She’s obviously unconsciously retaining saliva.

Later, Mary’s bridesmaid Janine uses Sherlock to check out potential men at the reception:


If that’s the sort of thing you’re looking for the man over there in blue is your best bet. Recently divorced doctor with a ginger cat, a barn conversion and a history of erectile dysfunction.

After watching Sherlock, I went on a bit of a mind wander through YouTube clips of the illusionist/mentalist Derren Brown (who has a cameo in Episode 1 of Season 3) playing tricks with people’s minds. Here he is reading car salesmen’s minds:

We talk a lot in human-centred and service design research about walking in the shoes of users/customers and looking for the differences between what people say and what they do; looking for needs rather than wants. But what would happen if we received service from someone who quite literally knew what we wanted or were thinking better than we knew ourselves? Could this kind of predictive ability provide the perfect service experience, much like the wine waiter who knows just the moment to fill the glass and when to retreat?

In some senses it would be wonderful—every need perfectly anticipated and satisfied before we even asked for it. But at what point would we reach the uncanny valley and the whole thing would become creepy? Getting it completely wrong, like Microsoft’s Clippy would be downright annoying, but what would be the sweet spot between just slightly wrong and too right?

I don’t know if training people delivering services in mentalism skills is going to be the way of the future, but technologies like Google Glass may well provide that kind of background information and feed it to service providers. The effects might be just as uncanny, but at least the advantage of mentalism is that you don’t look like a glasshole.

Update: After hearing about the death of writer, actor and director, Harold Ramis, I watched the film Groundhog Day again. It has similar themes and now I know the answer to some of my questions. Being able to predict people’s needs can be either creepy or wonderful—it all depends on your intentions.

Thanks to Ariane Devere’s transcriptions for the above Sherlock dialogue.

Swiss Design Network coordinator job

February 21, 2014

The Swiss Design Network (I am the HSLU Board Member) is looking for a coordinator to support the head office located at Bern University of the Arts BUA. You can read all this on the PDF description but here are the key details: Relevant skills/experience: experience in cultural, project and event management research background in […]

Read the full article →

Services that fix services and the inverse experience umbrella

February 17, 2014

I often use air travel as the archetypal example of a multi-channel service that unfolds over time. Modern air travel consists of lots of minor annoyances that aggregate to a massive pain in the arse. When analysed individually, each of these annoyances can be dismissed as something not so bad that customers should be willing […]

Read the full article →

Lists and numbers versus stories

December 16, 2013

Eugene Wei posted a piece about why our brains love lists over on his Remains of the Day blog. It explains why all those “20 ways to…” blog post headlines are such popular click bait. But it’s not the list thing that I found so interesting, rather this snippet of Wei’s experience of working at […]

Read the full article →

Lamy’s attention to detail in customer service

October 28, 2013

Several years ago my wife bought me a Lamy 2000 fountain pen as a birthday present. It is a design classic created by Gerd Alfred Müller, released in 1966. If you like writing, the Lamy 2000 is a lovely instrument1. It is not cheap either, retailing at around 190 Euros here in Germany. One of […]

Read the full article →

May the force be with you – service design for invisible connections

October 20, 2013

The video of the talk I gave at DESIS Lab Melbourne at RMIT is online at Service Design Melbourne’s website. The audio is a bit hard to hear because the room had a bit of an echo and I’m mumbling, but I hope you might get something out of it.

Read the full article →

Service Design, The Force and Yoda

July 30, 2013

While I am down under in Melbourne later in August for UX Australia I’m going to be giving a different talk and hosting a discussion at RMIT’s DESIS Lab in the RMIT Design Hub for Service Design Melbourne. My talks is titled May The Force Be With You – Service Design for invisible connections and […]

Read the full article →

ALA Article on Service Design Beyond the Screen

June 30, 2013

As usual I’m behind the curve, but this time I’m behind myself, which is weird. I don’t think I’ll psychoanalyse that too much more. I am really pleased that my article Designing for Services Beyond the Screen was published this week on A List Apart. I’ve been away and blissfully offline all week, so I […]

Read the full article →

Storytelling for Designers

June 20, 2013

As a design educator I watch and read a lot of project presentations. I worked out the other day that I must have seen at least 2,000-3,000 student projects in my time. A key thing I have learned is that the telling of the project’s story, whether as a pitch, presentation or documentation, is as […]

Read the full article →