vendor passing bread to buyer in a bakery

Practical service design approaches that help us build relationships with our stakeholders

April 13, 2021

The field of service design has emerged from a growing need for organizations to reconnect and re-establish closer relationships with their customers, staff members and other essential stakeholders. Through better relationships and a renewed sense of clarity for customer experience, many organizations have realized the potential that service design approaches offer for improving their ability to innovate, generating service value as well as improving the lives of the people they are trying to help. In this article, we will explore three vital relationship values, namely, communication, adaptability and support. We will also explore on a practical level how we can use service design tools in ways that bring these values to life in our organization to improve and strengthen our relationships.

Three values we can bring to life that will enhance our relationships


When we look at lists of common relationship problems, miscommunication stands out as one of the usual suspects. The term “communication”  is used to describe the manner in which we express our experience and transfer this understanding to others. The value of good communication lies in the fact that both parties are able to develop a certain level of clarity regarding the experience in question, and are thus able to provide support that is grounded in fact rather than based on assumptions.  

Developing a culture of understanding means developing the practice of communication

Communication is arguably the most important driver of relationship maintenance, whether this is between individuals or between organizations and their customers. However, despite its importance, many organizations still struggle to reach healthy levels of communication with their customers and other stakeholders. As a result, they miss out on vital opportunities to understand the needs of the people they serve, create false expectations around their services, or fail to connect with the people who actually need their help.

How can service design methods help us practice communication?

Developing personas

Bringing the value of communication to life means engaging in conversation with our customers and understanding who they really are. It means taking an assumption-crushing contextual dive into their lives and the challenges that they are facing. It means driving for truth and systematically seeing the patterns that connect our different customers in order to develop helpful tools that we can leverage during decision making.

Building personas begins with genuine curiosity and usually follows a familiar sequence that begins with:

  • Identifying a cross-section of our customers or other stakeholders who we can research and learn from
  • Engaging with people so that we can gather qualitative and quantitative research data
  • Analyzing and arranging our research for common threads, characteristics and common features
  • Using our organized research data to produce personas that represent different types of people that engage with, use, or deliver our services

For many teams, there is great value to be had simply by engaging in the research process. Being face to face with customers and having real conversations on its own can be a source of inspiration and insight as we learn about peoples’ lived experiences and challenges.

Where to begin:

To initiate communicating with our customers, we can commit to undertaking some research through customer interviews. To do this, we can take a small cross section of our customers and see whether they would be willing to have a 30-40 minute conversation about their interactions with our organization as well as the broader context of their lives.

Develop a short research guide that contains questions about their current experience, the challenges they are faced with, the manner in which  they engage with our services, the experiences they would like to have, and the barriers they are facing getting there. From undertaking this activity, you will learn a lot about the lived experiences of your customers and how to communicate better with them while gaining some real insights for service improvement.

Researching for personas means getting a cross section of the different voices of people who use your services. The more we are able to analyze and find patterns in these voices, the more we will be able to clearly define our personas in ways that allow us to make meaningful decisions. So spend time in the data, allow yourself to be immersed, trust the process because clarity is sometimes not always instantly forthcoming. Good communication requires patience and an ongoing commitment to understanding, so allow for this. Be forgiving, kind and work towards a shared understanding.

More information on how to make Personas.


Being adaptable means embracing change, whether we like it or not. We must look beyond our past successes and realize that our customers' needs are in constant motion, and through this understanding make improvements and changes to the way we do things so that we continue to stay relevant within our customers' lives.  

Adaptability means adjusting our actions to how the conditions are now, not how they used to be.

Service design approaches embrace adaptability through rapid prototyping and experimental shifts in service delivery. We don't wait ten years and wait until a decline in revenue or user numbers pushes our hand - we listen intently, in real time, and make small shifts that improve our service offering.

When we don't listen to our customers yet still feel compelled to innovate our service delivery, we can base changes on assumptions rather than reality. The result? Artificial adaptability - changes that are not required, not wanted and not relevant to our customers.

Having a culture that embraces change means strong communication and a willingness to support people, to experiment and make mistakes. By developing methods of becoming an adaptive, change-friendly organization, we can go a long way in the process of innovating and creating new methods of service delivery.

How can service design methods help us practice adaptability?


Prototyping is an essential part of the design process and is an excellent low-time investment, low-cost method of testing out new service improvements. Through prototyping, we are able to test changes to our service delivery in a way that creates alignment with customer needs through constant feedback and mitigates large amounts of effort being put into solutions that don't match customer needs.

With our customers, prototyping might be as simple as making a pen-and-paper wireframe for an app design that they can interact with, or making a version of our product out of cardboard or some other low-cost material.

The benefit of good prototyping is the ability to visualize and conceive a future experience in the fastest, easiest way possible

If we are looking at improving relationships between team members, we might trial different styles of meetings and seating arrangements, or organize some sessions for sharing and communication between team members. This open-minded approach to testing and trying new methods to improve experiences is the essence of prototyping and remaining adaptable as an organization.

Where to begin:

There are all kinds of prototyping activities we can choose, what is important is that we are basing our prototyping on some good customer insights. Once we have identified a genuine challenge that our customers, employees or other stakeholders are facing, we can get to work.

A great place to start can be process prototyping with our staff. Not only is this an accessible and convenient avenue to start exploring service design, it can also drive communication between members of our organization who rarely connect and improve the flow of our internal work environment.

Perhaps our office environment is too noisy and it is making life difficult for our employees to focus on their work. Can we make cardboard cutouts of pieces of office furniture that will allow people to interact and demonstrate what solutions would be the best for them? Or maybe our customers are having difficulty interacting with our frontline staff. Can we do some roleplaying of different scenarios and think of new ways of engaging with customers that are more helpful?

By taking small, low.cost steps such as these, we can test  the feasibility of service innovations and improvements. In this way, change is ushered in a more cost-effective manner and, with rapid customer feedback, will end up with more reliable end results.


“How can you succeed by helping others succeed? We succeed at our very best only when we help others succeed.”
James C. Collins

I'm not a huge fan of using quotes in articles but I just needed something that would reinforce a point about the dual value of service. Not only do we help others when we act in service, we actually help ourselves as well.

A service mindset is one of the most valuable characteristics that the people within an organization can develop. Why? Because a service mindset speaks exactly to the core of why an organization exists. It helps us identify the areas of people's lives where they need support and drives us to act in ways that are helpful.

If we wake up in the morning with a service mindset, we set out into the world with a kind of problem-solving superpower. We are able to identify opportunities to help others and in return we become a valued part of their lives.

team sitting in an office and discussing

How can service design methods help us practice support?

Journey mapping

Journey mapping can be a great way to build relationships that help us uncover previously obscured or hidden areas for support. By mapping out our customer or employee journeys we can identify pain points that occur as we develop and refine our service delivery.

Pain points are opportunities. Opportunities to form closer connections, a better understanding, and ultimately test new ways of working. Whether we are looking to have a more cohesive environment behind the scenes in the backstage of our service delivery or creating more enjoyable experiences for our customers, journey mapping is an invaluable approach that integrates deep levels of research, insight mining and visualization for our customer journey's.

Where to begin?

Using a digital tool such as Smaply can be a great way of introducing journey mapping into an organization. By engaging with the journey map framework, we initiate a number of different learning opportunities that drive customer engagement, understanding and ultimately support.

As a first step, we are able to use our personas to create assumption.based journey maps of their journeys and engagement with our services. Creating these assumption.based journey maps can be insightful, as we are often able to reveal significant gaps in our understanding or knowledge of our customers.

Identifying what we don't know is an important stage in the journey of finding out what we need to know.

Taking these assumption-based maps, we are able to test and validate them with our customers by conducting genuine qualitative and quantitative research. In doing so, we can confirm or deny whether our existing understanding of our customers is  correct, or whether we have been operating and delivering support from a place of assumption. The richer and more detailed our journey maps can be, the more we will be able to identify customer pain points and address these by modifying the ways in which we deliver support.

Learn more about enhancing relationships by mapping employee experience

In summary

Relationships between the people we work with and the people we serve are the bedrock of our organizations. The ability to nurture strong relationships that support people's needs will have a direct impact on our ability to innovate, deliver great services and create flow within our organization.  

By investing in and valuing behaviors such as communication, adaptability, and support, we can cultivate a culture that not only stays up to date with the needs of its customers, but also continually provides services that are relevant and grounded in reality.

By the skillful use of tools, we are able to bring these values to life within our organization. We are able to create personas in ways that drive communication, prototyping that facilitates meaningful change and journey maps that allow us to see opportunities for where we can support our customers and stakeholders.

The true fruit of knowledge is action, when we are able to bring to life the values we would like to see in our relationships we are able to accomplish improvements that not only benefit  the lives of the people we are helping but also the organizations that we work for.