Not too long ago, Mike Tully discovered something important about the perception of time. The AAA Arizona president and others in his organization were not on the same clock as members requesting roadside assistance.

AAA Arizona measured effective responses from the point when its personnel dispatched tow trucks until those trucks actually arrived on the scene. Members started their countdowns from the moment they phoned in for help. Sometimes that meant a difference of eight or nine minutes — something that became abundantly clear when members called back before tow trucks even hit the road.

Fortunately, AAA Arizona and many other businesses are now gaining important customer-experience insights through a technique called “service blueprinting,” which asks organizations to evaluate and improve services by looking at them through the eyes of customers.
The concept of utilizing the customer’s perspective to develop a comprehensive service blueprint dates back several decades to a technique first discussed by G. Lynn Shostack, a one-time Citibank vice president, in the Harvard Business Review. The tool has evolved through the years and, now, has been outlined in great detail by three researchers with ties to Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business.

“Service Blueprinting: A Practical Technique for Service Innovation,” was published in the California Management Review this past May and co-authored by Mary Jo Bitner, Amy L. Ostrom and Felicia N. Morgan. Bitner is academic director for ASU’s Center for Leadership Services and the PetSmart Chair in Services Leadership at the W.P. Carey School of Business, while Ostrom is an associate marketing professor there. Morgan, a former ASU doctoral student, is an assistant marketing professor at the University of West Florida.

In working with companies, Ostrom says, it became apparent there was a need for an in-depth paper that included case studies of businesses that used blueprinting and realized its value.

“The technique, in a broad sense, is really focused on having people internally within an organization come together to help them really understand what it is they’re offering to the marketplace,” Ostrom says.

The objective is to get a handle on the actual customer experience and look for ways to improve and innovate. It involves mapping everything from face-to-face customer contact to behind-the-scenes support services.

“You end up getting a very, very clear diagram of what the customer’s walking through,” Tully says.

AAA Arizona was able to identify something of an annoyance for customers dealing with different departments. As a company that provides multiple products ranging from insurance to travel assistance, it’s not unusual for members to take care of different needs on a single call. AAA discovered customers were being asked to provide the same membership information each time their call was transferred from one department to another.

The organization now has a vice president who works on tightening up the service encounter for customers, eliminating any unnecessary hoops they’re being asked to jump through.

The benefits of a service blueprint can be wide-ranging. Organizations are able to chart how they provide services to customers, and then compare those findings with competitors’ practices.

“When you’re able to do things that customers value and do them better than your competitors, I think in general, that puts you in a much better situation,” Ostrom says.

Although some companies already make considerable efforts to understand their customers’ needs, oftentimes they don’t quite have a big-picture view of everything customers go through as part of the service experience. Blueprinting provides such insights and may indicate the need for additional research.

And, as Tully suggests, satisfied, happy customers usually deliver stronger profits.

“I clearly think it does contribute to bottom-line performance,” he says.

Blueprinting is not just something for service-oriented businesses.

“Any company can use it because every company, to be honest, tends to be (a) service business when you really think about what they do,” Ostrom says.

A company might not be focused on providing services for external customers, but every company provides internal services.

Developing a comprehensive service blueprint requires collaboration across an entire organization, with input from front-line employees, middle management and senior management.

“This process of bringing people together within the organization that don’t tend to talk to one another normally gives them a picture of what the customer experience is that’s just different than they get through other techniques,” Ostrom says.

Service blueprinting is also flexible and can be modified to address a company’s unique situation. Examples include a business that interfaces exclusively with customers online or one that has to target the needs of different types of customers.

Ostrom has been working with companies on service blueprinting for some time through the Center for Services Leadership. But her first daylong workshop was scheduled in January and future such workshops are in the planning stages.

The full-day format allows Ostrom ample time to offer an overview of the technique and then guide attendees through the modification process.

“We find once people learn the tool and get some exposure to working with it in their own context, that gives them the knowledge they need to go back and start using it more widely within their own organization,” she says.