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Service Design: The Secret to Agency Success

May 26, 2023

Not everyone shares my enthusiasm on this, but service design is one of my favorite parts of agency operations and has the greatest ROI of any internal initiative.

There's practical magic in creating and defining a service that:

  • Meets the needs of your clients

  • Achieves your required business outcomes

  • Is supported by integrated and well-structured backend systems and processes

  • Checks the boxes of thoughtful, intentional, repeatable, profitable, and valuable

All without sucking the autonomy from your team members or turning their work into another shitty checklist deliverable. That is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Good service design will save time and money, increase efficiency, reduce chaos and re-work, make clients happier, and make your services easier to sell. What's not to love about that?

 In my experience, you need three things to develop good service design:

  • Intentionality

  • Balance

  • Commitment

Good service design is hard work. It’s an intentional investment that requires true collaboration and openness to differing ideas and perspectives. It doesn’t happen by accident. It requires the commitment of team members and leadership to spend the time, effort, and expense to develop and then maintain it. It also requires balance. 

Anyone who has worked with me for any amount of time knows how much I love that word, “balance”. With service design you have to balance the individual needs of your clients with the needs of your business to create a valuable deliverable for them without burning your team out with a revolving door of bespoke projects with ambiguous requirements and rapidly shrinking margins. Been there, done that. It sucks.

Lack of clarity is a death sentence to deliverables

Photo of screen with "Game Over" written. Game characters above. Credit: Sigmund - Unsplash

When the client isn’t clear on what they’re receiving, they’ll come up with their own vision for the deliverable, one that is never fully articulated and always open to interpretation. This sets your team up for failure. How can you deliver something if you don’t know what’s expected of you?

For your team members, a lack of clarity around the inputs, outputs, and deliverables means that each team member can and will do it differently each time. This leads to inefficient work, inconsistent outcomes, and a lot of frustration from SMEs, managers, and your BD folks who never know what in the hell they’re pitching (we’ll get back to these folks in a minute). And it always leads to heroics.

I’m guilty, so very guilty of jumping in at the 11th hour to save a doomed deliverable and then pulling out my hair trying to understand why our very smart SMEs can’t “do it right”. I was an asshole. But I wasn’t alone in it.

It happened enough times across enough teams that we had to step back and reassess why we weren’t able to produce consistently exceptional outcomes. It was because we had never defined what an “exceptional outcome” looked like. It was always one of those, “you know it when you see it” endeavors. But it didn’t have to be.

Most everyone knows the Stephen Covey quote, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”. While it’s most often used when talking about interpersonal relationship building, it’s just as poignant in a service design context.

When you take the time upfront to understand your clients and their needs, lead with empathy, and a drive to deliver value (not just trying to bleed the value from them) you are guaranteed to deliver something that is better received by the client and more enjoyable for your team to develop.

No one wants to spend time and effort creating a PowerPoint that goes off to die in someone’s inbox. Talk about soul crushing. If you start with what your client actually needs and work back to the process of creating it, you can build something that works for both parties. 

I know that sounds basic, but you’d be amazed the number of times I’ve seen very smart people create and pitch services without defining them first only to burn everyone come deliverable time.

Service design is hard. Harder than pitching a service or selling your client what they want to hear rather than what they actually need to receive.

Don’t sell what you don’t understand

Yeah, yeah. I can hear it right now. The cries of outrage from every BD person or agency founder who needs to bring in revenue but “doesn’t have time” to develop service design or learn the services thoroughly enough to pitch them well. I get it. I’ve been there. I’ve sold things that a client asked for knowing full well that we either hadn’t done it before, hadn’t defined it well enough, or there was only one person who could do it and they were resourced to the gills. 

That doesn’t change that it’s a dumb idea. You’ll get burned. The client will get burned. Your team will get burned. Just don’t do it.

Even a couple hours spent with your SMEs talking through the deliverables, what they do and don’t deliver, what they look like, and their value to the client will save you so much headache. Call it “service design lite”, call it “protecting your own ass”, whatever makes you set aside the time to make sure what you sell is what your clients will receive.

 K.I.S.S - Keep it simple stupid

Neon sign that says "KISS". Credit: Tim Mossholder - Unsplash

Right about now you might be telling me to kiss something else. That’s fine. But the good news is that the only bad service design is no service design.

It doesn’t need to be complicated or extremely detailed. You can get started with just a few key details:

  1. What is your service? What are the key features and benefits? What problem does it solve for your client? How does it differ from what your competitors deliver? How long does it take and how much does it cost?

  2. Who is it for? What types of clients benefit most from this service? What qualities do clients need to have for them to be successful? For example, a content strategy delivered to a client without any writing resources or budget to pay writers is basically a paperweight. Every service is not for every client.

  3. How do you deliver the service? List out the steps from the pre-qual BD stage all the way until after you deliver it to the client. Some steps are short and sweet (schedule a kickoff call), whereas others will need their own SOPs (complete a technical SEO audit, restructure an advertising account, complete a content gap analysis, etc.). Define what the steps are first and then assign out the individual pieces to your SMEs to document. Ensure you put time estimates to each step and task. This is where you find the hidden costs and help ensure you’re pricing fairly.

  4. What tools, systems, or backend integrations do you need? Defining this helps to ensure you have the right backend systems, but also that your team knows they exist and know how to use them. This can cut down on the cost of duplicative subscriptions, identify gaps or ineffective current solutions, and also create clarity in team member training.  

  5. What does the deliverable look like? Remember that we’re shooting for a consistently exceptional experience. Defining the deliverable ensures that your SMEs know what they’re aiming for, the BD folks know what they’re selling, and the client knows what they’re receiving. Deliverables can and will vary, of course, but defining an example keeps your team on the right track.

  6. Test & iterate. Service design is an iterative process. Once you have a working design you’ll need to continue to test and improve it. Get feedback from clients after each stage of the project. Get feedback from your SMEs on what went well and what didn’t.


Service design is never done

I once had a really interesting exchange with another member of the leadership team when talking about what services we should be pitching and how to integrate a certain segment of the business into our other teams and services. In frustration, that person exclaimed that, “We already did service design a few years ago! I don’t understand why it’s not done! Why do we need to do it again?”

I hate to be the bearer of uncomfortable truths, but service design is never done. 

Store front with text on window that says, "Wake up. Kick Ass. Be Kind. Repeat." Credit: Chris Curry - Unsplash

Services can and should be constantly evolving - with your SMEs knowledge, with feedback from clients, with the changing market and technology, and a whole host of other things.

Letting your services go stagnant is a quick way to be surpassed by your competitors.

I’ve seen it happen. I’ve let it happen. Not intentionally, of course, but when you get busy with other things revising the thing that “still works” is low on the priority list. But if no one is keeping an eye on it, you won’t realize how quickly it stops working. Not out with a bang, but with a whimper.


Talk less. Listen more.  

Bring diverse opinions into your service design. Our work is better when we have multiple opinions and sets of experiences contributing to it. Involve the BD folks, your client services team, your internal marketers, and the SMEs closest to the work, especially the quiet ones. They have a lot to say. Listen openly and ask the tough questions. 

Group of five people in a conference room. One at the white board with sticky notes, the others seated around a conference table with their computers, pens, and sticky notes. Credit: Jason Goodman - Unsplash

One of my favorite things to do, albeit often uncomfortable, was to go to a group of team members and ask point blank, “How are we fucking this up?”. If you create a safe space to share that feedback, they’ll tell you.

It’s painful and humbling and can sometimes feel overwhelming. But it’s also a good thing. If your team members will share with you, and you commit to taking their feedback to heart, they’ll also work like hell to help you fix it and make it better.

Be the kind of leader that embraces the fuckups as much as the successes. Be open with your own failures, the things that didn’t go well, and the ways you want to help make things better. If you can do that, your team members will do it too. That’s the only way we can foster an environment of continuous improvement.

In my humble opinion, service design is one of the most important things your business can do to ensure stability, quality, and the ability to scale.

So, what do you think? Any tips to add or things you disagree with? I’d love to hear about your adventures in service design and what you’ve learned along the way.