Does Intangibility Make Service Innovation More Difficult?

Innovationby Nancy Stephens

Intangibility is one of the apparent ways in which services differ from products; unlike products, services cannot be seen or touched.  It occurred to me that as a consequence, people probably don’t sit around looking at services and thinking of ways to improve them the way they can do it with products.

I once worked on a project that involved researching U.S. patents and I was surprised to see how many patents are granted to imaginative people who have looked at a tangible object and decided that it could be better.  For example, Floyd Haws had difficulty handling the garden hose when he watered his California lawn, so he invented a “hose outlet support bracket” and was granted a patent on it in 2006.  Amy Harris earned a patent on a “removable crib mattress with detachable top pad” in 2000 to make it easier to put her baby to bed.  (Although such individuals have won patents, they have not necessarily won commercial success with their inventions.)

Is there a services equivalent to the productive musings of Floyd Haws and Amy Harris?  Do people sit around thinking about service processes and how they could be improved?  I would argue no, they do not and that is because the services are intangible.  It is so much easier to think about things that we can see right in front of us.  Yet, enabling ourselves to visualize services is possible.

Service blueprinting is a tool that many people use to draw, examine and analyze service processes and it may approximate tangibility.  I always ask my MBA students to draw a service blueprint when trying to critically examine a service.  One young man described his company’s process of collecting lease payments and lamented that it was always a problem.  His internal customer, the regional manager, was often dissatisfied.  “This was a real pain point,” my student explained, “and we couldn’t figure out why.  After we blueprinted the process, it dawned on us that the regional manager never received any physical evidence of the lease payment – not an email, a phone call, nothing.” 

In example, the process of collecting lease payments was designed without thinking of the internal customer’s experience.  Sending notification doesn’t add value to the process from the provider’s perspective but it is very valuable to the customer.

The service blueprint helped visualize the cause of the internal customer’s dissatisfaction and suggested solution ideas, such as automatic emails with the updates about the payment status.  It made the service more tangible and injected the customer prospective that was missing before.

Perhaps the service blueprint is the tool that we can use to see the service process as we might see a tangible object.  And if that happened, we might see more innovation in services.

4 thoughts on “Does Intangibility Make Service Innovation More Difficult?

  1. Lance A. Bettencourt

    Hi Nancy. Thanks for the post. When it comes to working out the details of a service, blueprinting works very well. And when the goal is to find points where a current service might be modified, the same holds true. However, when it comes to very different ideas – whether they are product- or service-focused – I believe the key is to start with customer needs. If the needs themselves are solution-independent (e.g., it takes a long time to roll my garden hose, I do not get a backache when putting my baby down to sleep), then I believe it is just as easy – or hard – to come up with new service ideas (not necessarily as easily patentable, though). That said, there are certainly needs that are more likely to lead to innovation of products versus services and vice versa.

    1. Nancy Stephens

      Great comment, Lance, and I agree. The service blueprint imposes structure that is more appropriate when one knows what buyer needs must be fulfilled. What I notice is that users almost always notice something about their customer’s experience that they did not realize before blueprinting it.

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