Attempts at a universal definition have so far been futile, because, across different sectors services don’t look or feel the same. Ask two people what service are and can easily give several examples after a puzzled look. Ask them to define ‘service’, and they’ll probably quote dictionaries, theories and frameworks, and then promptly argue over the use of particular words. Ask them what water is and there is some chance they may at least agree it is H2O. There aren’t any scientific definitions for services. Legal definitions go back to the times when services were a form of ‘consideration’ feudal tenants paid feudal lords.
At one level, it may not even matter. Everybody knows what services are. However, the answer to the question “What is even a service?”, can become important when, every now and then, we face the challenge of developing a new concept for a service, developing or improving a design, or even figuring out why a service keeps failing. Instead of seeking a universal definition, it may be better to just reach a temporary understanding (a scaffolding of sorts), about what services are, what they can be, and why they even exist. Then you can maintain this understanding or discard it.
To help us form one such understanding, we enlist the help of two professional critics. You can give them any idea or concept and they will criticize it. They don’t always agree with each other, and that’s good. So, here’s how it works. We start by making a simple statement about services. They criticize it. We modify the statement. They criticize it some more, and then hopefully we get somewhere close to an understanding.
Services fulfill a set of needs.
Tom: Are you serious?
Jerry: Ok, everybody knows that. Proceed.
Services are performances … that fulfill a set of needs.
Tom: Ok, they get a job done and that satisfies a set of needs.
Jerry: But it’s not just performances is it? Services also make things available to us. For example, a convenience store, a toll road, or a seat on a bus or tram that will take me somewhere.
Tom: Wait, moving people is clearly a performance.
Jerry: I don’t care how moving the performance may be, if there isn’t a seat for me, or if it is going to be too long of a wait, if my destination is not on the route. As Lucius Burckhardt said, “It is not the tram that makes transportation a successful experience. It is the schedule.”
Tom: Lucius who?
Jerry: He was a Swiss sociologist and economist. You should read more.
Tom:I agree. Not about the reading more often, but about services being more than just performances. When I borrow money, it’s the loan amount and period that matter, not the lending process.
Services are … performances and affordances … that … fulfill a set of needs.
Tom: What are affordances?
Jerry: That’s interesting. I love the word affordance. I first came across it in …
Jerry: No, not affordability. A-F-F-O-R-D-A-N-C-E. To afford means to provide, to give, to make available, to furnish or supply …
Tom: You mean …
A voice from behind: Let him finish.
Jerry: Thank you. Yes, Tom, please afford me the opportunity to finish my sentences. Allow me to explain, that, to afford, also means, to accommodate, within a space or time period. For example, when you rent a safe deposit box or locker at a bank, you are given access to a container for you to store your valuables. From being situated within the bank’s vault, the space within the locker is part of a secure environment. The bank goes to the necessary lengths in protecting the vault. Therefore, anything the accountholder places inside the locker is afforded a certain level of security. The larger the locker, the greater the affordance. Every layer of protection the bank applies to the vault, including fire protection, adds to the affordance in proportion to the space inside. Since it is not possible to open the locker without the accountholder’s private key, privacy is also a part of the affordance.
Tom: What about Swiss bank accounts?
Jerry: Same idea. They afford secrecy.
Jerry: When you purchase a ticket for the tram, it first gives you access to the entire schedule. It allows you to board any tram you want, or the next available one. Then, the ticket allows you to occupy any available seat or standing space, except the driver’s seat of course. There are seats reserved for the disabled, the elderly, and the pregnant. Those are affordances themselves, as is the areas marked for bikes, strollers and luggage. Affordances within affordances. They are usually bundled together and paid for by a single ticket. Which is why airlines are able to unbundle them, charging you separately for seats and checked baggage. Affordances are also in terms of allowances in terms of which seat a passenger can occupy and in which cabin. There are restrictions on how much you can bring on board in terms of weight, dimensions, and what you are not allowed to carry as per regulations. Therefore, inherent in the concept of affordance are degrees, limits and restrictions because of the costs and risks incurred by the environment.
Tom: Are you done?
Jerry: There are more examples I can give, but yes, I’m done.
Tom: Oh good. I thought you’d go on about container ships, rockets and cargo space. I get it. Many service providers price their options according to the allowances. For example, how many gigabytes I’m allowed per month, or how many miles a year on a leased vehicle. I also get how when I can’t afford to pay for something it means my budget doesn’t allow for it. But when a bank lends me money, their balance sheet accommodates the risk and carries my debt. That’s what services do. Assume certain costs and risks. The interest I pay on the loan is sort of an affordance fee.
Jerry: Something like that, yes. We could very well use the word “allowances” instead.
Tom: No, I like the word affordance. I hated my allowances. They were never enough. They couldn’t afford me half the things I wanted.
Jerry: He is a quick learner …
Tom: It is because I have the capacity for abstract thought.
Jerry: O’ Brother …
Tom:Okay … moving on.
Services are … performances and affordances … that fulfill a set of needs.
Jerry: What about experiences? Aren’t services about experiences? The experience of riding that tram for example.
Tom: You’re right we should include that. But I think they’re more about the outcomes. What am I buying when I pay for that ticket? Being somewhere. Therefore, I get all of what I paid for only after I am actually there. It’s not the journey. That’s just what I have to go through to get there. During the journey I am only partially there. Every centimeter the tram moves forward towards the destination, I get a bit more of my money’s worth. Like a partially downloaded file. I want the whole thing. What if the tram breaks down or for some reason the tracks are blocked? What if the download is interrupted?
Jerry: Then you can down-load off the tram and pretend to (air quotes) be somewhere. [Laughs]
Tom: Funny guy. That’s fine. As long as I only pay for the distance travelled. But in this case, I am not where I paid to be, and within a certain timeframe. You see, tram arrives on time, not just for the people waiting to step in, but crucially, also for those stepping out. That’s what the tram’s schedule effectively does. It links all these possible time slots across the city, generating millions of combinations that accommodate the journeys people make. That’s the affordance of the entire tram system. I think that’s why your friend Lucius places that emphasis on the schedule in that quote.
Jerry: The experience matters a lot. Say the next tram is about to arrive, and within 30 seconds I am able to quickly purchase a ticket at the tram stop, because they make it effortless. There are several ticket machines, which accept many forms of payments, including contactless cards, or even a smartphone with an NFC chip. The app would make it very easy to know if that’s the tram you should be stepping into. No more missing the tram from still trying to figure that out, by asking around, or by trying to read from a printed schedule or map. I agree, the outcome I am paying for is the outcome of being somewhere. But the journey needs to be safe and comfortable as well. The spaciousness, the seats, the grips, the windows, the lighting, and even the shocks. Otherwise, I wouldn’t want to ride the tram at all. I’d call a cab or something.
Tom: You’re right. But here in this example we’re talking about the transport of people with feelings. Therefore, the experience not only stretches from origin to destination, in our evaluations, it also gets mixed with the outcome which we receive only upon arrival. If you’re a tourist you may additionally enjoy getting a feel of the neighborhoods the tram passes through, at no extra charge. Whereas when we ship a package, we limit the scope of our evaluation to the steps that involve sending, receiving, tracking and paying for the shipment.
Jerry:So, where are we now?
Services are performances and affordances, resulting in outcomes and experiences that fulfill a set of needs.
Tom: It’s a bit long but I can get used to it.
Jerry: Since the experiences are towards the outcomes, I don’t mind making them parenthetical although that might make it seem like we are downplaying their importance. But we are not. We should also consider using the word “producing” because, I think, outcomes and experiences together make a product. The outcomes are the “goods” that we pay for, and the experiences are the “packaging”. For the customer, the experiences make the outcomes easier to enjoy and obtain, and thereby improve the value of the whole product. And much like with the packaging of consumer and industrial goods, service experiences can create product variants or options, by making the same outcome enjoyable and obtainable in more ways than one. People can choose to pay a premium for additional assurances, conveniences, or privileges.
Jerry: But, why a set of needs? Why not just needs?
Tom: Because, you need to be somewhere and therefore you need to have a seat on the tram. Your valuables need to be protected and therefore need to have space inside the vault. Or, you need to have access to the locker and therefore your identity needs to be validated. The needs go hand in hand, therefore a set.
Jerry: Ok, I see.
Services are performances and affordances, producing outcomes (and experiences) that fulfill a set of needs.
Tom: Ok, I have to go now. I have chores to complete for mom and dad, and then my daily prep for those college entrance tests.
Jerry: Dude, we are in middle school so stop worrying about college. I help you with those chores and then let’s go skateboarding instead.
[Thank you, Tom, thank you Jerry]