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Service blueprints are an incredibly helpful CX tool. I’m a researcher who works with product and service companies to ensure that the customer's voice is included in their overall strategy, and I frequently use service design blueprints to help clients visually understand their service system, see how the customer ties into it all, and identify areas for improvement or innovation.

What Is A Service Blueprint?

Have you ever seen an actual blueprint? You know, those classic ones that are drawn up by architects? They are well thought out and include multiple perspectives and considerations for the surrounding environment. You can look at it and understand how a few smaller spaces link up to create a bigger one, such as the many rooms of a house. These same aspects of a classic blueprint show up in the service blueprint. 

First off, it's important to note that the 'services' we're talking about include all of a company's services, not just the customer-service services.

A service blueprint is a visual that shows the relationships between various service components that are directly tied to touchpoints in a customer journey. Represented in the form of a diagram, it includes people, props, and processes.

This nifty tool was created back in 1984 by G. Lynn Shostack through the Harvard Business Review. Her service blueprint diagrams mapped out the steps of a service process. The service blueprint added clarity for someone to document their service process, making improvement areas easier to spot. It was also used as a reference point to make new designs. 

So what does it actually entail? The overarching theme is that it’s constructed from a customer’s perspective. Although there are many versions, the core aspects include:

  • Customer Actions
  • Front-stage Actions
  • Back-stage Actions
  • Line of Visibility
  • Support Processes
  • Props
  • Inventory
image of service blueprint sample
Source: Nielsen Norman Group, 2017

As you read through each of these core aspects in detail, imagine them on the service blueprint, appearing in the same order. At the top, you have the customer's actions, and at the bottom Physical Evidence. 

Customer Actions refer to the steps that a customer takes as part of the service delivery process. 

Front-Stage Actions are the steps taken by the employee in a face-to-face service encounter. These actions are referred to as ‘front stage’ because they involve visible contact of the employee to the customer. 

Back-Stage Actions are the steps taken by that same contact employee from the front-stage actions, but it’s what the customer does not see. For this reason, it’s referred to as ‘backstage’.

The Line of Visibility is an actual line on the diagram that visually separates the front-stage actions and back-stage actions. It’s often dotted, but you can visualize this line however you wish, as long as it clearly separates these two categories of actions. 

Support Processes are the activities carried out by the employees who don’t have any contact with the customer (i.e. not contact employees). Though farther away from the customer’s actual experience, these activities of the non-contact employees are included in the service blueprint because they are actions that are required for the service to be delivered. 

Props refer to the tangible elements included within each step of the customer’s service journey. The physical aspects may not do this 100% of the time, but they have the potential to influence the customer’s perceptions of the service encounter.

Finally, the inventory is the amount of supply needed for each of the steps above. This aspect is not always required. 

Aside from these core aspects of the service blueprint, there are a few other details to add to your service blueprint that can help tie the service journey together nicely. I suggest adding these in only after you have more or less completed mapping out the core aspects. These complementary additions can include:

  • Flow of Actions
  • Roles of People
  • Roles of Tools
  • Swimlanes

The Flow of Actions connects all actions and dependencies along the process. This helps you see the domino effects of how something earlier in the journey can impact another step along the way. Think of it like connecting points in time in chronological order. 

The Roles of People adds some context to the service design blueprint, calling out not simply who someone is, but what they contribute to the process. Similarly, Roles of Tools calls out what technology or other mechanisms are being used to help make the process flow. 

One of my favorite terms used when talking about service blueprints is Swimlanes. This simply describes each section, or row, of the blueprint. This is a clever way to label the rows because just like swimlanes in a race, you have a flow together in the same direction, yet at times the activity in some lanes will be a bit quicker than others, and then slow down while others move forward. 

This is the same with the swim lanes in a service blueprint. Though represented as perfectly lined up, in reality, the processes probably do not flow perfectly across. Some processes stagger and move at alternative paces, all flowing toward the final outcome. This is simply the nature of the movement of complex service systems.

Benefits Of Using A Service Blueprint

Creating a service design blueprint has many benefits for both the customer and internal experiences and operations. 

  • It gives structure and clarity to an often overwhelmingly complex system. After all, the service experience as a whole isn’t fully tangible. Mapping out the service process is the hard work that needs to be done if you really want to understand, optimize, fix, and innovate.
  • You can use it as a tool to show others in the company how to empathize with the customer. The service blueprint is both a knowledge transfer and customer experience engagement tool. It also includes empathy for the internal stakeholders, including aspects of their experiences. 
  • Strategically locate touchpoints to improve and optimize for the customer. This may include operational changes, employee actions, or even roll back into brand management.

The Service Blueprint Design Process

We’ve talked about the pieces that make up a service blueprint, but what about how to actually construct it? What I mean is, the information needed to put into the blueprint may not all be known to you. Often it is other coworkers within the company who have insights into certain swimlanes. In other cases, not much may be understood about the customers themselves.

Here are some simple steps to follow that will help make this blueprinting process less overwhelming:

  • Start with a service blueprint template
  • Identify who/what is needed to fill in each section
  • Identify which journey to focus on
  • Leverage cross-functional relationships
  • Validate it 
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Start with a template

There are many out there, and they all will differ slightly. A good rule of thumb is to find one that includes all of the aspects mentioned above. If it’s missing something like arrows to show the flow of services, no biggie- you can add those yourself.

Identify who and what is needed to fill in each section

You likely will not know the details for each aspect of the service process. Do not fret, this is normal and expected. It’s because of this that I recommend you engage with the various people who are involved in each swim lane.

Perhaps there are tools or systems that your company uses that store some of this customer information. Some examples include a Customer Relation Management tool (CRM), behavioral data tracking, customer support help desk tickets, or marketing analytics. 

Though on its own some quantitative information would be incomplete, together with the other pieces of information, it will provide more color and context to who certain players are in the service process, particularly the customers. 

Decide which specific customer journey to map out 

This can be the trickiest step. Perhaps you have a specific customer segment or persona that you’d like to focus on, as well as a specific journey. Alternatively, you may already have a customer journey map on hand, which can be helpful as it can save a step in creating that first swimlane from scratch. Only use the existing customer journey map if it reflects the service blueprint that you want to create. 

To help you figure out which customer and journey to zero in on, consider these questions:

  • Which kind of customer is struggling the most?
  • Which customer are you most at risk of losing?
  • Who is your most important customer? (e.g. most loyal, most profitable)
  • Is there an area in the service process that you are already aware needs improvement?
  • Are you looking to identify new service pathway opportunities?
  • Is there a service pathway that the majority of customers touch on?

Leverage cross-functional relationships

Now that you’ve got your template ready to go and your customer/journey decided on, the collaboration begins.

Though you may find yourself in a situation where you need to create the service blueprint on your own, do your best to involve others. Making a truly cross-functional visual should involve cross-functional perspectives from the get-go. The multiple perspectives will make the output that much stronger as it will be a truer reflection of the service process. There are many methods you can use here to include other voices, one of which is through workshopping.

You will already have identified who the key players are. Start reaching out. Be ready; not everyone will commit to taking time for a workshop. If this happens, see if you can at least chat with them directly for 15 to 30 minutes to capture their experience. It can be discouraging at times when even internal team members don’t commit time to co-creation. This is a good time to put your empathy hat on and remember that if this process is new to them, they may not initially see the value in it. That’s ok. 

Workshops are powerful tools that can help stakeholders experience firsthand how valuable a service blueprint is. By involving stakeholders early on in the process, they are more likely to absorb the final output, the service blueprint itself. Not only that, they are more likely to engage and buy into it.

Validate it! 

At this point in the process, big congratulations are in order. You’ve got all of the information onto the service blueprint template, and have done some refining. The bulk of the work has been completed. 

It’s fine to take a step away from the service blueprint for a bit. It can even be a good thing as you can come back to it with a fresher set of eyes. Do make sure that you prioritize time to come back to it though.

Validation is an often missed step, making the service blueprint less valuable. How confident are you that the service blueprint accurately represents what’s going on in the service process? Is it free of bias? If you were to ask customers to map out their perspective of their journey, would you see the same answers? What about changes that happen within the service journey? It is for these reasons that validation is important. 

Centering Customers In Your Design

The service design blueprint includes many layers that go beyond the customer. This level of depth is ultimately for the customer themselves though. Think about it. Even if in the service blueprint you’ve identified opportunities for improvement in internal operations, that will still impact the customer. 

I can share a real-world service blueprinting example from my own work. In doing customer discovery work with a SaaS company, we came to the realization that we needed to consider a lot more than initially realized in order to vastly improve and innovate the customer’s experience. This led to the creation of a service design blueprint. 

Upon analyzing the service blueprint for customer experience improvement opportunities, we found that the best place to focus on did not directly involve the user experience at all. Instead, it involved internal operations. 

A major customer pain point was frustration with how long it took to receive notifications about incomplete data sets. Internal staff was overwhelmed with the amount of work they had to do, which involved inefficient manual work. They were functioning reactively instead of proactively, always playing catch up. Furthermore, they were not able to focus on their area of expertise as much as they would have liked. 

Thanks to the service design blueprint, the team was able to pinpoint an area of focus that was getting to the core of the problem instead of continuing to provide temporary, “bandaid” solutions. 

This point in the service process has a high impact on multiple levels, improving the experience of both the customer and internal teammates.

Common Pitfalls in Service Blueprinting

We’ve gone through a lot in terms of understanding what a service blueprint is, and how to create one. Just as with any complex task, there are some things to watch out for during the process. Here are some common pitfalls:

1. Creating it with a biased perspective leads to a less accurate representation

A biased perspective is a common risk when creating an artifact that is meant to speak for other stakeholders outside of the person who created it. Even taking into consideration some of the tips mentioned earlier, it's important to acknowledge that there will always be some bias. Simply make a note of this, and make sure to let others know who will be reading it. 

2. Not explaining how to read the service blueprint

There is something a bit tragic about developing all these great insights, only to present them in a format that is not easily digestible. One thing that can increase the effectiveness of knowledge transition is to explain how to read the service blueprint. Include a few instructions in point form, leading the reader through how to look through such a complex document. 

3. Not sharing the information in a strategic way

If you want your service blueprint to be used effectively, you'll need to create a strategy on how to disseminate the service blueprint throughout the organization. I suggest creating a list of all of the people within your organization who could benefit from seeing the service blueprint. Next, send them a meeting invite. You can share the artifact and present it to them live, walking through each process. This opportunity to engage will likely result in questions, which will help you identify future opportunities to use this tool to help in the service strategy of the customer experience.

4. Not updating the service blueprint regularly

Finally, it’s important to know that service design blueprints will change as the services, customer needs, and solutions adapt. This is normal. Because of this, make sure to update the service blueprints every once and a while. I suggest scheduling a placeholder meeting that automatically shows up every quarter, taking a critical look at how reflective your blueprint is of the true process, and brainstorming changes as needed. 

Let The Drafting Begin!

I hope that you feel like you now have the knowledge and confidence to start creating your first service blueprint. Not only will this tool help you create value for the customer from end-to-end, but you will have created something that can immensely benefit operational processes and people within the company that you are working with.

Are you curious about using any other CX mapping tools? Check out the 10 Best Customer Journey Mapping Tools.

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By Lauren Oswald

Lauren Oswald is a research and strategy consultant, with a background in psychology and technology. Working independently as o systema, she helps clients understand their customers so that they can integrate exceptional CX into their product and service offerings.