For the service edge, think like a designer

By Natalie Turner, Author, Yes You Can Innovate

Last month, my business partner and I decided to switch our bank account to DBS. I must say, it was truly an exceptional experience. From entering its pod-like lobby at the Marina Bay Financial Centre, which looked like a cross between a five-star-hotel reception and a spaceship, I was mesmerised. Could this really be a bank?

From there on, I found myself analysing every little detail of its service offering — from its high-touch interaction with customer service representatives, to the low-touch experience of interacting with its technological platforms.

Initially, we were approached by a woman, immaculately dressed in cheongsam-styled corporate colours of striking red and black, to ask if we had an appointment, which we did. She ushered us to a chaise lounge sofa.

Unobtrusive iPads were cradled in silver docking ports where we could, if desired, browse away the time. A woman approached us with a basket of chocolates and I half-expected champagne to follow next. Within a few minutes, our number showed on the screen and we were ushered to a curvaceous white space. It was here that we met Ms June Tai.

For the next hour or so, Ms Tai, tirelessly and quite joyfully, explained in detail all the things we needed to provide, the contractual arrangements on the paperwork and what would happen next. Her product knowledge of the suite of services was laudable, from savings and credit cards to mortgages, and if she did not know the answer to a question, she knew someone who did. I was so impressed I ended up opening a personal account too.

She walked me to the DBS ATM to show me how to change the PIN on my new ATM card, shook my hand and said she would be in touch to let us know how our application had fared. True to her word, a few days later we received a call to say it had been successful and we would receive documentation in a couple of days. Which we did.


Why do I tell you this story? Did I, or my business, play any direct part in the creation of this new way of delivering their service? No, although it was our first client when we set up in Singapore five years ago.

Is it to praise DBS for a job well done? In part. Is it because I was wowed by its customer experience? Indeed. However, what was more interesting to me, as a practitioner in the field of innovation and as someone who appreciates great design, is that this type of experience is in fact so rare.

How often, particularly in a business-to-business context, and in a bank for that matter, do you walk away thinking and feeling that you have had a beyond-great customer experience? That’s service innovation — across every conceivable touch point and customer interaction, down to the smallest detail.

In a world of growing commoditisation, where one product is seemingly no different from any other in its category and the complex interplay of low- and high-tech communication channels — paper, computer, mobile, physical space — how organisations focus on offering a seamless service that goes beyond mere satisfaction to one of delight and surprise will become an area of increasing competitive advantage.

To do this well requires a mind shift in how we think about engaging with customers — the total experience of how they interact with our brand. This requires design thinking.

It involves a potent combination of empathy — the ability to inhabit another person’s feelings as if they are your own; creativity — the ability to create new or novel solutions based on deep customer or end-user insight; and synthesis — the ability to analyse, combine and create solutions that take into consideration the whole — in this case, the customer experience — and not only the component parts. These are powerful ingredients for successful innovation.


There is a rich canon of literature and practice on design as a way of thinking. In a nutshell, it grew as an academic discipline in the late 1960s in the field of social and cognitive sciences, principally in the work of Professor Herbert Simon.

It was further developed by American designer Rolf Faste, who made an immense contribution to human-centred design and design education, and then popularised, in the business world, by Mr David Kelley, Stanford Professor and founder of the product development firm IDEO.

Both design thinking and innovation are concepts that have become increasingly popular in Singapore and there is a vast array of resources available for local organisations to help propel their innovation efforts — understandable in a nation that relies on its human capital to develop and maintain its growth.

One resource we have recently become involved in as design facilitators is the Design Engage Programme, an initiative between SPRING Singapore, DesignSingapore Council and International Enterprise (IE) Singapore. This programme helps to equip organisations with the tools, skills and capabilities to integrate strategic design thinking into their product, service or business development processes.

I have no doubt, from my experience with DBS, that it incorporated a design-thinking approach in how it engages with its customers. But there is always that variable, no matter how compelling and holistic the design, that is a complex and more tricky ingredient to manage — the human being.

The human being offers the service and is the direct interface between the customer and the application form, the telephone, the ATM machine. It is this human being — their knowledge, their demeanour, their ability to relate and engage — who brings the customer experience to life and who, ultimately, makes the innovation work. In this case, it was Ms June Tai.


This article was written by Natalie Turner and originally published in Today Online on February 19th, 2014