Windows of opportunity

Photo by Daniel Fazio on Unsplash

It was a November afternoon. I was leaving Las Vegas after teaching a class on designing services. After a last-minute meeting and lunch I arrive at the airport just in time for my flight. Without bags to check in, I get through the security checkpoint and head straight for gate D54. That’s when I notice the shoeshine stand. Good leather lasts forever if you take good care of it. I reckon there is enough time before the gate closes.

“Hi, I would like my shoes shined.”

“Yes, of course. I’d be happy to.”

“Can I pay by card?”

“Sorry, cash only.”

I’m usually annoyed by that answer. Making it easier to pay for purchases is a key aspect of designing services. It improves the quality of experiences. In the age of Venmo, we seldom carry notes and coins, making “cash only” cumbersome. Indeed merchants are willing to pay considerable card processing fees mostly to avoid losing sales due to empty wallets. I was about to walk away with a shrug when I notice a Wells Fargo Bank ATM a few yards away. My bank.

Cash machine right next to a ‘cash only’ business.

“I’ll be right back.”

Cash withdrawals convert bank balances and “transport” money from a computer record somewhere, to where you need it in the form of currency notes. Banks load these machines with money and put them out there, literally exposing them weather and vandalism. For your convenience, they stash money at thousands of locations, not knowing when and where you may need to make a withdrawal next.

Brightly painted windows

Services are performances and affordances, producing outcomes that satisfy a set of customer needs. My shoes define a window of opportunity for the shoeshine company. They need to be shined (demand for performance) and they need to have new layers of polish and protection (demand for affordance). Their need to have and the need to be together form a set of customer needs.

Services are performances and affordances, producing outcomes that satisfy a set of customer needs. ~ Thinking in Services (2018)

When and where do the needs actualize? Then and there by gate D54 prior to boarding a flight. But I did not have cash on me. So that creates a window of opportunity for the bank to convert a portion of my bank balance (supply of performance) and make it available in the form of bank notes (supply of affordance). Then and there at that machine. A window within a window.

Windows of opportunity are imaginary lines drawn across time and space within which outcomes are valuable, if performances and affordance can produce them.

For the ATM to do its job, it needs essential things such as floor space at that corner of that airport terminal, electricity, and a data link. It also needs the performances and affordances of a cash management service, to regularly replenish it with bank notes. Windows within windows within windows. This is the matryoshka doll problem in service design.

Anyway, I take out some money, just enough for the shoeshine and then some, and walk back to the stand, ready to commission the service with freshly printed money.

“I have cash.”

“What time is your flight?”

1:30 pm

“Aaah! Then we don’t have enough time. It takes 12 minutes for me to do a good job. I don’t want to hurry it, or make you anxious they may close the gate by the time we are done.”

“Oh!”

“Aaaah!

He was right. Boarding usually ends 15 to 20 minutes before the scheduled time of departure. Airline staff are strict about it for a reason. Airport gates are windows of opportunity for airlines to turnaround a flight within a time slot. Runways are windows with queues, especially at busy airports during peak hours. If pilots push out of the gate late and they risk losing their position on a queue. They then risk arriving late.

Window after window after window. Some open after a previous one closes. Some close so the next one opens. The afforded courtesies are based on policies, procedures and protocols, to ensure one outcome surely leads to another, at the lowest possible cost. This is the choreography problem in service design. Ballet dancers instead of dolls.

“Are you sure it can’t be done faster?

No, then I will not do a good job. I have apply several layers of cream and polish, and work them in nicely.

Then he opens a drawer built into the workstation and to show me 27 different creams and polishes the service maintains at the stand, according its design. While the highly animated activity of shining shoes is most obvious (i.e., performance), the availability of resources at the stand are just as important. Without the right kind of materials in the right amounts, consumables and durables, it would be pantomime.

The ontology of a service, its molecular model or knowledge graph, includes things that are tangible, intangible, visible and invisible. The shoes, seats, foot rests, polishes, creams, brushes, rags, and skillful hands, are obvious. Less obvious, are things that facilitate what happens on the ‘front stage’. For example, the assortment, equipment, and floor space. Together, the front stage and back stage create a condition of harmonious, orderly interactions, based on a service blueprint.

That is good Italian leather you’ve got there. I would have made them beautiful! Aaaah!

At this point he is visibly upset (not angry) at the lost opportunity. One he needn’t have lost if not for his honesty and integrity. He could’ve made a quick buck from an okay job. Not knowing the difference, I would’ve paid him the full amount. But for him it was unethical it seemed for the quality of outcomes to be less than promised. He is conscious of it, even if his customers are not.

The good fellow

That’s when it occurs to me to take a picture of him by his stand (with his permission of course) to tell this story, using the concept of windows of opportunity to illustrate it. Services should produce outcomes that pay off well for both sides. Good designs are equitable. Bad designs are marketable. Customers tolerate them when there is no choice. However, such designs are unsustainable. They eventually fail.

The Good Fellows Shoeshine Company did not fail me. I failed to open the window of opportunity early enough for its agent to properly set up and execute the performance and affordance for my shoes, to “make them beautiful.” Writing in the Harvard Business Review in 1984, long before ‘service designer’ became a job title, G. Lynn Shostack explains the importance of setting standards:

A service designer must establish a time-of-service-execution standard that precludes unprofitable business and maintains productivity. Such a standard not only helps measure performance and control uniformity and quality, it also serves as a model for distribution of the service to far-flung locations. ~ G. Lynn Shostack

Gate D54 at the Las Vegas airport is among many locations at which the Company offers its services. For me it was far flung enough, given how much farther some gates can be after security checkpoints. Whether the company has service designers on its payroll or not, it appears to know exactly what to promise when and where. Some service providers fail at something as simple as that.