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February 12, 2014

Redux: Will we ever apply Ease-of-Use product concepts to Services?

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And with thanks to New York City's Scott Greenfield for revisiting Ease-of-Use this week in his inventive "A Plea Agreement With An Easy To Use Handle".

About a decade ago, slowly and almost imperceptibly, industrialized economies like the United States and the United Kingdom became services-based, rather than products-based. In fact, in the last few years, both developing (interestingly, most countries in sub-Sahara Africa) and middle-income countries started to make the same transition.

Importantly, apart from the steady rise in services like financial services, health care, human services, tourism, education and information technology, the growing movement toward services was fueled by a new development: an almost revolutionary increase in the sales of products with a "service component".

Product sellers like IBM, now seeing themselves chiefly as solution providers, began to mix products with services, often through longer-term contracts to maintain, replace and/or modify complex equipment and hardware. Currently, if a product is involved, a product-services mix is almost always present. Things have changed.

Moreover, as newer and product-related services expanded, traditional and professional services--e.g., law, accounting, medicine, advertising--also continued to grow and hold their own.

Ease-of-Use for Products. In the past, and now (consider Apple's revolutionary if playful obsession with building products that are functional, attractive and highly intuitive for the user) a product, good or item of hardware you can see, feel and touch could be judged by its "friendliness" or ease-of-use.

So now we all live and work in a rapidly growing services economy. My question: In the future, can we compete for customers and clients on the basis of ease-of-use? Can we develop and apply ease-of-use product concepts to pure services? Will our own clients apply these notions to their own products and services for solving customer problems? Why not apply a user-friendliness ethos to our services for those clients? Law. Accounting. Consulting. In other words, we would apply ease-of-use to any commercial activity where a service or product-service mix is part of what people pay for.

Ease-of-Use for Services. Why not? Consider for a moment a familiar household product. In 2006, The Folgers Coffee Company was awarded an Ease-of-Use Commendation by the Arthritis Foundation for its AromaSeal Canister. If you're a Folgers drinker (arthritic or not), you notice that Folgers added an "easy-to-peel tin freshness seal" (no need for a can-opener), a new "snap-tight lid that helps seal air out and seals aroma in" and of course "convenient handle that’s easy to hold". (I love the way these ad guys-word revelers describe and sell you on the improvement. It's not corporate trained seal-speak.)

Think of other product lines in everyday life. The great companies many of us represent do spend money and expertise on making their goods, equipment and products, well, usable. Think about your car, your luggage, your TV remote, your watch and even grips on household tools. Think again about Apple--and Dell and Microsoft. Each year these companies think through your experience with their products and try to make it even better. Continuous improvement exercises for goods and things.

Folgers is innovative but not unique. For examples, IBM and CISCO have their own ease-of-use programs for the products they sell.

Developing and applying ease-of-use concepts to services is coming anyway--even while it will be infinitely harder to do for services than for products. Law firms, of course, have always sold services. And we are a small but powerful engine in the growth of the services sector. We strategize with, guide and craft solutions for clients every day. While that's all going on--day in and day out--what is it like for the client to work with you and yours? Are clients experiencing a team--or hearing and seeing isolated acts by talented but soul-less techies?

Do you make reports and communications short, easy and to the point? Who gets copied openly so clients don't have to guess about who knows what? Is it fun (yeah, we just said fun) to work with your firm? How are your logistics for client meetings, travel and lodging? Do you make life easier? Or harder? Are you and yours accessible? In short, aside from the technical aspects of your service, does your client feel safe?

So what if law firms--or any other service provider for that matter--thought through, applied and constantly improved the delivery of our services and how clients really experience them?

And then competed on it...?

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Posted by JD Hull at February 12, 2014 11:57 PM

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