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23 September 2009 | Ian Clayton Blog
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Close Encounters of the Service Kind
This week Ian looks at five kinds of service encounters experienced by providers and consumers of a service...

As many of us know all too well, service management is a contact sport between prospective and existing customers, and the service provider organization. In product management circles this contact is termed a ‘service encounter’, and behind every service encounter is a request for service, or ‘service request’.

The following example of a ‘service encounter’ is taken from a fictitious case study I use to help my clients explore, what for many represents, a normal event on a typical day, and to explain the five kinds of service encounters experienced by providers and consumers of a service.

The phone rings at the Millennium Fangel Bank Service Desk and is answered on the second ring by Fred, one of the most dependable and expert support agents.  “Help Desk, oh sorry, Service Desk, just can’t get used to that new name”, says Fred as he greets the latest caller.  Fred recognizes Barry’s voice, the corporate account administrator.  With the help of the newly installed ITIL® compliant software, one keystroke and Fred has opened, and partially completed a new incident record, a willing receptacle for the information related to Barry’s call. 

“Yes Barry, I can help you with that.  You need to know when and where the next conflict resolution class is, one moment”, Fred responds.  “I just need to close out this incident record and open up a service request through a different screen.  There we are, I’m ready for you”.  This will be just one of 25 incident records Fred will open, only to close and replace with a service request, on this busy end of sales quarter morning.

Barry writes down the class information and thanks Fred.  As he does so, he wonders how his day has suddenly been transformed, from entering last minute sales orders, to attending this class at his manager’s insistence.  Barry picks up his ringing phone on the twentieth ring.  Unknown to him, he is about to become embroiled in his fourth argument of the morning with a sales representative about the recently announced changes in the order process.

Later that day, the usual support focused reports will generate a statistical analysis of the day’s activities, and management will see yet another significant improvement in the average turnaround time and cost of managing ‘incidents’.  Just more evidence of the success of the recently announced ITIL® initiative, or is it?

For some, the term ‘encounter’ conjures up a personal meeting, a competitive sporting event, or perhaps memories of a movie.  For me, it’s the movies, and the classic ‘Brief Encounter’, very forgettable ‘Random Encounter’, and unforgettable ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’, spring to mind.

It was back in 1972 that astronomer, professor and ufologist Dr. Josef Hynek defined the term ‘close encounter’ in his book The UFO Experience: A Scientific Inquiry, offering three kinds of close encounters to describe an event where a person witnesses an unidentified flying object.  

In ITIL’s Service Strategy core publication (section 8.2) we can find references to the ‘service encounter’ term while discussing service interfaces and ‘types of service technology encounters’.  ITIL suggests the four modes in which technology interacts with a service provider’s customers include:

  • Mode A: Technology free (no technology is used by either the provider or customer)
  • Mode B: Technology assisted (only the provider has access to the technology)
  • Mode C: Technology facilitated (both the customer and provider have access to the same technology)
  • Mode D: Technology mediated (technology supports remote communications between provider and customer)
  • Mode E: technology generated (provider is represented entirely by technology, for example an online application or automatic teller machine)

Yes I realize there are five listed by ITIL but… Useful though these definitions may be to readers of the strategy volume, they are technology centric.  Notably, there are no other references to this important concept in any of the other four lifecycle books, nor is it defined in any of the six versions of the ITIL glossary. 

In line with the more common use of the term, the Guide to the Universal Service Management Body of Knowledge (USMBOK™) defines a service encounter as, “any episode in which a customer comes into contact with any aspect of the service organization and gets an impression of the quality of service”. It also offers a simplistic definition for a ‘service request’, “Any request from the customer community that may require resources from the Service Provider Organization (SPO)”, and suggests all contact with the customer be managed as a service encounter, and be recorded as a service request, including incidents.

Service management is a transaction-based provisioning system.  The service request is the instrument of trade.  The parties involved are the customer, service provider, and occasionally third-party suppliers.  In my discussions with clients I have used the ‘close encounters’ movie analogy to explain the interaction between the customer and service provider, offering five kinds, or reasons for a service encounter.

Service Encounter of the First Kind
The first kind of encounter represents service requests processed directly by the ‘service transaction engine (see USMBOK)’, which in most cases is represented by a specific application system. This is by far the most common type of encounter, most often happening without the knowledge of the service provider, and resulting in the successful completion of a transaction, a service request. 

Service Encounter of the Second Kind
The second type of encounter involves a request for help, and is usually the result of an issue with the first kind of service encounter.  These type of service requests are termed ‘service incidents’, and managed according to predefined and agreed rules by a service support function.  They are also difficult to budget for, and the cause of unexpected provider costs.

Service Encounter of the Third Kind
An encounter of the third kind is the next most common after the first, representing a request for information, subscription to an existing service, a need for a new service, or perhaps a request for training.  This kind of encounter and service request can drive as much as 50-80% of the service provider’s operational workload and cost.

Service Encounter of the Fourth Kind
Sometimes also termed a ‘request for change’, the fourth kind of encounter is change focused and prompted by any party.  The USMBOK describes four reasons for maintenance or change - preventative, perfective, adaptive, and corrective.

Service Encounter of the Fifth Kind
The fifth and final (for now) kind of service encounter involves the need to commit finite resources to complete special activities, such as a problem investigation to identify the cause of one or more service incidents, or perhaps some proactive planning.  The fifth kind can lead to special projects.

Good practice is the recording of all work performed by the service provider organization on behalf of a customer (or prospect), as a service request, regardless of whether it is incident or change related.  Using the five kinds of (close) service encounters I’ve just mentioned, we can simplify and speed up the process of recording, responding to, and reporting.

Consider how Fred recording Barry’s encounter as a service request at the outset, instead of an incident (as suggested by ITIL), then classifying that request as an incident, changes the overall approach.

(The phone rings, as Fred answers he opens up a new service request record)
FRED: “Hello, Service Desk… how can I help you - Barry?”
BARRY: “Hi Fred, I need to know when and where the next conflict resolution class is”
(Fred classifies the request as a request for information and documents a link to the schedule in the record)
FRED: “No problem Barry, check your inbox, you’ll find an email linked to the service request I’ve opened for you, and in that record a link to the online schedule, let me know when you have that in hand”
(Barry hears a familiar sound heralding the arrival of Fred’s email, he confirms receipt)
BARRY: “That’s great.  Can you hold a seat for me on the class next Wednesday?”
FRED: “Sure, if you can send select the ‘close’ option that email I’ll open up a new request for the training seat.”
FRED: “By the way Barry, when we are finished here, do you have time for me to show you how you might enter these type of requests yourself through our new service catalog?  Its so much easier and quicker for you” …

As I started this article, service management is a contact sport comprised of ‘service encounters’.  Each service encounter will result in service request that consumes resources and acts as an accelerant of provider costs.

I firmly believe its good practice to record all service encounters regardless of their type, as a service request, and to report them with online transactions as part of an aggregate view of the effort required to provide service to each and every customer community.  Experience has proven this approach simplifies practices, provides improved visibility of the workload, cost drivers, and enables more informed management decision-making, and control – ‘governance’. 

Recognizing and typifying service encounters, and designing an effective service request management process, is a vital ingredient to a successful service management strategy and system.

Complimentary Webinar: Close Encounters of the Service Kind

September 29th, 11am Pacific Daylight Time ( -8 GMT

Any feedback and comments are always welcome!! 


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