2 May 2013

Why service innovation is different, and why that matters

Service companies comprise 75 percent of economic activity in developed countries.  But companies are often seen as less innovative with service provision than with product design, manufacture and sales. But is this really the case or we are just misunderstanding the process of innovation in services?  We recently did some research to find out.

The focus was put on four providers of complex relational services, such as performance-based contracts that guarantee product availability. The research has shown that the conception of the product orientated innovation process  (company innovates- company sells – customer uses) doesn’t hold in the relational services, where the customer’s involvement in co-creating the service is accentuated. That means that the new services development is simultaneous to their production and use, thus making the customer a co-creator of the service. Firms that prepare properly for these two characteristics – simultaneity and co-creation – before engaging in relational service provision are likely to be more successful.

The service contract is designed, contracted for and then delivered by the service provider on the basis of the outcome that the customer wants. The service is innovative when the service provider offers a new outcome- an outcome he never provided before. The innovation actually takes place through interaction of the service provider and the client, making them co-creators of the service through the delivery.

Risk and reward in service innovation have a different nature as well. Although the service provider may invest in the infrastructure necessary to provide the new service, through payment of service fees the client effectively co-finances the innovation process.  As customer signs a long-term contract, the service provider avoids the market risk. But the service provider must address the risks inherent in delivering a novel service, whether these are higher service costs, contract penalties, loss of profits, or a dented reputation.

Problems with initial service delivery might cause the company to withdraw from the innovation. This actually disables it to understand the lessons from the initial innovation and reap the benefits that accrue over time through additional services to existing and new clients. The potential benefits for the service provider include: first-mover advantage, enabling the firm to leverage its learning by using it to secure further contracts with existing or new clients; cross leveraging innovation infrastructure investments and learning across other service contracts; and using the initial service innovation as a catalyst for other types of innovation –both services and products.

Firms that wish to be good service innovators need to have cross-functional teams and company-wide incentives to innovate, in other words an organizational-wide entrepreneurial culture should be encouraged throughout the company. This stresses how crucial adopting a long-term approach to innovative services is. The client and the service provider have to have a long-lasting, mutually trusting relationship in order to capture the full benefits of the innovation. They have to be well acquainted with one another in order to overcome the initial problems.

Ivanka Visnjic,
Research Lead, Cambridge Service Alliance

The research reported in this blog can be found in this report 'When Innovation Follows Promise - Why service innovation is different, and why that matters' Executive Briefing, Ivanka Visnjic, Taija Turunen, Andy Neely

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