Service Innovation Starts with Customer Aspirations


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The story goes that Henry Ford was asked if customer desires factored into his decision to launch the Ford Model T automobile. “If I had asked people what they wanted,” replied Ford, “they would have said faster horses.” His Model T was introduced in 1908 and ten years later, over half the cars in America were Model T Fords. Competitive advantage comes from knowing, understanding and acting on customer hopes and aspirations, not just their needs and expectations. It entails thinking beyond the “how” of service innovation and unearthing the essence of “why.”

In the 1980’s FedEx (then Federal Express) came up with a very creative strategy to shorten the time required for the delivery of documents to less than two hours. If customers took their documents to a Federal Express location the documents could be faxed to the Federal Express location nearest the destination and a courier would then deliver the faxed documents. Zap Mail was a disaster, costing the company over $400 million. FedEx missed the fact that the Japanese were launching fax machines so cheaply that every business quickly had their own. And, here is the part of this story that most miss. Customers were not clamoring for fax machines. But very quickly no home or business office was without one.

Aspiration-based service invention requires an intuitive leap from an understanding of customer hopes rather than a logical straight line connection to their needs. It takes asking “why” questions, not “how” queries; getting underneath service rationales not dissecting service operations. Let’s take a simple example like grocery shopping. Why do customers enter the grocery store on the right? Why are shopping aisles in straight lines? Meal planning usually starts with deciding on the entre and then shopping around it. If that is true, why is the meat department in the back, and typically on the left? Why are snacks and desserts at the end not at the beginning? All the rationales for your grocery store might completely be logical and customer-centric. But, by digging underneath the “why” enables you to challenge customer habits to unearth innovation.

Aspiration-based service innovation also takes altering perspective. Author Gary Heil said it well: “Thomas Edison did not set out to improve the candle.” What if a service innovator completely out of your industry was asked to reinvent the way you delivered service? Would Disney, Virgin Air, Zappos, FedEx, or Amazon deliver your service just like you do? If you asked a group of gifted 3rd graders to come up with a completely new way to deliver service, what would they recommend?

What does your service smell-sound-feel-taste-look like? What if you altered the dominate sense used in service delivery? What if you relied on more than one of the five senses? What if you selected a symbol and forced it to apply to your service delivery? For example, symbolically, what if your service were a sport, movie, plant, animal, country, character, mode of transportation, what would change?

Andy Grove, Chairman of Intel put it this way: “Breakthroughs come from an instinctive judgment of what customers might want if they knew to think about it.” How can you reinvent your service by looking through the lens of your customers’ hopes and aspirations, not just their needs and expectations?

Chip Bell
Chip R. Bell is the founder of the Chip Bell Group ( and a renowned keynote speaker and customer loyalty consultant. Dr. Bell has authored several best-selling books including The 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service and, with John Patterson, Take Their Breath Away. His newest book, Sprinkles: Creating Awesome Experiences Through Innovative Service, will be released in February.


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