Ali McGill on Combining Service Design and Customer Experience


Hello and welcome.

Alasdair McGill is the founder of many organisations including Ashton McGill, an incredible organisation that transforms owner managed businesses through service design and customer experience. Ali is also a passionate cyclist, runner and just so happens to make the best protein pancakes in the world, at least if his snaps are anything to go by.

The whole world of service design and customer experience is becoming a topic that we all need to address in business so let’s go ahead and do that. Enjoy!

Time Stamps:

00: 01:45   What exactly is service design and how did you get into it?

00:06: 50 How is service design connected to customer experience?

00:12: 30  What do you see being the biggest service design problem or challenge with businesses you work with? 

00:18: 10 For those who are new to service design but want to explore it more, how do they get started?

00:22: 00 If you had to sum service design up in a short tweetable, what would that be?

00:23: 00 What is the number one secret to making the perfect protein pancakes?


Make things easier.  #servicedesign. (Click To Tweet)

Resources / People Mentioned

Mike Press (Chair of Design Policy at DJCAD)

Website: Twitter:

Hazel White

Website: Twitter:

Lauren Currie

Website:  Twitter:

Connect with Ali








Hello Ali and welcome to this interview. Thank you so much for joining me.


Hi, Chloe. It’s a pleasure to be here. I’m happy to be joining you today.


Perfect. The reason I asked you to come on because we’ve all met on Snapchat. Cool way to meet people. We’re in similar circles, but it was a cool way. I will tell you it was your protein pancakes that got me.


It’s amazing the number of connections that I’ve made because of protein pancakes. Who knew?


Right?! Then you started sharing some insights into what you did. You started talking about this thing called service design. I had never heard of service design before. As I started to explore it, I’ve learned that there’s this whole world that I didn’t understand that provides so much value to businesses. That’s why I’ve invited you on. Could you maybe explain exactly what service design is and how you got into that world?


Yeah, of course. At a really simplistic level, service design is about designing services with the user in mind. Whilst my specific focus with service design is on businesses and working with companies, we can apply those principles anywhere. Where there’s a user consuming a service, then there’s an opportunity to design that in a way that will be a pleasant experience for the user. Actually, in a very simple sense, what service design is about.

I spent 25 years now running businesses in all sorts of different industries. The common theme amongst all of them, Chloe, has been that every time I’ve built a business and grown a business, I’ve designed that around understanding the customer. The language I would have used previously was making that business customer-centric. It’s all about making sure that we deliver a good service to the customer. I probably wouldn’t have used the word service ten years ago.

I started to look into this in more detail around about 2008/2009. In those days, service design wasn’t really a thing. No one knew it existed. It’s a relatively young discipline, but it’s grounded in the principles of design thinking, which some people will be familiar with. Design thinking as a concept has been around actually since the ’60s. Really it’s about using a designer’s mindset to solve problems. As designers, we’re taught to look at things in a different way than the traditional approach that we’ve had as we’ve gone through school. It really is about not accepting that the problem is the problem. Doing researching, listening to people and understanding their perspectives.

When service design came into my life was around about 2010 when my daughter to university. Rebecca went to study design at Duncan O’Jordanson at Dundee at DJ Cad. They have a number of fantastic people that work at the university. In particular, a guy called Professor Mike Press, who has become a good friend of mine. Mike is, and has been, one of the pioneers of service design in the world. Here he is in Dundee, just down the road from where I am now.

Mike was one one of the lecturers that Rebecca had on her course. She came home from university one day and said, “Dad there’s this book you need to get. It’s this thing called ‘Service Design.'” She’s listened to me talk over the years about what I do. She said, “This is actually all of the stuff that you do.” It’s a book called “This is Service Design Thinking.” In fact, she bought me the book. I started to devour that. I also got the opportunity to meet Professor Mike Press through Rebecca.

That took me on a whole journey that continues to this day. That was 2010, it’s now 2016. I’ve just immersed myself in that world. Being like a sponge, I’ve absorbed and I’ve listened and I’ve learned and I’ve worked with some of the best people in the world when it comes to service design. The people who are the pioneers and the thought leaders in this space.

It’s a journey that actually started 25 years ago. Actually, the real magic has come from me in the last five or six years. The exposure to people like Mike Press, Hazel White, Lauren Currie. The people who are just amazingly inspirational people doing great stuff and using service design as the tool to make that happen.


That’s amazing. It’s funny how a lot of the time on our journeys we pick up little jigsaw pieces along the way. We can’t really put it together until we find our purpose and what we’re meant to do. One of the things you touched on was how you wouldn’t have called it service design. You were focused on customer-centric. How does this whole service design thing that none of us really know what it’s about, how is it tied to customer experience?


For me, one feeds the other. There’s customer experience is probably a term that more business people will be familiar with. Certainly in the States it’s now a thing. There’s more and more discussion about customer experience online. Actually here in the UK, as well. Customer experience is very much grounded in the business world. It’s about looking at the service that we deliver to customers and trying to make that a positive one. Obviously with a business focus, that’s about making more profit from the business customers that we deal with, retaining customers for longer and reducing the churn rate, all that kind of stuff.

In the States, there’s a whole industry of customer experience. It’s driven from very traditional business metrics. It’s very much about systems and processes. It’s actually very little about the customer, ironically. It’s described as customer experience, but it’s customer experience from the business’ perspective. What can I do that will increase all of those things that will leverage more profit from the transactions?

What service design does is look at it from a different angle. It’s almost the other end of the spectrum. Our approach with service design as applied to customer experiences is to deeply understand what it feels like to be the customer of that organisation and to really get into the deep emotions that are curbed when people are engaged with a service. By understanding that and spending time listening to people. A lot of what I do, I get paid money to listen to people. I get paid to watch people flow through a service. It’s a great way to spend your life.

We’re using service design principles to understand how businesses’ services make people feel. Because there’s these notions of business to business or business to consumer, but in reality, it’s person to person a lot of the time. I think as businesses we sometimes forget that the person that we’re dealing with is a person. It’s too easy to think I’m dealing with that company, but actually you’re not. I’m dealing with Chloe in that business. Chloe is a person. Chloe, as a person, will have an emotional journey as she engages with my business.

If we can really deeply understand that and accept that and then listen to Chloe and how she’s felt that experience, how that experience has made her feel, then we learn so much stuff from that. Then we take that learning and use it to design a better experience for future users. That’s the difference between the traditional approach and our approach. I want to say ours is a more human approach. It’s about making connections with people.

What we find when we do that is we talk to our clients’ customers on behalf of our client. People are initially quite reticent about that because they think, “We might hear some stuff we don’t want to know.” Actually, if there are things that are going wrong, you do really want to know that. 91 percent don’t complain. I think it’s 96 percent of people will leave without telling you why they’re leaving. Those are big numbers. If we can engage with those customers and actually talk to them and listen to them, then we can stop that happening and we can better design the service for people that will come and buy in the future.


Yeah. That’s huge. It’s your opportunity to take a negative experience where you lose a customer and turn it into what could be huge customer lifetime value because you listened not only replied, but to actually understand and come from a place of helping. I love that you made the point that we’re all just people. I think some easily forget that we’re users and we’re consumers and we know how we feel at certain points in time.

Ultimately, when customers are coming to you, they’re not just buying a product or a service. They’re buying into a solution that’s going to make them feel better and make their life better. What you were saying really made me think about you’ve got to think about the customer journey, what stages they’re going to go through and what their mindset is at each point in time.


Totally. It’s really interesting you bring that up. I was working with a charity this morning, running a workshop with a charity. We were looking at journey mapping. A big part of it was trying to get them into the minds of their users and understanding what it feels like for those users to engage with the service. Then mapping all of the journey from actually before the start to beyond the end.

What are the different stages? What are the different touch points that we have as an organisation with the individuals? What does that look like graphically? How do we map that and visualise what we call the pain points? The areas where things go wrong or it just makes the customer feel bad.

It’s transformative. You can see it’s like light bulb moments sometimes when we do this because you can see people all of sudden realising that they’ve been delivering something because that’s what the system said or the process said. They haven’t realised the consequence of that on the individual. Then all of a sudden they do and they’re like, “Oh my god. Why are we doing that? Why have we done it that way? We’ve done it that way for ten years, but we never even thought about how the customer or the user was experiencing that.” It can be really transformative.


Yeah. Definitely. I know in my own experience learning about it it’s been like that. Even when you go to learn business and the things you’re taught, this is how you build a business. Here’s the building blocks.  Here is your strategy. You go out to your customer. When the truth is you should be building all of that around your customer. That what it needs to be when it’s customer-centric.

As you say, it’s flipping the way things are done. I think when you do that what you really get to the heart of is that people that are emotionally invested will then go on to be financially invested. That has to happen with the emotion first. You have to make happen first. With that in mind, what do you think is the biggest challenge or problem or obstacle you see with the businesses that you do work with? What is the biggest problem? Do you maybe have an example to back that up?


The biggest problem is that most people don’t even think about this, Chloe. It’s not a thing. It’s not on their horizon. They probably haven’t heard of customer experience and they certainly haven’t heard of service design. They just don’t know. They have a churn in their business or they’re not making so much profit as they can or they get a lot of complaints. They don’t have a frame of reference to be able to deal with that. That probably is one of the biggest challenges.

The other big challenge alongside that is the way most of our organisations are structured. You touched on it a moment or two ago there that most organisations, certainly in the UK and I think it translates across the world, are organised in a hierarchical fashion. That will typically have the CEO or the MD at the top of a pyramid-type structure. Actually, the customers normally around that organisation chart.

The evolution that I’ve seen of that over the past ten years or so as been where people will talk about inverting the pyramid so that the CEO goes at the bottom. The frontline people are at the top because they’re the people that deal with the customers. That’s still hierarchical. It’s just been flipped.

The companies that do this well, the organisations that do this well, have a different structure. It’s actually a circle. It’s a circle with a core. The core of the circle is the customer. The organisations are then designed around serving the customer and delivering value for the customer in whatever way they need to. It’s rare to find an organisation like that. They do exist.

A good example in the UK is John Lewis, the John Lewis Partnership. I’m sure everyone knows who John Lewis are as a store. They’re a partnership. Every person within the organisation has an ownership in the organisation. Their structure is designed around the customer. The customer is right at the core of everything that they do.

An example from the US would be Disney. In a workshop I ran yesterday, somebody was telling me about their experience with Disney and the way Disney solved a problem, which just is a very different way than the way we would do things in the UK or most businesses would do things. Most businesses actually don’t deal with problems particularly well.

I think those would be the biggest issues. In terms of examples of companies that do it well, yeah, those two and Apple as well. Apple are really good at this stuff. If you’ve ever visited an Apple store, then you’ll probably have experienced the Apple way to do customer experience.

I don’t know if you remember this, Microsoft opened Windows stores a few years back. They did some pilots of them across the Silicon Valley. They bombed because what they tried to do was copy the Apple store. They even looked like the Apple store. It just had windows on the front. I remember seeing an image on Twitter of a mall in the US where there was an Apple store and a couple of shops down was a Microsoft Windows store. The Apple store was packed out, absolutely packed out. You know the Genius bar and there’s all of this cool stuff? The Windows store had all of the cool furniture as well. There was nobody in it. Because they were trying to copy, but they didn’t have the cultural reference that Apple do. I think those are some of the best companies that are doing this stuff, Chloe.


I love that you mentioned that. I love that. I know that in the social media world, it’s probably one of the biggest problems as well. Where the focus is all on competitors and peers, as opposed to customers and prospects. You’re seeing it, but you’re not actually doing it.

I think Apple is such a good example. It’s that thing. There’s a new Apple phone out, people want it even though they don’t know what it does. Or I want the next iPhone, I wait for it and I don’t know what it is. I don’t know what it does. It makes me feel good. It makes me feel like I’m inspired and I want to live the Apple life sort of thing. It’s a great, great example I think to show.

For smaller businesses that are watching this and are like “Oh my goodness. I have not been looking at this. I need to figure this thing out.” How do you get started with service design and really focusing and honing in on that customer experience?


I think there’s a few things. I think the first thing I would do is jump on a computer anywhere. Get onto Youtube and Google service design. You’ll find a ton of videos on there. Now, the service design discipline has grown up in public services. An awful lot of what you’ll see on there is about improving health care or government services and so on. That’s useful. It’s not commercial focused.

We have a Youtube channel. I’ve got a ton of videos on there that go into service design for business. Maybe the thing to do is to Google service design for business. There’s also a really good book that came out earlier this year, and I know you’ve got a copy of it, which is called “Service Design for Business.” You can jump onto Amazon and grab a copy of that. It’s written in plain English. Because sometimes with the design world, it’s like any industry that has its jargon. That’s a really good book that just breaks it down in simple steps and plain English and talks about the world of business and how we can use these principles to deliver better services for our customers.

Those would be the two key things to do. Beyond that, I think that what I would encourage people to do is try to learn to see things from the customer’s perspective. I talk about standing in your customer’s shoes. Really imagining what it feels like to be the customer of your business. It’s a hard thing to do. You’ve got to take yourself out of yourself and look back in the window. It takes a bit of training to get used to that. If you can start to do that, then you’ll have a much better perspective of your business and how you can do things better for your customers.


Yeah. That’s huge. Even I guess just writing that down and keeping it somewhere so that every decision that you’re making in your business just being mindful and aware of that. Because as you say, a lot of the time it’s not a thing. It’s not a thing.


It’s not. There’s one thing that I would say and it’s almost the maxim. I say this every day. I say it in every workshop. We’ve got research that backs it up. The number one thing that customers have said we can do as businesses that will make them feel more loyal to us, the number one thing is make things easier. That’s it. It’s not give me stuff. It’s not deliver wow moments. It’s none of that. It’s make things easier.

As businesses, we can make things easier for customers then they’ll feel better about us. We’ll win more business. We’ll make more profit as a result. They’ll refer more business to us. That’s not complicated. Too often, what we do in our business, Chloe, is that we design our processes and systems to suit us, not to suit the customer. If you can learn to stand in their shoes and see things from their perspective. What can we do that will make things easier for them? That’s the winning strategy.


Love that. Love that. I know that totally go by ease of use. Make it simple for me. If you can make it look pretty as well then that’s good as well. That’s my thing. That’s wonderful. I would definitely recommend that book as well. It has doodles.

If you had to sum up service design into tweetable, which is hard, I know that’s difficult. How would you do that?


I’ve been thinking about that. I think it’s what I’ve just said. I think the tweetable is, “Make things easier #servicedesign.” Because we can make it as complicated as we want as a discipline. Actually it all boils back down to that. There’s a bit about the customer, but make things easier. If we can make things easier, then people will just engage much more. It’s, “Make things easier #servicedesign.”


Love that. Love it. Actually it’s a great point looking for people to implement this. Don’t over complicate it. Make it simple.


It really is about keeping it simple.


Perfect. Okay. I have one last question. I always ask a random question. I plan to make it fun but then it’s all coming back to the same thing. What is the number one secret to making the best protein pancake in the world?


I’ve learned, and I don’t get this right every time, but the number one thing to making the best protein pancakes is to get your coconut oil at just the right temperature. Too hot and they’ll burn a little. Not hot enough, and they just have that undercooked look and taste to them. I like a little bit of crispiness around the side, which if my coconut oil is just at the right temperature that does the business. I used to make them with olive oil a while back.

Then Joe Wicks came out with these books. They’re just awesome. Lean in 15. He had his protein pancake recipe in there. He talks about this in there. Getting the coconut oil to the right temperature, that’s the thing.


That’s the key, people. That’s the key. Now we can all play master chef and make them at home. I’m going to try that. Actually, coconut oil is the best. As you say, I always undercook mine or burn it.


Yeah. It’s a hard thing. See the days that you get it just right, those are the days that you sail everything. You have the best working days. If mine are a little bit burned, then in know the day isn’t going to go so good.


That’s the key to success, good protein pancakes.


Good protein pancakes.


Thank you so much for joining me, Ali. I know that people are going to want to connect with you after this. How do they go about doing that?


The best and easiest way to get in touch with me is on Twitter. On Twitter you’ll find me @ali_mcgill. I am on Snapchat, but since Instagram stories came out, I’m over there as well. Twitter is the best place.


Perfect. Thank you so much. I also want to give a shout out to your Youtube channel because I love your Youtube channel. I’m including a link to that one as well. Again, thank you so much for joining me. It’s been so much fun. You’re always so much fun, Ali.


It’s been a pleasure. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it, Chloe.


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