Finding Innovation Behind the Counter

How we’re working with Panera to create great service experiences

Ryan Mulloy
Oct 18, 2017 · 6 min read
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Starting up a new service innovation company was a difficult task. I mean really difficult. I’d even go as far to say it’s almost impossible without the support of the community…and a few lucky breaks.

We got our lucky break early on. A few months in, we got a call from Panera Bread to help prototype their in-store kiosk experience. What started as a product design challenge soon turned into a service integration challenge. From inventory management to finding the cups, it was clear that the relationship between experience, operations, and innovation is tight–almost inseparable. We did it though.

“…the relationship between experience, operations, and innovation is tight–almost inseparable.”

Our involvement with Panera’s experience, operations and technology teams didn’t stop there. Turns out we’re a great fit for an organization that’s been optimized around speed, joy, and doing the right thing (it’s kind of our thing too).

Since then, we’ve been working deep inside of Panera finding innovation across teams and bringing them together to create great experiences.

Panera Delivery

There was no greater example of working behind the counter to find innovation than Panera’s delivery experience. Finding innovation for customers alone was just the tip of the iceberg and that was made clear when we spent time behind the counter with cafe managers and in the passenger seat with delivery drivers.

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The delivery experience needed to work across iOS, Android, and Web.

For example, when you ride along with the drivers, you notice the most time spent idling isn’t in traffic; it was arriving at the office and waiting for the front desk to find the person who placed the order. This made the “doorbell” moment even more important. How might we help the customer be prepared ahead of time? ..and how do we make that feel like a Panera moment? You’ll have to place an order to find out, but it’s a question we wouldn’t have asked without first being on the floor.

Tip #1: In this case, as is with most other highly integrated services experiences, it’s not just about understanding the needs of the customer. Spending time with frontline employees and designing for them is just as important as customer empathy.

Design Thinking Meets Operational Excellence

Panera is always innovating with new ways to order. Order online/pick-up in-store, kiosk, catering, table-side delivery, retail cashiers, delivery, and–most recently–voice ordering. The results have been great; they have $1B in digital sales to prove it.

But with mo’ money comes mo’ problems. Introducing new ways to order complicates the frontline experience and wears away at customer loyalty if you don’t solve for it at the operational level.

Starbucks was able to increase its sales drastically with mobile ordering but at what expense? Starbucks just didn’t think the operations through and it’s causing a myriad of issues. Panera approaches digital service integration differently though:

“It’s about a systemic solve. A lot of people say, let’s just do this, let’s just do that. I believe you have to look at the whole system — or it will break.”

- Blaine Hurst, President, Panera Bread

Carter Edwards & Company was invited back to improve some workplace systems so cafe managers could spend less time behind the counter and more time on the floor doing what they do best–helping customers.

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Working with Panera to test and iterate our thinking on location

Co-creating with Cafe Managers

Here we were. It was an early morning in St. Louis and we (myself and the Panera operations team) walked into Panera armed with some new solutions. During the busy times, we observed from behind the counter while trying our best to stay out of everyone’s way. During the slow times, our cafe manager was freed up to get more hands on…and it was fantastic.

Not only was the work better–the team came together, and cafe managers loved being part of the process.

The cafe manager sat down at the table and instantly began pulling apart and rebuilding our solutions that we were certain would work from the start. As she went back to take care of the recent influx of customers, we made the changes and, by the time the crowd settled, she was able to thumbs-up the new direction. Not only was the work better–the team came together, and cafe managers loved being part of the process.

This is the human-centered design process and it led to several insights and solutions we wouldn’t have otherwise found.

Tip #2: Inviting users–cafe managers in this case–into the design process can be much more effective than just asking questions. Look for opportunities to co-create with the people you’re designing for.

Tip #3: Finding moments for onsite observation and co-creation doesn’t just make a better product; it makes a better team. This became a great story for the team and another expression of how Panera was able to find innovation behind the counter.

Get Creative Behind the Counter

From all the work we do with Panera and other organizations, we’ve come to understand (through a good amount of trial and error) that there’s a universal truth that presents itself in every innovative outcome.

Innovation isn’t just an exercise in customer needs–it’s a commitment to bringing roles from design, technology, and operations together to look at the entire service-profit chain with people at the heart of it all.

This should affect how you structure your next innovation team if you’re in the business of great services. And if you’re in the business of great services, then here are some other helpful things to think about:

You’re wrong about something

If you haven’t tested your product with the people using it yet, then I guarantee you’re wrong about something. It could be a small thing, or it could be a big thing, but either way something is wrong and it will be evident within the first day of testing.

No matter how certain you are or who you’re designing it for (customers, cafe managers, internal accounting, etc), make sure you put in front of the people using it.

This is especially important if it’s a back-of-house product because there aren’t a lot of public models to base your product after (we all know what consumer-facing shopping carts look like now).

Employee experience matters…a lot

At Carter Edwards & Company, we believe that consumer grade is the new commercial grade. Back in the day, just enabling a particular function was enough to give you an edge, but with digital transformation projects maturing, the new edge will come from better employee UX and more thoughtful product strategy…better, faster employees that believe in the work they do.

Great employee experiences make for great service experiences.

It’s time to take everything we learn about great consumer experiences and use that to create great employee experiences that are optimized for engagement and effectiveness.

Co-creation is the secret sauce

Finding ways to bring in frontline employees is a great way to uncover innovation quickly. So whether you’re going onsite and pulling cafe managers aside during down time, or inviting service workers to structured workshops, co-creating with service employees will help you see things you would have otherwise missed.

Your employees on the frontline have direct and daily access to customer empathy so they’re able to contribute almost immediately and speed up the process.

Try it out with Design Sprints

Initially designed by Google Ventures, Design Sprints take the human-centered design process and condense months of work into a single week. It’s not designed to solve all your problems, but it’s a great way to de-risk your next big challenge with little risk.

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The CE+CO Design Sprint process

If you want to learn more about Design Sprints, check out our thinking here or attend our next event here.

About Carter Edwards & Company

Our mission at Carter Edwards & Company is to put people at the heart of every business. We’re doing this by taking a mix of experience designers, business analysts, and creative technologists to bring Design Thinking deeper inside of organizations.

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