Friday, January 14, 2005

Heartbeat Economy

An interesting variant on the Support Economy.

The key principle of the heartbeat economy is to avoid doing anything that raises your customer heartbeat. The key observation is that our current experience of services regularly irritates and frustrates, and causes raised blood pressure.

The Heartbeat Principle is related to the Pleasure Principle, which I identified in my 2001 book as one of the key principles of the service economy. Obviously there are services where we actively seek excitement - for example, a children's party. But for the most part, we want our services to be calm, predictable and unobtrusive.

BBC Radio Four broadcast a useful half-hour programme in the InBusiness series on the HeartBeat Economy (Thursday January 13th, at 20:30 GMT, repeated Sunday January 16th at 21:30 GMT.) Update: previous link to the on-demand version on the BBC website no longer works.

The programme contained some great examples - a few companies that are starting to operate services that don't cause added stress for their customers - and also interviews with several leading thinkers and practitioners, including James Maxmin. Update: hope some of you managed to listen before they took the link down.


Further Discussion: Two Questions

1. Whether the demand for heartbeat-friendly services exists. My response is that its existence is problematic - you cannot discover it by clipboard survey or focus group. Customers are not demanding it, and work their lives around the lack of heartbeat-friendly services. It exists in a hypothetical space, which perhaps can only be accessed by providing these services and finding out what happens.

So why should anyone believe in the existence of this demand, and why should service providers respond to something whose existence is problematic? We can try and answer this in two ways. Firstly, there are some service providers who are experiencing increasing difficulty in grasping onto any coherent picture of customer demand, and are casting around for new ways of making sense of demand complexity. Secondly, there are some exemplary service providers who are winning deep and loyal relationships with customers by offering heartbeat-friendly services. However, to make this argument more convincing, we need lots more examples in both categories.

2. Whether the response to this demand falls into a consumerist trap. I agree that some of the examples in the radio programme were coloured by consumerism, and there is a valid concern about this. I think the way to address this concern is to make explicit the ethic of service provision. Service providers may indeed be seduced into hyperconsumerist niches where the consumer remains passive - but these niches are arguably unsustainable and certainly unscaleable. Hyperconsumerist remains within the domain of directed composition. In contrast, collaborative composition is based on an ethic that converts a passive consumer into an active user. Not every service provider is going to make it - but it would be nice to think that those who do will ultimately gain an ecological advantage.

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