Rob England: What is a Service Catalogue?

"The menu analogies we see all the time when talking about service catalogue are misleading. "
"The menu analogies we see all the time when talking about service catalogue are misleading. "

We are looking at railways (railroads) as a useful case study for talking about service management.

What is the service catalogue of a railway?

If you said the timetable then I beg to differ.  If you said one-trip, return and monthly tickets I don’t agree either.

The menu analogies we see all the time when talking about service catalogue are misleading.

A menu (or timetable) represents the retail consumer case: where the customer and the user are one.  In many scenarios we deal with in business, the one paying is not the one consuming.

The service catalogue describes what the customer can buy.  The request catalogue is what the user can request.  Consider a railroad cook-wagon feeding a track crew out in the wilds: the cook decides with the railroad what to serve; the staff get a choice of two dishes.

The cook’s services are:

  • Buying and delivering and storing ingredients
  • Mobile cooking and eating facilities
  • Cooking food
  • Serving food onsite

That is the service catalogue.  The railway can choose to buy some or all of those services from the caterer, or to go elsewhere for some of them.

The menu is a service package option to the “cooking food” service.  The railroad chooses the options based on cost and staff morale.  The menu gives staff the illusion of choice.

First and foremost, a service catalogue describes what a service provider does. How often and what flavour are only options to a service or package of services.  A railway’s service catalogue is some or all of:

  • Container transport
  • Bulk goods transport (especially coal, stone and ore)
  • Less-than-container-load (parcel) transport
  • Priority and perishables transport (customers don’t send fruit as regular containers or parcels: they need it cold and fast)
  • Door-to-door (trucks for the “last mile”)
  • Dangerous goods transport (the ethanol delusion generates huge revenues for US railroads)
  • Large loads transport (anything oversize or super heavy: huge vehicles, transformers, tanks…)
  • Livestock transport
  • Rolling-stock transport (railways get paid to deliver empty wagons back their owners)
  • Finance (a railway can provide credit services to customers)
  • Ancillary freight services: customs clearance, shipping, security…
  • Passenger transport
  • Luggage
  • Lost luggage
  • Bicycles
  • Pet transport
  • Food and drink services (onboard and in stations)
  • Accommodation (big Indian stations all have dormitories and rooms)
  • Tours and entertainment (party trips, scenic trips, winery trips…)
  • Land cruises (just like a cruise ship but on rails)
  • Travel agency
  • Bulk goods storage (railroads charge companies to hold bulk materials in wagons for them awaiting demand: they provide a buffering service)
  • Rolling stock storage (in the USA railroads make money storing surplus freight wagons for other railroads)
  • Rolling stock repair (railways repair private equipment for the owners)
  • Private carriage transport (in many countries you can own your own railroad carriage and have the railway carry you around; a fantasy of mine)
  • Property rental (many large railways are significant landlords)
  • Land sales

Where’s the timetable or ticket pricing now?  It has such a small part in the true scope of a railway’s services as to be trivial.  More to the point, it is not a service: tickets are request options associated with one of many services.  Users don’t request a service: “I’d like an email please”. No, they make a request for an option associated with a service: provision email, increase mailbox, delete account, retrieve deleted email etc…

People confuse their personal consumer experience with business: they try to apply consumer experience models to business processing.  Most customers don’t want a service catalogue “to look like Amazon”.  They want meaningful business information.  The best vehicle for that is usually a text document.  The users/consumers of a service(s) may want to see the requests associated with that service(s) in an Amazon-like interface.  Sometimes there may even be a valid business case for building them a groovy automated request catalogue, but it is not the service catalogue.

The service catalogue defines what we do.  It is not simply an ordering mechanism for customers.  That is that personal/business thing again.  A service catalogue has multiple functions.

  1. Yes it is a brochure for customers to choose from.
  2. It also provides a structure to frame what we do as a service provider: availability planning, incident reporting, server grouping… Once we have a catalogue we find ourselves bring it up in diverse contexts: “we see the list of services show up in the table of contents”.
  3. It is a reference to compare against when debating a decision
  4. It is a benchmark to compare against when reporting (especially the service levels, but not only the service levels)
  5. It becomes a touchstone, a rallying point, an icon, a banner to follow.  It brings people back to why we are here and what we are for as an organisation.

You don’t get that from Amazon.

Then we come to that endless source of confusion and debate: technical service catalogue.  That deserves a whole discussion of its own, so we will look at it next…