Literature review: Defining services

LITERATURE REVIEW – Defining services. The services marketing literature contains many definitions of services.

Christian Gr??nroos (2000, p. 46) defines a service as ‘ a process consisting of a series of more or less intangible activities that normally, but not necessarily always, take place in interactions between the customer and the service employees and/or physical resources or goods and/or systems of the service provider, which are provided as solutions to customer problems’.

Philip Kotler (1991) defines services as: ‘any act or performance that one party can offer to another one that is essentially intangible and does not result in the ownership of anything. It’s production may or may not be tied to a physical product.
However, there are some common features in all of these definitions. At first, these commonalities refer to the fact that services deal with something that is intangible. This means that it is difficult to hold or to stock services.
Services are originally intangibles and relatively quickly perishables activities whose buying, which does not lead to material possession, takes place in an interactive process aimed at creating customer satisfaction.

The nature of service

In general, services are intangibles. The intangibility feature is most dominant when defining services. It determines the other characteristics of services; simultaneous production and consumption, heterogeneity and perishability. Given the lack of material possession, the inability to own a service is also considered to be a characteristics of services. Consequently, creating a service usually requires the presence and participation of the customer during the production and consumption of the service. This two-sided human influence on the service often leads to a fluctuating quality of the service. Thus, controlling service quality, motivating employee to deliver service quality and the introduction of technology (especially ICT) are some of the important ways to avoid heterogeneity in service quality.

These characteristics of services are frequently referred to as the five I’s of services. Berkowitz et al. (1986, pp.608-610) discussed the four I’s which are intangibility, inseparability, inconsistency, inventory and the fifth I, the inability to own based on the 2004 Lovelock and Gummesson article. Each of these characteristics are considered to be relative and exist in all services, but some will be more important than others depending on the service.

‘ Intangibility : as a degree of intangibility
‘ Inseperability :as a degree of simultaneous production and consumption
‘ Inconsistency : as a degree of heterogeneity
‘ Inventory : as a degree of perishability; and
‘ Inability : as a degree of the lack of ownership

What is quality

The application of quality to the management of services is very important and the way that it has been achieved is to drawn upon and adapt a number of approaches already in use in other contexts. Before we can investigate service quality specifically, we need to understand the various definitions and approaches to quality that exist in the wider social and business environment. This will allow some understanding of where current issues in the application of quality to services have arisen. We know that quality can be viewed from many different points of view. Garvin (1988) presented five different approaches quality is viewed as well as providing a framework for appreciating some of the problems associated with service quality. These different ways of looking at quality are :

‘ Transcendent-based
‘ Attribute-based
‘ User-based
‘ Manufacturing-based
‘ Value-based

Transcendent-based quality

According to this approach quality cannot always be defined and is partly the result of individual rather than shared experienced. This ability to understand what something is but not be able to describe it is characteristic of something known as an ‘ epiphenomenon ‘. The way we get around this problem is to use either comparators or attributes.
Attribute-based quality
Quality is zero defects ‘ doing it right the first time (Parasuraman, Zeithaml and Berry, 1985).
The attribute-based approach maintains that quality is a direct outcome of the number of features or attributes of a product. The product with more attractive attributes is higher quality. This approach suggests that quality is an objective and absolute terms and therefore measurable. The problem is that is the characteristics of services prevent ‘ side by side ‘ comparison. Similarly, even if you could identify all the attributes of the services you were assessing, your assessment wouldn’t be completed until the service ended, or the service benefit is reveal.
User-based quality
Quality is the fitness for use, the extent to which the product successfully serves the purpose of the user during usage (Juran, 1974).
The problem of course is that this approach to quality is highly subjective because every user has a different view of quality. In reality we are dealing with perceived quality, which is not a totally reliable indicator of actual quality.
Manufacturing-based quality
Quality is conformance to requirements (Crosby, 1983).
Quality following this approach is considered entirely in terms of conformance to a previously set standards.
Value-based quality
Quality is exceeding what customers expect from the service (Zeithaml, Parasuraman and Berry, 1990).
The value based approach sees quality simply as a function of customer benefit relative to price or cost.

Parasuraman, Zeithaml and Berry (1985) identified ten determinants of service that may relate to any service : reliability, responsiveness, competence, access, courtesy, communication, credibility, security, understanding/Knowing the customer, and tangibles.
Later, in 1988 these ten determinants were boiled down to five by the same authors : tangibles, reliability, responsiveness, assurance, and emphathy
Gr??nross (1988) has suggested six criteria, five of which is the same as those previously cited, and whereas the sixth adds an essential dimension which is recovery.
Reliability, responsiveness, assurance and empathy are business values that foster patronage and profitability. Likewise, corporate branding or imaging is increasingly becoming a vital point of success for companies. As such, the company that recognises the value of service quality not only ensures customer loyalty but also stands out in an increasingly competitive business environment.
Customers will always look for quality. Quality is one of the main drives of customer satisfaction. Therefore quality is a natural pursue for any organisation seeking a source of competitive advantage. However when you think about it a bit more, you start to realise that this oversimplifies what is a complex issue. For example, what is quality? Can every customer see it? If so, is it the same for every customer? How does it relate to the price paid or the value extracted from the service? In the case of physical goods which have a degree of standardisation and are able to be compare, these issues are complicated enough. When applied to service, where the product is heterogeneous, intangible, inseparable, perishable, and difficult to own, quality become very difficult to comprehend and even more difficult to implement and manage.
For any organisation, improving the quality of their service costs money and so they need to know where to focus resource to make the best impact. They need to understand the relationship between investment in service quality and the return on that investment, through profitability or loyalty for example. Put simply, most organisations are seeking to deliver the highest quality of service to the largest number of customers over the longest period of time at the lowest unit cost. For the customer, quality is perception and like most perceptions differs in subtle ways from objective reality. Before consumption, it is generally understood that customer perception is a function of their prior experience with the service or similar services, their individual opinion, reaction to other people’s opinions and communications such as advertising. Taken together these combine to generate expectation about the service performance. During consumption, customers react to service delivery events, such as the attitude of sales staff, the environment where the service is delivered, the involvement in service delivery, or the behaviour of other customers. Finally after consumption there is a process of reflection on the outcome, and assessment of the service, such as education or health services, in respect of its enduring value. These are just some of the issues which make the study and implementation of service quality intellectually and managerially challenging.
Given the problems of pursuing quality for a service organisation one might question whether it is worth the effort but service quality is not pursued as an outcome in its own right but because of its association with satisfaction and through this to profitability and customer retention. Current research has expanded the range of potential benefit from a high quality service to include:
‘ Creating competitive advantage by insulating customers from competitors. This is due to customer inertia. If the service delivered is perceived to be of equal or higher quality than that of competitors then there is no motivation for customers to defect regardless of poaching tactics.
‘ Lowering customer recruitment costs occurs due to positive word of mouth from existing customer who provide a free recruitment service for the organisations fortunate enough to have satisfied customers. Equally, by spending less on attracting new customers marketing expenditure can be directed at ensuring existing customers are happy.
‘ Promoting positive word of mouth and reputation occurs as customers talk the service to others. Customers regularly poll other people in their work and social networks about consumption experiences looking for re-assurance that their provider is as good as everyone else’s, looking for status associated with having found a better provider than others and looking for alternative suppliers if current businesses are not providing satisfaction.
‘ Improved financial performance is a natural corollary of increase customer loyalty, reduce customer recruitment spend and positive word of mouth.
‘ Reduced staff turnover although widely canvassed as only limited empirical support. However, the argument goes that as customer are more satisfied and less likely to complaint they also exhibit ‘helping’ behaviour and are more forgiving of service failure, and the extended time available through higher loyalty rates allows for more enduring service relationship.
These benefits represent substantial advantage to an organisation that can provide a service of quality. The problem of course is how to do it.
Various approaches have been developed for understanding and measuring service quality. Some examples are :
‘ The disconfirmation model (Oliver, 1980)
‘ The perceived quality model (Gr??nroos, 1982a, 1982b)
‘ The SERVQUAL model (Parasuraman, Zeithaml and Berry, 1988)
‘ The SixSigma designed by Motorola
While it would be desirable to review all the approaches to service quality we will focus upon those which have the greatest applicability and widest uses in business and academic circles. The models the researcher has chosen are:
‘ The disconfirmation model (Oliver, 1980)
‘ The SERVQUAL model (Parasuraman, Zeithaml and Berry, 1988)
The disconfirmation model (Oliver, 1980)
It is important to recognise that customers approach events, including purchases, with some expectation of what will occur. For example, if someone invites you to a party, you may not know what will happen precisely, but you will have some expectations of what will happen.
When we actually experience an event or service transaction, we understand it through our perception of what happened and we assess the situation. The service is relative to what we expected. We experience Positive Disconfirmation if what we experienced was better than expected, Confirmation if same as expected and Negative Disconfirmation if worse than expected. Because of the emphasis on differences between expectations and perceptions, this type of model is often referred to as a Disconfirmation Model.
The SERVQUAL model (Parasuraman, Zeithaml and Berry, 1988)
The SERVQUAL approach to service quality engineered the most profound shift in our understanding of both consumer and organisational responses to the problem of managing service quality. A consistent theme in the field of service quality is the problem of identifying what comprises a service in order to determine the dimensions of the service which customers used to assess quality. The SERVQUAL started by trying to develop a more comprehensive understanding of service quality dimensions. The original qualitative interviews produced a set of ten dimensions:
‘ Tangibles ‘ the appearance of physical facilities, equipment, personnel, etc.
‘ Reliability ‘ ability to perform the service dependably and accurately
‘ Responsiveness ‘ willingness to help customers
‘ Competence ‘ possession of the require skill/ knowledge to perform the service
‘ Courtesy ‘ politeness, respect, consideration and friendliness
‘ Credibility ‘ trustworthiness, believability and honesty
‘ Security ‘ freedom from danger
‘ Access ‘ approachability and ease of contact
‘ Communication ‘ keeping customers informed
‘ Understanding ‘ Making an effort to know customers
Later the ten dimensions were collapse into five. They are often referred to as the RATER dimensions :
Reliability ‘ dependability of service provider, accuracy of performance.
Assurance ‘ knowledge & courtesy of employees, ability to inspire trust & confidence.
Tangibles ??- including physical components of the service, e.g, seating, lighting and so on.
Empathy – caring, individualised attention the firm gives to its customers.
Responsiveness – promptness and helpfulness.
The SERVQUAL instrument is made up of 22 items that measure customer’s expectations and a corresponding set that measure customer’s perceptions of a service. It is based on the premise that service quality is the variance that arises by comparing customer’s expectation with what they perceive they got from a specific service provider in that sector (Parasuraman et al. 1988). They developed SERVQUAL with purpose of measuring customer’s perceptions of service quality along the five dimensions.
The Gap model of Service quality
The figure below shows the “GAP” model of service quality from Parasuraman et al. (Zeithaml & Bitner 1996). This model offers an integrated view of the consumer-company relationship. It is based on substantial research amongst a number of service providers. In common with the Gr??nroos model it shows the perception gap (Gap 5) and outlines contributory factors. In this case expected service is a function of word of mouth communication, personal need and past experience, and perceived service is a product of service delivery and external communications to consumers.

‘ Parasuraman et al. GAP model (Zeithaml 1996)
Clearly, the SERVQUAL instrument has been extensively adopted by several academic researchers and practitioners worldwide to measure service quality. The previously mentioned academic research studies are examples of this. However, regardless of its extensive use, numerous theoretical, operational, conceptual, and empirical criticisms of the measurement instrument have been identified and mentioned (Buttle, 1996; Van Dyke et al., 1997, 1999; Ladhari, 2008).
Buttle (1996) identified several theoretical and operational criticisms of SERVQUAL. He argued that theoretically SERVQUAL is founded on the basis of an expectation-disconfirmation model instead of an attitudinal model. Moreover, it is not based on a well-known established economic, statistical, psychological theory or background. In terms of the gap analysis, there are a few supports that customers evaluate service quality on the basis of perception-minus-expectation scores. Furthermore, SERVQUAL stress and emphasise the process of service delivery rather than the endings and the outcomes of the service encounter. From an operational perspective, he stated that consumers evaluate service quality on the basis of standards other than expectations. Also, he argued that it is not possible to capture the changeability of each service quality dimension by four or five items.
Van Dyke et al. (1997, 1999) recognised a number of conceptual and empirical criticisms of SERVQUAL. Conceptually, they criticised using two different instruments for measuring two different concepts (perceptions and expectations) to measure a third concept (perceived service quality). Instead, they argued that direct measurement of perceived service quality is more reliable. Moreover, they argued on the uncertainty of the expectations construct as different definitions and views of the concept resulted from uncertainly defined concept. Empirically, they argued that SERVQUAL has a number of empirical problems including low reliability and unstable dimensionality.
Ladhari (2008) summarised a list of theoretical and empirical criticisms of the model. First, he argued that the use of gap scores is not the right method because of the lack of the support in literature to consumers evaluating service quality in terms of perception-minus-expectation. He stated that it has been recommended that service quality is more precisely and correctly evaluated by measuring only perceptions of quality. On the other hand, he mentioned that the concept expectation is not well defined and can be interpreted from different perspectives; as a result, the operationalisation of SERVQUAL may have different interpretations as well. In addition, he pointed out that previous research suggested using perception-only scores rather than gap scores for the overall assessment of service quality. Last but not least, he emphasised that previous research studies criticise SERVQUAL for its focus on the process of service delivery instead of the result and the outcome of service encounters.

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