Excellence in customer service is the hallmark of success in service industries and among manufacturers of products that require reliable service. But what exactly is excellent service? It is the ability to deliver what you promise, say the authors, but first you must determine what you can promise. Building on seven years of research on service quality, they construct a model that, by balancing a customer's perceptions of the value of a particular service with the customer's need for that service, provides brilliant theoretical insight into customer expectations and service delivery.
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Valarie A. Zeithaml is associate professor at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. The recipient of three distinguished teaching awards, Dr. Zeithaml has written articles for the Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing, and the Journal of Retailing.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
SERVICE LEADERSHIP SPELLS PROFITS
Service quality is a central issue in America today. In a recent Gallup survey, executives ranked the improvement of service and tangible product quality as the single most critical challenge facing U.S. business.
One reason service quality has become such an important issue is that America's economy has become a service economy. Services account for approximately three-fourths of the gross national product and nine out of ten new jobs the economy creates. As David Birch writes:
It used to be that we were good at growing things. We still are, but with virtually no people involved. Agricultural employment has gone from well over half of all jobs to about 2% of them.
It used to be that we were good at making things. We still are, but with very few people involved....Today, only 9% of American workers actually labor in factories.
Yet, we have created millions of jobs....It's not surprising that what these people are doing instead of making things is providing services.
Virtually all organizations compete to some degree on the basis of service. It is difficult to name even one industry for which service matters are unimportant. Study the strategies of manufacturing companies such as Ford Motor Company or Corning Glass Works and what you find is a paramount role for service. Indeed, as the decade of the 1990's unfolds, more and more executives in manufacturing firms will be as keenly interested in service quality as executives in banking, health-care, and transportation businesses are today. As manufacturing executives find it increasingly difficult to establish sustainable, technology-based competitive advantages, they will direct added attention and resources to value-added service as a truer source of superiority. And as manufacturers compete more on service, there will be less distinction between manufacturing and service businesses.
Services are also crucial to America's future as a worldwide competitor. The U.S. government is counting on significant growth in net service exports in the 1990's to play a key role in addressing the country's balance of trade problems. And yet, America's net positive trade balance in services fell steadily throughout the 1980's, prompting some observers to suggest that the United States is on the verge of taking the same international beating in services that it has already endured in manufacturing. The principal culprit is seen as mediocre service quality. As Quinn and Gagnon write:
It will take hard and dedicated work not to dissipate our broadbased lead in services, as we did in manufacturing. Many of the same causes of lost position are beginning to appear. Daily we encounter the same inattention to quality, emphasis on scale economies rather than customers' concerns, and short-term financial orientation that earlier injured manufacturing.
The central role for services in the American economy is a key factor behind service quality's rising prominence as an institutional and societal issue. Services are so much a part of what we produce, consume, and export in this nation that it would be surprising if we weren't concerned about quality.
A second factor behind service quality's rising prominence is that superior quality is proving to be a winning competitive strategy. McDonald's. Federal Express. Nordstrom. American Airlines. American Express. L. L. Bean. Domino's Pizza. Disney World. Club Med. Deluxe Corporation. Marriott. IBM. In every nook and cranny of the service economy, the leading companies are obsessed with service excellence. They use service to be different; they use service to increase productivity; they use service to earn the customers' loyalty; they use service to fan positive word-of-mouth advertising; they use service to seek some shelter from price competition.
Service excellence pays off richly for reasons we develop in more detail later in this chapter. With service excellence, everyone wins. Customers win. Employees win. Management wins. Stockholders win. Communities win. The country wins.
THE URGENT NEED FOR SERVICE LEADERSHIP
How do we explain the incongruity that service excellence pays off and yet is in such short supply? The signs of indifferent, careless, and incompetent service in America are everywhere.
In a national banking study, three out of ten consumers recall a service problem at their current or former financial institution, typically an error of one kind or another. More than half of those recalling problems deemed them serious enough to switch financial institutions or to close accounts.
In an Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution survey of readers, 91 percent of the respondents said that quality of service had declined over the previous 20 years. Wrote one reader: "The animals are running the zoo."
Time magazine recently devoted a cover story to the service problem, claiming that "Personal service has become a maddeningly rare commodity in the American marketplace."
The Wall Street Journal, in a story about health-care service, stated: "The problems are manifold: Bad diagnoses. Unnecessary surgery. Over prescribing or misrepresenting drugs. High rates of hospital infection. Lab-test errors. Faulty medical devices. Alcoholic or drug-addicted doctors." Lowell Levin of Yale University's medical school advises surgery patients to use a magic marker to indicate just where on their bodies the surgery is to be done, claiming his advice wouldn't sound ridiculous if people only knew how often mistakes do occur.
Stanley Marcus, retired chairman of Neiman-Marcus, admonishes specialty and department store retailers for forgetting their sales-service heritage. Marcus writes:
Poor selling saved me $48,373 in 1983. That year, I decided I would not buy anything I didn't need unless someone sold it to me. Whenever I found something I wanted, but didn't encounter sales persuasiveness, I did not buy. By the end of the year, my savings total was $48,373.
MANAGING IS NOT ENOUGH
The research that we present in this book documents the central role that leadership plays in delivering excellent service. We have seen firsthand how strong management commitment to service quality energizes and stimulates an organization to improved service performance. We have seen firsthand how role ambiguity, poor teamwork, and other negatives fester in a rudderless, leaderless environment, sapping an organization's service quality.
True service leadership builds a climate for excellence that prevails over operational complexities, external market pressures, or any other impediments to quality service that might exist. Mediocre service in America is common, but it is not a given. In every single industry we have examples of companies delivering superb service. Excellent service is not a pipe dream; it is possible to overcome the conditions that foster service mediocrity. The key is genuine service leadership at all levels of an organization -- leadership that offers the direction and inspiration to sustain committed servers.
Managing is not enough. Service work can be difficult and demoralizing. Customers can be rude. Company policies can be suffocating. Sheer numbers of customers to serve can be overwhelming. End-of-the-day fatigue can be desensitizing. Over time many service employees get "beat up" by the service role and become less effective with customers even as they gain technical experience that should produce the opposite result.
Listen to psychologist James Carr as he describes how a novel he read about the circus made him recognize the transformation he himself underwent in service roles:
It was not the story line...that left its mark on me. It was the description of the social atmosphere through which the characters moved. All who lived under the big top -- the freaks, the acrobats, even the animals -- were real to each other. Everyone else -- specifically anyone in the audience -- was a "flatty."
...I recalled how I had despaired, during a brief stint as a ticket agent during World War II, over the futility of trying to give individual attention to the masses of rail travelers clamoring to get somewhere...and I remembered the irritation I had felt when the crowds became unmanageable at several counter jobs I had held in my youth. There had been times when it seemed the only salvation was to retreat from involvement with individuals and to devote my attention exclusively to the specifics of the job at hand. When I did this, the customers became two-dimensional nonentities without personality or feelings....At the time I had not referred to them as flatties but oh how descriptive was the term when I encountered it....Even though I had treated people that way -- often considering it businesslike -- I realized that I had always resented being treated as a flatty!
Few of us, like Carr, wish to be treated as a flatty by service providers. Few service providers, again like Carr, begin a new job treating customers in this way. Robotlike service traits almost always develop on the job.
People in service work need a vision in which they can believe, an achievement culture that challenges them to be the best they can be, a sense of team that nurtures and supports them, and role models that show them the way. This is the stuff of leadership.
In their book, Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge, Bennis and Nanus point out that the principal distinction between leaders and managers is that leaders emphasize the emotional and spiritual resources of an organization, its values, and aspirations, whereas managers emphasize the physical resources of the organization, such as raw materials, technology, and capital.
The root cause of our quality malaise in America today -- the reason service isn't better than it is despite the fruits of excellent service -- is the insufficiency of service leadership. Too many service workers are overmanaged and underled. Thick policy manuals rule management's belief in good judgment of frontline servers. Memoranda from above supersede face-to-face, give-and-take dialogue with employees. The goal of profit takes precedence over the goal of providing a service good enough that people will pay a profit to have it.
To materially improve service, we must devote more energy and attention in our businesses and business schools to the development of leadership values and capabilities. Otherwise, the temptation of service mediocrity will continue to win out over the promise of service excellence.
CHARACTERISTICS OF SERVICE LEADERS
Service leaders come in all shapes and sizes. They do not come from some kind of magical service cookie cutter. Having said this, there are some characteristics of service leadership about which it is useful to generalize. Here are some of the most important characteristics:
1. Service vision. Service leaders see service quality as a success key. They see service as integral to the organization's future, not as a peripheral issue. They believe fundamentally that superior service is a winning strategy, a profit strategy.
Regardless of the markets targeted, the menu of services offered, or the pricing policies followed, service leaders see quality of service as the foundation for competing. Whatever the specifics of the vision, the idea of service excellence is a central part.
Service leaders never waver in their commitment to service quality. They see service excellence as a never-ending journey in which the only effective option is to plug away toward better quality every day of every week of every month of every year. They understand that service quality is not a program; that there are no quick fixes, no magic formulas, no quality pills to swallow.
Service leaders understand that service excellence requires a full-court press -- all of the time. They understand that a company cannot turn the service issue on and off like a water faucet. As L. L. Bean, Inc., President Leon Gorman states: "A lot of people have fancy things to say about customer service, including me. But it's just a day-in, day-out, ongoing, never-ending, unremitting, persevering...type of activity."
2. High standards. True service leaders aspire to legendary service; they realize that good service may not be good enough to differentiate their organization from other organizations.
Service leaders are interested in the details and nuances of service, seeing opportunities in small actions that competitors might consider trivial. They believe that how an organization handles the little things sets the tone for how it handles the big things. They also believe that the little things add up for the customer and make a difference. This is why Jim Daniel, CEO of the Friendly Bank in Oklahoma City has the bank's lobby floor polished daily. And why Robert Onstead, CEO of Randall's Food and Drugs in Houston, insists on lighting his parking lots so brightly that "customers could read newspapers in the parking lots at midnight if they wished to do so."
Service leaders are zealous about doing the service right the first time. They value the goal of zero defects, striving continually to improve the reliability of service. They recognize the flip side of a 98 percent reliability rate, which is 2 percent unreliability. This is why Will Potter, CEO of Maryland-based Preston Trucking Company, has each employee agree in writing to abide by the company's service philosophy which states, in part:
Once I make a commitment to a customer or another associate, I promise to fulfill it on time. I will do what I say when I say I will do it....I understand that one claim or one mistake is one error too many. I promise to do my job right the first time and to continually seek performance improvement.
3. In-the-field leadership style. Service leaders lead in the field, where the action is, rather than from their desks. They are visible to their people, endlessly coaching, praising, correcting, cajoling, sermonizing, observing, questioning, and listening. They emphasize two-way, personal communications because they know this is the best way to give shape, substance, and credibility to the service vision and the best way to learn what is really going on in the field.
Service leaders also employ their hands-on approach to build a climate of teamwork within the organization. They challenge the organizational unit to be excellent in service, not just the individual employee, using the influence of their offices to bring the team together frequently for meetings, rallies, and celebrations.
Sam Walton, the founder and chairman of retailing giant Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., practices in-the-field leadership as well as any senior executive in America today. Walton and other top Wal-Mart executives spend most of their time each week visiting stores, spreading the gospel, and listening to the sounds of the business. Each Friday the Wal-Mart management team reassembles in the Bentonville, Arkansas, headquarters for mandatory meetings in which they share insights from the field. On the next day several hundred headquarters personnel and managers visiting from the field come together in Wal-Mart's famous Saturday morning meeting, a potpourri of results reporting, plans presentations, cheers, hoopla, homespun philosophy, recognition of outstanding performers, bantering, and exhortations for improvement personally led by Sam Walton himself. With its own communications satellite...
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