Many definitions of service are argued with a common theme of intangibility and simultaneous consumption. James Fitzsimmons defines service as a time-perishable, intangible experience performed for a customer acting in the role of coproducer. This argument suggests the importance of customers’ participation in the service process. Furthermore, the term expectation, by its semantic meaning, is defined as the “belief that something will happen or be the case” in the Concise Oxford Dictionary. Thus, service expectations can be understood as customers’ beliefs regarding the level of service or their desire for service.
In services, unlike in manufacturing, a distinction can be made between inputs and resources. While inputs are the customers themselves, resources are the facilitating goods, employee labor, and capital at the command of the service manager. To make service function well, there must be interaction with the customers as participants in the service process. Customers normally arrive at their own discretion and with unique demands on the service system. For customers, service is an experience occurring in the front office of the service facility, and the quality of service is enhanced if the service facility is designed from the customers’ perspective. Therefore, matching service capacity with demand is a challenge.
Service expectation is also related to service quality and customer satisfaction. A. Parasuraman and his colleagues have determined that customer expectations regarding the level of service offered are associated to their level of satisfaction with the shopping experience. Comparing the perceptions of service received with expectations of service desired, customer satisfaction can be identified. When expectations are exceeded, service is perceived to be of exceptional quality, even to be a pleasant surprise. When expectations are not met, however, service quality is deemed unacceptable. When expectations are confirmed by perceived service, quality is satisfactory.
For instance, people have different service expectations of different restaurants while dining out. When customers go to a fast-food restaurant, their expectations of the level of service are rapid ordering and accurate service delivery as well as a consistency in food quality compared with their past experience. The customers would not expect wait staff to come to dining tables to ask if any further assistance is requested. However, in a fine restaurant, guests expect to be well taken care of. Put simply, the higher the expectation, the higher the service level must be for customers to feel satisfied with the service. When expectations are low, customers tend to be satisfied with low levels of service.
Five principal dimensions that customers use to judge service quality are reliability, responsiveness, assurance, empathy, and tangibles. Reliability is the ability to perform the promised service dependably and accurately. Responsiveness is defined as the willingness to help customers and to provide prompt service. Assurance is known as the knowledge and courtesy of employees as well as their ability to convey trust and confidence. Empathy refers to the provision of caring, individualized attention to customers, which includes approachability, sensitivity, and efforts to understand the customer’s needs. Tangibles are the appearance of physical facilities, equipment, personnel, and communication materials. The condition of the physical surroundings is tangible evidence of the care and attention to detail that are exhibited by the service provider. For example, a dust free dining room gives the impression and implication of a high level of hygiene in the kitchen.
Understanding what consumers expect from a service organization is important because expectations provide a standard of comparison against which consumers judge an organization’s performance. That is, service expectations serve as a salient reference point to customers when evaluating the current consumption experience or as equated to “predictions” of service quality.
Various studies have been conducted to incorporate the determinants of service expectations. It is suggested that customers formulate their expectations on the basis of a number of sources: advertising, firm image, implicit and explicit promises, past experience with the firm and its competitors; personal needs; personal background in terms of education, values, and so forth, and communications with friends as well as word of mouth. That is, expectations account for all the information present before, during, and/or after a service encounter.
Thus, these attributes can be categorized into four dimensions: (1) what customers have experienced in the past (i.e., past experience); (2) what customers have been told about the service provided by others (i.e., communications with friends and word of mouth); (3) what customers’ personal needs are (i.e., personal needs in both mental and material forms); (4) what service providers have communicated to customers (i.e., advertising, firm image, and implicit and explicit promises).
Previous research studies suggest that customer service experience is influenced rationally and emotionally by functional clues (technical quality), mechanical clues (sensory and presentation), and human clues (behavior and appearance of service personnel). They advocate that designing and managing these clues is a critical management responsibility.
With expectations serving as a prediction of future events, they are also described in terms of desired (i.e., “should”) or ideal (i.e., “will”) standards, normative expectations of future events. Various possible levels of service expectations, from low to high, can be listed as minimum tolerable expectations, acceptable expectations, experience-based norms, normative should expectations, ideal expectations.
Compared to will expectations, which are associated with specific transactions and are therefore transient, the ideal/should standard exhibits much more stability over time, reflecting the way things “ought to be.” In other words, will expectations stand for the minimum level of service a customer will accept, which normally are the lowest or adequate service expectations. On the contrary, should expectations represent the highest or desired service expectations, which customers believe service providers can and should be delivered.
Separating the desired service level (i.e., should service expectations) from the adequate service level (i.e., will service expectations) is a zone of tolerance. The zone of tolerance expands and contracts like an accordion. It can vary from customer to customer and, potentially, from one situation to the next for the same customer. The literature suggests that customers’ adequate service expectations seem to be influenced more by specific circumstances, the number of service alternatives, for example, and are therefore more changeable than their desired service expectations. Thus, if customers perceive that they have alternative service providers, their zone of tolerance is likely to be smaller than if they do not feel they have this flexibility. When customers’ options are limited, they take the best they can get. Their expectations are not necessarily lower, but their tolerance level is higher.
To understand customer service expectations, a careful study is needed. Surveys, focus groups, evaluation forms, and market research are all useful approaches to obtaining a better understanding of expectations. Some practical techniques to collect and listen to customer service expectations include transactional surveys; mystery shopping; new-, declining-, and lost-customer surveys; focus group interviews; customer advisory panels; service reviews; customer complaint, comment, and inquiry capture; total market surveys; employee field reporting; employee surveys; and service operating data capture.
In addition to the awareness of service expectations, another big challenge is to actually meet these expectations. Five service imperatives, including define the service role, compete for talent (and use it), emphasize service teams, go for reliability, and be great at problem resolution, are suggested in relevant literature.
To conclude, service expectations play an important role in achieving high customer satisfaction. Service expectations are changeable from customer to customer or from time to time. Service providers need to constantly investigate and observe their customers’ expectations for service by applying various survey methods. Useful information to improve service quality is collected not only from customers themselves but also from the competitors. Finding the gap between service expectations and perceived service determines the quality of services and enhances customer satisfaction.
- Sunmee Choi and Anna S. Mattila, “Perceived Controllability and Service Expectations: Influences on Customer Reactions Following Service Failure,” Journal of Business Research (v.61/1, 2008);
- James A. Fitzsimmons and Mona J. Fitzsimmons, Service Management: Operations, Strategy, Information Technology (Irwin, 2007);
- Parasuraman, Leonard Berry, and Valarie A. Zeithaml, “Understanding Customer Expectations of Service,” MIT Sloan Management Review (v.32/3, 1991);
- Parasuraman, Valarie A. Zeithaml, and Leonard Berry, “SERVQUAL: A Multiple-item Scale for Measuring Consumer Perceptions of Service Quality,” Journal of Retail (v.64/1, 1988);
- Ann Paulins, “An Analysis of Customer Service Quality to College Students as Influenced by Customer Appearance Through Dress During the In-store Shopping Process,” Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services (v.12/5, 2005);
- Kien-Quoc Van Pham, “U.S. and European Frequent Flyers Service Expectations: A Cross-Cultural Study,” Business Review (v.6/2, 2006);
- Martin Reimann, Ulrich R. Luenmann, and Richard B. Chase, “Uncertainty Avoidance as a Moderator of the Relationship Between Perceived Service Quality and Customer Satisfaction,” Journal of Service Research (v.11/1, 2008).
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