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CONSISTENCY IN SERVICE QUALITY

by Rene T. Domingo (email comments to rtd@aim.edu)

On reliable measurement of total quality in the service industry is the consistency by which the service attributes expected by the customers are delivered. Consistency determines how often you show and offer the desirable service qualities to your clients. Service consistency is an expectation of all customers at all times; they want peace of mind and no unpleasant surprises. In manufacturing, quality improvement is achieved by reducing process variation or variability through a technique called statistical process control or SPC. In service, consistency implies achieving sameness, uniformity and fairness in the delivery or execution of all the service attributes, regardless of time, place, occasion, and service provider. For instance, if you are prompt, accurate, and courteous to some of your customers, in some your branches sometimes, then you do not create the image of reliable service quality. Good service becomes an accident, so to speak. This will not create a permanent and competitive reputation.

Consistency does not mean we are depersonalizing service. If personalized service is part of your business, you achieve consistency by providing such a service to all customers all the time at all branches or outlet. This is uniformity in variety. Bad service happens when some customers get personalized service and others don't.

Service Attributes

Among the commonly cited attributes or dimensions of service quality are:

timeliness (waiting time, queuing time, processing times)
accuracy (error-free, reliability)
courtesy (front-line manners, telephone etiquette)
responsiveness (order taking, complaint handling)
completeness (scope of services, and availability of support, auxiliary, and complimentary services )
availability (number of outlets, tellers, service stations)
variety (features, service package, product innovation)
personalized service (flexibility, special request handling)
convenience (location, accessibility, parking, availability of information, signs and forms)
ambiance (service atmosphere or environment, cleanliness, spaciousness of lobby, waiting room, humidity, music)

Reputation and Cost

There are two other critical attributes that are related to service, but may not be quality attributes by themselves:

- image or reputation

Service or company reputation is established by the customer's perception of all the service attributes that are important to him, relative to his expectations and to what the competition has to offer.

-cost of service (value for money, service charges)

The customer judges the reasonableness of cost of service or what he pays for the service in relation his perception of the over-all quality or value of the total service package or process.

Place Consistency

All branches, outlets, and distributors of the company, as long as they carry the same company name, should provide the same fast, reliable and efficient service to all customers. Whether they are company owned or franchise or non-exclusive is not relevant, since customers see these outlets as extensions of the same company. Customers do not care about their respective ownership and form of management. If they see the same logo and brand displayed outside, they go in and expect the same service. Unlike the fast-food companies, most banks, gasoline stations, restaurants, and supermarkets suffer from service inconsistency. Variation in outlet service quality is so wide, customers tend to patronize one branch over another branch of the same company in the same vicinity. For instance, franchise-owned and non-exclusive outlets often tend to give poorer service than company-owned ones. The excuse given (though not acceptable to customers): "We have less control over these outlets, therefore, we cannot assure their service quality much as we want to." In the first place, the company should not have accredited them or given them the franchise if they cannot meet company standards.

Another aspect of variability is branch size. This is an area of surprise. In general, big branches provide better service than smaller ones, the reason being the former have more manpower, budgets, and capacity to spare. But again customers will not buy this argument. Size is not an excuse. If the big and small branches offer the same product or service, they should provide it with the same promptness, efficiency, and courtesy. There is no reason for smaller branches to be intentionally designed to be inefficient from the very start. All branches should be self-sufficient and have adequate capacity to cope with the expected demand for their services.

On the other hand, there are large branches which provide slower services than the smaller branches. The reason: big branches are more bureaucratic, have more managers, and signatories, and checkers. Small branches are supposed to be nimble, flexible, and can offer better personalized service. Again this argument or logic confuses the clients, especially if they are paying the same price or fees for the same services, and then receive different treatment. Size should not determine the ultimate efficiency and quality of service..

Outlets in different locations may also show differences in service quality. For instance, services in the cities are usually perceived to be faster and better than that provided in the country and rural areas. There also occasions in which customers also claim that rural branches are better, since they can provided more personalized and faster (because of size) service. World class service requires that branches and outlets in various locations should provide more or less the same quality. McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Federal Express, and other service companies as a policy aim to provide the same service and product quality in their branches or franchisees anywhere in the U.S. and in the world

Product Consistency

The next area for service quality variability is the product itself. By this we mean that some products are served better or faster than others. For instance in the same bank, opening a current account may take more time than opening a savings account, or making a deposit is easier than making a withdrawal. While we expect some variability due to the nature of the product itself and the required controls built into it, efforts should be exerted to reduce the variation in service quality among all bank products, not only in terms of speed but also in manner of execution. As far as the customer is concerned, he goes to a bank to do "a transaction", and expects the same level of service regardless of its nature. In McDonalds, you get the same fast and courteous service whether you order hamburger or French fries.

Time Consistency

It is public knowledge that service varies by time of delivery, i.e., by the hour, day of the week, day of the month, and month of the year. In many service industries, lunch time, and just before and after lunch time, employees are not in the mood to serve customers, if they are in their work stations at all. Another worst time to queue up or arrive is just before closing time, say 5:00 pm. Employees are tired, eager to go home or raring to meet their dates waiting outside the office, and a customer is the last person they want to see. There are peak and valleys in service quality during the working day. In some industries, like government service, you get the worst service during peak hours. Interestingly I have noticed that in some restaurants, waiters do their best during peak hours, i.e.., when there is a lot of pressure from customers. During slack periods when many tables are empty, waiters take their time and pretend not to see customers beckoning them; serve is dismal.

Quality may also vary during the week. Normally, service is bad on Mondays and Fridays, because of Sunday hangover, and the "TGIF" (Thank God It's Friday) employee syndrome. It is said that it is not wise to buy cars made on Fridays. An absent-minded assembly worker might have forgotten to tighten a screw or two. Ideally, service should be prompt, efficient, and consistent throughout the week, from the first hour of the first working day to the last hour of the last working day. Customers are important any time and day of the week. Similarly, service should not deteriorate before and after special days during the month like paydays and holidays. Employees should be primed and ready to serve the first customers after these special days. Holiday months, like December and January, are noted for slow and undermanned service. Avoid all these service inconsistencies and variability in time.

People Consistency

Service variation can also be observed in who is being served (customer) and who is serving (service provider). In fact the high interaction between people or people-to-people contact in the service business is usually given as the reason why service cannot be managed, controlled, and standardized as much as a manufactured product. It is taken for granted that when people are the providers and the ones being processed or served, variability is normal or expected. But the point is to reduce variability to such a level that the service is perceived to be fair and reliable by the customers.

In general, current customers are treated better and faster than new or walk-in customers. Big accounts receive better service and attention than small accounts. In banks, borrowers may be treated with suspicion and bureaucratic service, while depositors are welcomed with open arms. Discrimination is one best way to lose customers. Discrimination, sometimes known as VIP treatment, special handling, etc., sounds logical - treat big customers better than small ones, since the former bring in more money. One risk with this policy is that the same customer or person can transact a sizable business at one time and a minor business in another occasion. There is story about one bank which tried to manage its limited parking space by not allowing customers with trivial transaction (say $50 or less) to park their cars. One day, an important customer wanted some lose change and tried to withdraw $20; the guard did not let him park, and explained to him the new policy. So he told the guard that he will withdraw a bigger amount so he could park. He went inside the bank, withdrew a million dollars, and closed his account. End of story. In McDonalds, you get the same service whether you order 20 hamburgers or 1 hamburger, whether you are a millionaire or a blue-collar worker. Everybody falls in line and nobody jumps the line.

The service provider or front liners -teller, clerk, cashier, etc. - can also show variability in service quality. Their moods may change during the day or week, depending on their personal lives. Some front-liners greet you "Good Morning" others don't. Efficiency may vary according to the level of training and experience of the service personnel. New employees may be slower than more senior employees. What we should appreciate is that customers do not see nor care about what is going on inside the employee's mind, his background and experience. He expects the same service from whoever is behind the counter as long as they wear the same uniform.

Consistency is one of the most difficult aspect of service to deliver, yet it is the most important and conspicuous. It can provide a definite edge over the competitor. Companies achieve high levels of service consistency through systems streamlining, setting standards in all aspects of customer service, and continuous employee training. Consistency is rewarded by high sales and strong customer loyalty. Federal Express, DHL, McDonalds, Shakeys, and Kentucky Fried Chicken have achieved world class status focusing on service consistency. As a policy, they do not compromise quality and service for anything else. All these companies are industry leaders in their respective fields.


 

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