Are you getting quality service?

The View from Taft, BusinessWorld, 20 April 2000

We are in the service era. Many manufacturing companies are adjusting their operations to focus on service. As manufacturing methods have improved, products have become commodities -- practically uniform in their features and their reliability. Service, therefore, becomes a distinguishing attribute for any company, especially if done with quality.

Product quality, or the lack of it, is clear to most people. The average person would know if a TV is of poor quality when the picture is blurred or won't stay still and the colors are all mixed up. Another would know a pair of shoes is of poor quality when it pinches her feet when she walks, even if the size is right.

What to expect in service situations may not be so clear. There are at least two reasons for this: a lack of information about what quality service is, and a lack of confidence about one's right to receive such service. On the information side, many customers have had little experience actually receiving good service and so have come to believe that the deplorable service they are used to is all that service can be. Even among world-class companies, very few have developed credible quality service reputations, in contrast to the many more that have achieved manufacturing quality. Less than a quarter of the winners of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in the US are service companies.

On the side of rights, customers fall into thinking that they are lucky to be served at all. And to expect to be served well may be unreasonable. Filipino tolerance for poor treatment is legendary, and so is our tolerance for bad service.

I certainly think that we deserve quality service but it may take time before we collectively agree on this point. So why don't we start with the information side first? What is quality service anyway? Zeithaml, Parasuraman and Berry, authors of Delivering Quality Service and faculty of Texas A&M University, have developed an easy-to-remember model that identifies key areas of customer service expectations using the acronym RATER, which stands for responsiveness, assurance, tangibles, empathy and reliability. Let's discuss each component with some examples.

Responsiveness is the willingness to help customers and provide prompt service. This is displayed when personnel look up from their desks or approach you to ask "Ano po 'yon?" or "May I help you?" This is likewise shown when your phone calls are politely answered in less than three rings. On the other hand, a lack of responsiveness is shown when a secretary mechanically explains that, no, she doesn't know where her boss is and, as her tone indicates, she isn't about to try to find out, either.

Assurance is the knowledge and courtesy of service providers and their ability to convey trust and confidence. One doctor I know discusses a patient's complaint with gentle patience -- unraveling the mystery behind the problem while increasing the patient's confidence that he had come to the right person. At a bank branch we go to, the staff smile when they see a client. Moreover, they remember regulars and say hello with warmth. This is very different from the unsmiling demeanor of staff at another bank I'm familiar with. Their expressions seem to convey that their day would have been much better if you hadn't dropped by.

Tangibles refer to the presentable appearance of physical facilities, equipment, personnel, and communication materials. Because of their visibility, tangibles often get a lot of attention from companies, as seen in the stylish uniforms of personnel and the frequent office refurbishment. Tangibles become more noticeable in their absence, as when I accompanied my wife during a stay in a hospital. Who would be sharing our room but a brown, creepy insect whose name I can't even bear to type here! Ugh!

Empathy is the caring and individualized attention a company provides its customers. In the "smiling" bank I cited above, the staff apologize and explain when the waiting becomes longer than usual. They make it known that while occasional long queues are normal, it's not something they prefer to impose on customers. Another empathetic service provider handled a complaint I had about having been billed for an online credit card transaction I never made. He made me feel that he understood how troublesome the situation was and why I wanted it solved right away.

Reliability is the company's ability to perform a promised service dependably and accurately. At the Land Transportation Office branch where I renew my driver's license and car registration, I've come to expect a smooth and worry-free experience. I'm in and out of there with all my documents processed in less than an hour even during busy days. I must admit that it's one of the few times I'm glad I pay my taxes.

The RATER model is just one way of clarifying quality service expectations, of course, but it's a useful start. I'd love to hear examples of quality service experiences from readers. If you e-mail me some stories, I'll feature them in a future column. Who knows? We may start a quality-service revolution yet.

And to all you wonderful service people out there, may your tribe increase!