Strategic Service Institute: Looking Under the Hood of Service Offerings

You arrive at your destination on time, but your luggage doesn’t—and when it does, it’s somebody else’s.

That’s a spectacular service failure, and one that’s easy to describe. But not all bad service experiences are as clear cut. Sometimes a customer will be unhappy about her interactions with your company, but she won’t be able to articulate why. Without specifics, it’s difficult to correct for a misstep.

At the fall Strategic Service Institute, Faculty Director Douglas Olsen led a group of managers in an exercise designed to help them look under the hood of their service operations so that they can find the places where a customer might be disappointed. The first step was to understand what goes into a service experience. Research pioneer Len Berry developed framework to better understand those component part, Olsen said. The “Five Dimensions of Customer Service” helps companies bring service offerings into sharp focus:

Reliability The ability of a company to deliver on promises to customers consistently and accurately. Does the team have the skills it needs to do so?

Knowledge Employee expertise about products/services and the challenges customers face. Does employee training develop the deep knowledge customers are looking for? Can employees convey this knowledge in a friendly, courteous manner?

Empathy The emotional intelligence to envision the customer’s issues and genuinely care about finding the right solution. Has the hiring process located people with this personality characteristic, and are they giving customers the right amount of individual attention?

Responsiveness A commitment to act in a timely manner to customer needs. Is the team motivated to swing into action promptly? Do company policies and procedures support this?

Tangibles The physical part of the experience: the building, vehicles, and equipment needed to deliver the service. Are your tangibles compete and in good condition?

When it comes to succeeding in providing service, Olsen said, there is only one passing grade: A. Performing well on four of the five dimensions isn’t enough. Consider the example of the lost luggage: the flight may have been on time and comfortable; the crew may have been welcoming and helpful; staff may have been knowledgeable about luggage handling and sympathetic. But the airline failed the reliability test, by losing the bag in the first place, then delivering the wrong luggage later.

The Services Triangle

The luggage example underscores the importance of achieving a balance in the service triangle. In any service engagement, three parties are involved: the company, the provider and the customer, Olsen explained. At the apex is the company, which makes promises to customers (the second corner of the triangle) about what it will deliver. But to fulfill that promise, the company relies on its providers (the third corner). Providers can be employees or third parties. Providers depend upon the company to supply what’s necessary to do their job, which is to fulfill the company’s promises to customers. Companies risk service failures, especially when they are depending on a third party provider, when they overlook this dynamic.

Finding ways to balance the three sides of the triangle is the key to providing great service and developing loyal customers.

The Strategic Service Institute is offered twice a year by the Center for Services Leadership at Arizona State University. This executive education experience allows individuals or teams to work together and with leading experts on issues facing real-time challenges in their firms. For more information about this and other professional development opportunities, see

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