The quality of services in emirates airlines: the challenges of continuous improvement
In this paper the concept of quality is discussed to examine its development and applications. Service quality is reflected upon with an elaboration of the seminal SERVQUAL tool in a separate section. The paper also contextualizes customer satisfaction within the overall discussion on quality and business performance. Customer satisfaction and service quality are both also reflected upon to contextualize requirements of the changing times, and the adaptability of these two- inexplicably interconnect pillars of business performance. Quality and customer satisfaction are implicitly linked together in this paper in different sections – they remain linked by their respective definitions upfront. Business performance is an undercurrent to the discussion in this paper given the origins and nature of developments surrounding quality. Customer satisfaction is explicitly a key performance measure but its interconnections with profitability and loyalty are pondered over in trying to elaborate on the concept of market orientation.
The paper is divided into four sections- the first one looks at quality in general mapping its development. The second section discusses service quality and its measurement. The third section looks at customer satisfaction and other key variables that shape customer orientation. The last section provides a profile and critique of SERVQUAL.
Quality has always concerned the societal intent of consumption. The reasons are fairly colloquial at one level where lack of quality can result in insufficient and unsatisfactory delivery of requirements from a product or service. At another level – given the growing complexity of the business processes over the last century quality has evolved into a discipline – characterized by an equally intertwined interface between control, assurance, and management in general (Dooley, 2006).
Broadly speaking in the business context – quality is the ‘perception of the ability’ of a product to satisfy its users. By extension it also applies to the processes and management of the processes that shape the product. However, the satisfying paradigm underpinning quality has multiple manifestations: “conformance”, “fitness for use”, “basic minimum requirements vs. attractiveness”, and as a matter of “interest and individual disposition” to name a few (e.g. Juran, 1945; Pirsig, 1974; Corsby, 1981; Kano, 1984; Reeves and Bednar, 1994).
The definition of quality is rather difficult to come by because of the sheer nature of its wide applicability and strands of origin- ranging from the practical business origins to metaphysical origins. The American Society for Quality aptly captures this subjectivity in understanding quality by stating it as …“a subjective term for which each person has their own definition” (Wade, 2005; ASQ, 2007). Quality management is made up of two complementary aspects one is quality assurance and the other is quality control. The former is about ensuring a basic minimum standard through upfront production process design. The latter is about reviewing and monitoring output to wean out the ‘defectives’. Assurance is thus inherently preventive and control is mainly curative in a functional sense (Gunter, 1998).
Irrespective of the disparate origins, quality management can be safely said to be largely associated with the idea of excellence. A range of concepts and their operationalisation stem from this broader view of quality and mark the growth in research and practice of quality management. Six Sigma, Quality Circles, and Total Quality Management- are but a few from amongst numerous such frames of reference (dti, 2007).
The idea of quality at the advent of the century had been around as a selection paradigm- accepting the superior and rejecting the inferior and biased towards ‘control at best’- most of the time the evaluation came from the end user. Along the business value chain as production became large scale after the 1st World War- quality assurance procedures started becoming formalized. It was not only the ‘end of the road’ customer assessment but also a series of filters ensuring only the better quality output being delivered to the customer made control and assurance an important in house practice . The inspection oriented quality control schema had its problems mainly in terms of competent individuals that could ensure monitoring despite not being the ‘know all’ skill set champions. Formalized roles of inspection and quality manager thus emerged and along side assurance models provided a great lift to quality management as a capability. Generic tools for quality management like the control chart emerged in the 1920s and statistical process control matured towards the middle of the century. The revival of the manufacturing of war torn Japan on mature principals of quality control and management finally brought quality management into the forefront. By the end of 1970s it was a global pre-occupation with everyone trying to imitate the success of Japanese low cost and high quality products (dti, 2007; Dooley, 2006).
When the word total quality came to the fore in 1970s and finally pinned quality management as a fundamental capability that ran through the organization. The West’s take on quality management was more about ‘standards’ than ‘culturalisation’-but based around the same operational frameworks as in Japan. These gave rise to national standards in response to the need to have a quality association with the national economy as a whole. At the business level quality is now a key management responsibility (Gitlow et al., 1989).
Aside from the generalized profile of emergence of quality management above there are a few key landmarks that need to be noted. The first is probably the statistical developments in the 20s and 30s and the emergence of concepts related to probability of acceptance, risk, tolerance levels, and sampling aspects (Shewart, 1931; Dodge and Romig, 1959) – establishment of standards and societies also marked the 1930s and 40s (Hutchins, 1995; Dooley, 2006).
Industrial production was never under as much pressure as in the II world War. While quality assurance could not keep up with the pressure control came to the forefront to ensure acceptable working products. The maturing of the statistical processes and standards in this regard was a key development. The large scale transmission of these standards to the then military suppliers ensured that the War provided an acceleration to the diffusion of quality management standards and systems (Dooley, 2006; Grant and Lang, 1991).
With the end of the war in the formative phase of reconstruction quality was again given a ‘less rushed’ attention. The role of top management, the interface between organisation wide processes, among others found attention. Total quality control came to the fore as a holistic concept with a stage gate approach right from design to delivery to consumer (Fiegenbaum, 1951, 1957, 1961).
As mentioned, the post war Japanese revival is a key factor in development of quality management. Over the 1950s and 1960s the ideas of cultaration of quality with pride in workmanship, top management support, liberalized communication and quality circles took hold stemming from Japanese success. The good practice concepts like quality circles emerged as competencies that were tightly woven into the culture of business unique to Japan and required some effort when it came to imitation by the west (Koyangi, 1964; Deming, 1967; Juran, 1967). Quality became integral to organisational behaviour, goals, and associated personnel development.
The coining of ‘Total Quality Management’ (TQM), encapsulates this coming of age of quality management as an indispensable competency in the competitive arena that is augmented by increasing customer expectations (Deming, 1986; Anderson et al., 1994; Akers; 1991; Stratton, 1990). The main characteristics-changes and developments though numerous can be safely said to be around making quality:
– a responsibility for everyone,
– a necessity rather than a differentiator,
– relate better to services and information, and ever increasing set of non-manufacturing industries.
– relate to best practices, dissemination and learning
– recognized a key function and accordingly resourced in organizations
– reinforce the primacy of the customer
(Green and Welsh, 1988; Marquardt, 1991; Dooley, 2006)
As TQM goes from strength to strength the balance between assurance, control, and the new fangled third strand – learning is becoming vital given the dynamic nature and complex requirements that are associated with quality (Green and Welsh, 1988). The standardized tools need to be customized for organisational applications with a sense to create the competitive edge-because the omnipresent paradigm itself is tending to defeat the objective to seeking the competitive edge through quality (Dean and Bowen, 1994). Context specificity or in other customization of model and tools is the call of the day for research and practice alike The generic nature however needs to be preserved in the background given wider economic and societal association of quality management. For instance, as new frontiers like e-commerce – open a fertile bed of quality concepts and models will be very valuable for learning and adaptation to the economic and social context (Doty et al., 1993; Dooley, 2006). .
However, having an adaptable bed for quality management across diverse industries to draw from is not sufficient. The societal realties have also undergone transition – quality needs to broaden its founding grounds to reflect on new aspects like information management and the virtual realm where quality may have to question its own foundations that are deeply rooted in manufacturing. The successful adaptation to non-manufacturing i.e. services however, is evidence of the emergent nature of quality management that can take on fresh challenges.
Service quality is a subjective concept that remains challenging to define and to measure (Cronin and Taylor, 1992). This associates itself and can be understood as the application of total quality in the service sector in the main and also implying the service function in frontline delivery of product in other industries. The understanding of service quality has been synthesized from extant literature by Jennifer Rowley (1998). In her work it is seen as a “perception judgment from a comparison of what they feel service organizations should offer and the performance of the organisation offering the services”. There is no dearth of definitions that try to pack in comprehensiveness to this abstract concept. For instance, Hedvall and Paltschik (1989) refer to ‘willingness and ability to serve’ with a mention of ‘access’, Lehtinen and Lehtinen(1982) view service quality in a three-dimensional space that looks at ‘interactive, physical and corporate’ quality facets. Furthermore Gronroos (1984) simplifies the idea by seeing service quality as shaped by ‘technical and functional’ aspects of quality (Rowley ,1988).
The link between service and performance and by extension satisfying the customer is challenging because services have a unique combination of characteristics. The first of these combinations is their intangibility- causing issues in measurement as they are a function of the ‘experience’ of the customer. The next is their perish ability –meaning that they cannot delivered from existing stock and thus lending a dynamic nature to service delivery that is difficult to condition. The third is inseparability between production and consumption of service and the last is heterogeneity or customizability as each end user receives a different level-nature of service partly owing to individualized perceptions that are involved in assessment (Zeithaml et al., 1985; Rowley, 1998).
The need is thus to work on ‘perceptions’ to assess quality given the cognitive frame of reference that dominates the characteristics of service. The associated requirement is to be able to classify services so as to peg a cognitive frame on a type of service Such an attempt has provided for groupings within the service industry as a starting point to deliver customized measurement models (Dotchin and Oakland, 1994). The influences on consumer expectations have also been classified to augment such efforts (Gronroos,1994) . While the seminal work towards generic developments like SERVQUAL (Parasuram et al., 1988) that is discussed in detail in the last section of this paper, provide founding grounds to service quality measurement- literature sees several issues in the applicability of this generic framework. This also relates to the inclusion exclusion and reconfiguration of the understanding of service attributes and the industry categories discussed before (e.g. Sasser, 1978; Dotchin and Oakland, 1994). A critical perspective on SREVQUAL comes later but upfront – it is of essence is to recognize the importance and complexity in measurement given the sheer abstractness of the idea of service and its quality.
The customization of measurement efforts and models in light of different service industry groups has been key to efforts at improving measurement (Dotchin and Oakland, 1994). In SERVQUAL the conceptualization of satisfaction has been found to be too simplistic and the multiplicity of the ‘total experience’ is arguably not captured – this is in addition to the non-customized generic nature of the SREVQUAL tool. A longitudinal and sometimes phenomenological analysis is suggested to capture these nuanced but important characteristics of service quality (Singh, 1991; Rowley, 1994).
However, the difficult in devising a comprehensive tool still disposes wider practice of measurement to simplistic methods. Important adjustments and realizations like the use of ‘importance and satisfaction grid’ (Harvey, 1995) provide a very useful feedback and prioritization. For instance, high importance and poor satisfaction is a combination that merits urgent management attention.
Another important variable in the service quality metric that needs to be accounted for is the nature of the contract. Again this is because of the attribute of ‘psychological contracts’ that is unique in nature to services (Thornrow, 1998). This has found particular appeal in measurement related to provision of public services. Having formal, informal and psychological components in service contracts provide a platform for balancing expectations and perceptions. These are otherwise very difficult to manage given the basic characteristics of service discussed at the onset of this section. Finally the perceptual plane needs to be also looked at with a balance though by classical definition the perception of the customer is the defining feature of quality-for service quality in particular the perception of the provider and the resultant psychological interface is also key to the metric. The role of customers is also not to be taken uni-dimensionally. There are different stakeholder brackets eg. users, influencers, deciders, approvers that associate with a service category and also vary in their significance (Rowley, 1988). These influence the generic satisfaction and associated performance variable.
Given this multiplicity and the psychologically complex nature of interactions, the ‘relationship exchange’ process (Morgan and Hunt, 1994) is key to providing some cognitive stability to overtime service quality measurement. It is also a suitable conduit to ensure that feedback is smoothly translated into strategic action for improvement. Such relationships can be supported by associating service with some ‘bonds’ (Chu and Lin, 2004). For instance, providing unique services, incentives, and even building social ties between provider and customer. However, on the other hand, the impact of such relationships on service quality needs to be moderated for a reliable assessment. They provide grounds for stabilizing the psychological map to better associate performance and expectations but at the same time bias it.
Broadly speaking customer satisfaction is a performance indicator of the extent to which a firm has managed to meet customer expectations through its business deliverables. Having formed the foundation of the marketing concept for nearly half a century the attempts at harnessing the good practices and measurement approaches is a much explored realm when it comes to customer satisfaction (e.g. Drucker, 1954; Levitt 1960; Gronroos, 1990).
Over the last few years customer satisfaction has received a reinvigorated interest. Possible reasons for this have been seen as the after effects of a maturing TQM paradigm that is linked with several recognition awards, and also, arrival of national customer satisfaction barometers (Garvin, 1991; Johnson et al., 2001; Helgesen, 2006)
The associated concept of customer relationship orientation is posits a strong link between customer loyalty and profitability with customer satisfaction (Zeithaml, 1988; Oliver, 1996). While customer loyalty has been referred to as central to ‘competitive advantage’ (Porter, 1985; Chao, et al., 2007)- this is delivered through customer -satisfaction. This is the basic rationalization behind customer satisfaction being so central to both short term and long term performance assessment.
That the ‘ultimate aim of any firm is to achieve customer satisfaction’ remains the central thesis of market orientation (Levitt, 1960). Customer orientation seeks to align “organizational values, beliefs, assumptions and premises” to deliver a mutually enabling relationship between the customer and the firm (Day, 1994; Strong and Harris, 2004).
Strong and Harris ( 2004), define a set of tactics that can deliver customer orientation. They define three sets of tactics. The first define relational tactics (essentially relationship marketing) that engages a nurturing philosophy for long run gains. The second tactic as human resource tactic is more about the direct interface with frontline of the customer and rest of the organisation –essentially empowering the front line through training and support to reap rewards of realized quality of experience of the customer. The final tactic relates to procedural aspects that routinise and systemize customer care and support systems. The study posits that there is a strong interaction and dependency between the three tactics. This key work that examines customer satisfaction and its manifestations under the customer orientation paradigm shares ground with some key extant literature (Narver and Slater, 1990)
However, other studies tend to put one set of such aspects – though differently labeled as more important than the others. For instance, Chao et al. (2007) say that while satisfaction remains an abstract idea sometime there is an overt component of interpersonal relationship building that because of over emphasis- instead of complementing customer orientation tends wean resources away from conditioning deliverables to meet consumer expectations. Research suggests that such a lopsided drive is ill-found in the long run While relationship marketing remains important it has to be pegged on consumer satisfaction from products and services for sustainability (Chao et al., 2007).
Businesses need to focus attention on relationship building. This however has to be conditioned for long run profitability. Customer satisfaction through meeting expectations from goods, transaction services and pure services, and a sustained follow up and support culture has to be the basis for relationship building. For instance, financial incentives/offers are likely to be ineffective and short lived if quality is undermined. As most of the research in customer orientation gets focused on relationship building this is an important consideration to use as a moderator. Value to the customer can never be undermined for seeking short term profitability. This is because such profitability is not suitably tied in with satisfaction which in turn guides customer loyalty.
Views to the contrary also exist mainly from some practitioners. Bruce Clapp (2007) of the Carlson marketing group says that “relationship strength is more important than satisfaction as a true indicator of loyalty. Customizing the experience of our customers, in-branch and in home, impacts the strength of relationship as it builds. In the experience, ensuring our message is relevant requires that we be closer to our customer. The communication we use, whether direct mail, e-mail or in person, must be tailored to the needs of the customer at an individual level. The term mass customization has gained ground as we look for ways to become partners with our customers and be there when they have a financial need…changing the perception about communication from irrelevant to relevant….mattered ” (Bruce Clapp in ABA Bank Marketing, 2007)
The above text signifies another important side to the changing times that of information and its quality as a deliverable that has become a key product attribute. Relationship management that works to harness this may improve the quality perception of its product without making changes to the product itself. The result is then improved customer satisfaction. The level of abstraction in the idea of ‘satisfaction’ and the changing times with an information overload -have created shadow characteristics for products and services. The idea of ‘value’ is ever more a backdoor into customer satisfaction.
Customer orientation in the milieu of – discussed tactics that include relationship management and the intertwining of satisfaction, loyalty and profitability is a complex arena. It is thus not strange to see that the core variable – customer satisfaction that inhabits the arena is often found missing from hundreds of studies that explore business performance (Capon, et al., 1990 –review of 320 empirical studies). The inter-linkages are so strong that even controlling for the satisfaction part (if a suitable measurement was deployed) tends to capture most of the variation in most cases. Given that studies seek to look at different sets of variables for instance, in say, production management exclusively – they understandably steer clear of satisfaction measurement and inclusion – resulting in poor significance and scope of such studies.
Studies which do involve the customer factor in examining performance have more significance in results but have their own issues. These are to do with industry specific nuances where the interaction between customer satisfaction, loyalty and profitability vary a great deal (e.g. Reichheld and Sasser, 1990; Soderlund and Vilgon, 1995; Page et al., 1996). Accounting for the differences in methods and measurements the issue remains that the customer orientation metric is also industry specific. Though it is omnipresent and universally central to business goals the way it manifests itself is what may vary across business types. For instance, the rate at which profitability increases with loyalty and conversely loyalty increases with satisfaction may vary (Helgesen, 2006).
In the days when customer was not inundated with choices -the notion of satisfaction was relatively stable despite its metaphysical connotations. As the number of choices has gone up so is the fickleness of satisfaction. Satisfaction can thus no longer be the guiding tenet for loyalty. The relationship perspective has thus become very important – and as argued above is widely contested in terms of how important? To the extent that it takes away resources from developing the arguably ‘real’ good or service it is overdone. However the ‘value’ it brings in terms of influencing consumer selection in an ambiguous setting of multiple satisfying options remains critical. The issue is that of a balance without a quality good or service to back up the relationship promise failure is imminent. However without being able to retain customers or attract them to quality products and services as there is always a ‘better’ out there investments in the ‘real’ good or service is also low yielding.
The challenge of customer satisfaction as the key variable in consumer orientation is to condition itself to the changing notion of ‘value’ that is now integral to information flows in every consumer-provider interaction. This conditioning should take into account the factors that affect loyalty and profitability because a knock on effect on these is very likely. Finally, there is also industry specificity to consider to an extent but to a lower extent- the times have not changed enough to question the centrality of consumer satisfaction- they are just placing new demands on it.
The recognition of the importance of customer -‘assessment and perception of the quality’ of service has led to the emergence of concept behind SERVQUAL, and its delivery as a tool. This was primarily through the work of Parasuraman, Berry and Zeithmal (1985, 1988, and 1991). The development is a good example of research being driven by the interests of the industry and in the process delivering an instrument of direct utility to the industry. In this section SERVQUAL is reflected upon with a view to explain its foundations, ponder over- the developments, posited advantages and critiques, and in the process, provide a holistic perspective on this key development in service quality management.
The basic concept behind SERVQUAL works on a ‘gap’ between the expected and perceived quality of service. The nuances on how this gap has been dealt with in this model –instrument, issues surrounding subjectivity, reliability and validity, and applicability across industries, have provided for generous discussion and developments over the last two decades. The customer view based on a set of questions is primary and the only view that matters in assessing this gap. The original ten dimensions that comprised SERVQUAL namely: reliability, competence, access, responsiveness, courtesy, communication, credibility, security, understanding customer and tangibles – were eventually synthesised into five. These dimensions were based around the following areas: “(1) tangibles: physical facilities and personnel presentation; (2) reliability: performing the promised service dependably and accurately; (3) responsiveness: helping customers and providing prompt service; (4) assurance: knowledge and courtesy of employees and their ability to inspire trust and performance; and (5) empathy: caring, individualised attention the firm gives to its customers” (Parasuraman et al., 1988, 1991; Shahin, 2007).
These provided for a rationalisation for 22 questions for customers to generate the gap metrics. These questions have since been pondered upon to reflect on the possibility of supplementary questions. Attempts have also been to tailor the instrument to work around reliability, validity and customisability issues. The last implies to the discussions in literature relating to the issues surrounding the generic nature of the instrument, and the need for reflecting on it given the range of applicability to a wide spectrum of industries (e.g. Buttle, 1996; Sullivan & Estyes, 2006; Nyeck et al., 2002).
SERVQUAL is popular in both the profit and non-profit sector (arguably more so in the latter) primarily due to the generic yet very useful nature of the investigative questions to a range of industries. It has the hallmarks of a good instrument – in being low on time consumption, easy to use and though argued – recognised by practitioners to have acceptable reliability and validity. The comparable aspect for benchmarking reasons is also of great appeal (e.g. Brysland and Curry, 1984). It can provide a useful progress chart if done over successive years both for self assessment against set goals and comparative assessment to feedback into objectives and planning.
Francis Buttle’s critique of Servqual (1996) provides some key shortcomings. The first one has to do with the subjectivity of expectations and perceptions. The second relates to the assumption the model makes about a “direct relationship” between service and quality- a perception that shares ground with the ‘gap model’ discussed later in this paper. The final rather philosphical but valid point is related to subjectivity and asks one to reflect on whether the right things are being measured for the desired assessment (Buttle, 1996).
Luis Lages and Fernandes (2005) get metaphysical and question the “level of abstraction” associated with respondent customers. The posited Service Personal Values (SERPVAL) scale to refkect this presents three dimensions of service value to “peaceful life, social recognition, and social integration”(Luis et al., 2005) . In this scheme of things as a possbile supplement to SERVQUAL – customer staisfaction relates to all dimensions and loyalty and repurcahse intentions are the attributes than can be distilled from the assessment (Kang et al., 2002).
The validity position that has been contested in research also stems from the assumption in SERVQUAL as being generalizable across industries and products. Such research posits that some of the areas/dimensions outlined above may have higher or lower position given the nature of the industry or product, and by extension suggests requirement for some customisation in applying the tool. The attempts to make SERVQUAL more robust and improve its application are ongoing. This also indicates the utility of the instrument’s design as a time tested foundation for service quality measurement (e.g. Carman; 1990, Cronin et al, 1992; Brian et al, 2000). Illustrated below is a template of the SERVQUAL instrument
Figure 1: The SERVQUAL Instrument
DIRECTIONS: This survey deals with your opinions of __________ services. Please show the extent to which you think firms offering _________ services should possess the features described by each statement. Do this by picking one of the seven numbers next to each statement. If you strongly agree that these firms should posses a feature, circle the number 7. If you strongly disagree that these firms should possess a feature, circle 1. If your feelings are not strong, circle one of the numbers in the middle. There are no right or wrong answers – all we are interested in is a number that best shows your expectations about the firms offering ________ services.
E1.They should have up-to-date equipment.
E2.Their physical facilities should be visually appealing.
E3.Their employees should be well dressed and appear neat.
E4.The appearance of the physical facilities of these firms should be in keeping with the type of services provided.
E5.When these firms promise to do something by a certain time, they should do so.
E6.When customers have problems, these firms should be sympathetic and reassuring.
E7.These firms should be dependable
E8.They should provide their services at the time they promise to do so.
E9.They should keep their records accurately.
E10.They shouldn’t be expected to tell customers exactly when services will be performed.
E11.It is not realistic for customers to expect prompt service from employees of these firms.
E12.Their employees don’t always have to be willing to help customers.
E13.It is okay if they are too busy to respond to customer requests promptly.
E14.Customers should be able to trust employees of these firms.
E15.Customers should be able to feel safe in their transactions wi