Five Imperatives for Improving Service Quality

It is time for U.S. companies to raise their service aspirations significantly and for U.S. executives to declare war on mediocre service and set their sights on consistently excellent service, say the authors. This goal is within reach if managers will provide the necessary leadership, remember that the sole judge of service quality is the customer, and implement what the authors call the “five service imperatives.”

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THE DOWNTOWN Chicago Marriott hotel had been open for fifteen years before its management determined that two-thirds of all guest calls to housekeeping were to request ironing boards. This discovery prompted the idea of simply placing irons and ironing boards in all of the hotel’s guest rooms, an idea that would cost $20,000. The hotel manager reviewed the capital budget and saw that $22,000 was earmarked to replace black-and-white television sets in the bathrooms of concierge-level guest rooms with color sets. The manager then inquired how many VIP guests had requested color television sets for their bathrooms and learned that no guest had ever made such a request. So the manager eliminated the color television sets and added the irons and ironing boards with no net addition to the capital budget, a big productivity boost for housekeeping, and a new, important guest room feature.

We begin with this story to make two critical points. The first is that customers are the sole judge of service quality. Customers assess service by comparing the service they receive (perceptions) with the service they desire (expectations). A company can achieve a strong reputation for quality service only when it consistently meets customer service expectations.

The second point is how easy it is for managers to forget the first point. Managers nod their heads in agreement when convention speakers stress the importance of customer focus and then go back to work and buy the equivalent of color TVs for the bathroom instead of ironing boards. We know it because we have spent most of the 1980s studying service quality in the United States. We have done extensive research with customers, front-line service providers, and managers in our studies of six service sectors: appliance repair, credit cards, insurance, long-distance telephone, retail banking, and securities brokerage. We describe our research program in more detail in the Appendix.

Through our studies, we have been able to identify the principal dimensions customers use to judge a company’s service:

  • Tangibles. The appearance of physical facilities, equipment, personnel, and communication materials.
  • Reliability. The ability to perform the promised service dependably and accurately.
  • Responsiveness. The willingness to help customers and to provide prompt service.
  • Assurance. The knowledge and courtesy of employees and their ability to convey trust and confidence.
  • Empathy. The provision of caring, individualized attention to customers.

Knowing what customers expect is, of course, only part of the challenge. Another part—a big part—is actually meeting these expectations.



1. “Where the Jobs Are Is Where the Skills Aren’t,” Business Week, 19 September 1988, pp. 104–108.

2. L.L. Berry, D.L. Bennett, and C.W Brown, Service Quality— A Profit Strategy for Financial Institutions (Homewood, Illinois: Dow Jones-Irwin, 1989), p. 51.

3. R.H. Waterman, Jr., The Renewal Factor (New York: Bantam Books, 1987), p. 73.

4. R.B. Reich, “Entrepreneurship Reconsidered: The Team as Hero,” Harvard Business Review, May–June 1987, pp. 77–83.

5. M. Lieber, “Managing for Service Excellence in a Turbulent Environment,” (Boston: Speech at an American Marketing Association conference, 25 February 1987).

6. A. Questrom (College Station, Texas: Presentation at Texas A&M University, 20 April 1989).

7. “Work Teams Can Rev Up Paper-Pushers, Too,” Business Week, 28 November 1988, pp. 64–72.

8. As quoted in “The Quest for Quality,” The Royal Bank Letter, November–December 1988.

9. J.A. Goodman, T. Marra, and L. Brigham, “Customer Service: Costly Nuisance or Low-Cost Profit Strategy?” Journal of Retail Banking, Fall 1986, pp. 7–16.


The authors wish to express their gratitude to the Marketing Science Institute.

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Comments (2)
Joanna elba
it'is a great info for me..  
A little more enlightening and an inspiration for me.
Thanks a lot for sharing this valuable information .
thank you very much... 

Adam Mhrez
he manager eliminated the color television sets and added the irons and ironing boards with no net addition to the capital budget, a big productivity boost for housekeeping, and a new, important guest room feature.