Listening to the Customer — The Concept of a Service-Quality Information System

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The quality of listening has an impact on the quality of service. Firms intent on improving service need to listen continuously to three types of customers: external customers who have experienced the firm’s service; competitors’ customers who the firm would like to make its own; and internal customers (employees) who depend on internal services to provide their own services. Without the voices of these groups guiding investment in service improvement, all companies can hope for are marginal gains.

In this paper, we discuss the concept of a service-quality information system. We argue that companies need to establish ongoing listening systems using multiple methods among different customer groups. A single service-quality study is a snapshot taken at a point in time and from a particular angle. Deeper insight and more informed decision making come from a continuing series of snapshots taken from various angles and through different lenses, which form the essence of systematic listening.

Systematic Listening

A service-quality information system uses multiple research approaches to systematically capture, organize, and disseminate service-quality information to support decision making. Continuously generated data flow into databases that decision makers can use on both a regularly scheduled and as-needed basis.

The use of multiple research approaches is necessary because each approach has limitations as well as strengths. Combining approaches enables a firm to tap the strengths of each and compensate for weaknesses. Continuous data collection and dissemination informs and educates decision makers about the patterns of change — for example, customers’ shifting service priorities and declining or improving performance in the company’s or the competitors’ service.

An effective service-quality information system offers a company’s executives a larger view of service quality along with a composite of many smaller pictures. It teaches decision makers which service attributes are important to customers and prospects, what parts of the firm’s service system are working well or breaking down, and which service investments are paying off. A service-quality information system helps to focus service improvement planning and resource allocation. It can help sustain managers’ motivation for service improvement by comparing the service performance of various units in the organization and linking compensation to these results. And it can be the basis for an effective first-line employee reward system by identifying the most effective service providers. (See Figure 1 for the principal benefits of a service-quality information system.)



1. Quoted in “First Chicago Shelves Paper Surveys, Asks Managers to Use the Telephone for Customer Satisfaction Research,” The Service Edge, volume 8, March 1995, p. 4.

2. E.F. McQuarrie, “Taking a Road Trip,” Marketing Management, volume 3, Spring 1995, p. 11.

3. J.A. Goodman, S.M. Broetzmann, and C. Adamson, “Ineffective — That’s the Problem with Customer Satisfaction Surveys,” Quality Progress, volume 25, May 1992, p. 35.

4. For a detailed discussion of this study, see:

A. Parasuraman, V.A. Zeithaml, and L.L. Berry, “Alternative Scales for Measuring Service Quality: A Comparative Assessment Based on Psychometric and Diagnostic Criteria,” Journal of Retailing, volume 70, Fall 1994, pp. 201–230.

5. See A. Parasuraman, V.A. Zeithaml, and L.L. Berry, “Reassessment of Expectations as a Comparison Standard in Measuring Service Quality: Implications for Further Research,” Journal of Marketing, volume 58, January 1994, pp. 111–124;

J.J. Cronin and S.A. Taylor, “SERVPERF Versus SERVQUAL: Reconciling Performance-Based and Perceptions-Minus-Expectations Measurement of Service Quality,” Journal of Marketing, volume 58, January 1994, pp. 125–131; and

K.R. Teas, “Expectations as a Comparison Standard in Measuring Service Quality: An Assessment of a Reassessment,” Journal of Marketing, volume 58, January 1994, pp. 132–139.

6. B.S. Lunde, “When Being Perfect Is Not Enough,” Marketing Research, volume 5, Winter 1993, p. 26.

7. J.P. Gregg, “Listening to the Voice of the Customer” (Nashville, Tennessee: Frontiers in Services Conference, presentation, October 1995).

8. Quoted in “Changes in Satisfaction Demands and Technology Alter the How’s, What’s, and Why’s of Measurement,” The Service Edge, volume 8, January 1995, p. 2.

9. J.H. Drew and T.R. Fussell, “Becoming Partners with Internal Customers,” Quality Progress, volume 29, October 1996, p. 52.

10. Quoted in “Some Ways to Coddle Customers on a Budget,” The Service Edge, volume 6, September 1993, p. 4.

11. D. Sheff, “Levi’s Changes Everything,” Fast Company, volume 2, June–July 1996, p. 67.

12. McQuarrie (1995), p. 12.

13. L.L. Berry, On Great Service: A Framework for Action (New York: Free Press, 1995), pp. 51–52.

14. See V.A. Zeithaml, L.L. Berry, and A. Parasuraman, “The Behavioral Consequences of Service Quality,” Journal of Marketing, volume 60, April 1996, pp. 31–46; and

R.D. Buzzell and B.T. Gale, The PIMS Principles (New York: Free Press, 1987).

15. See Consumer Complaint Handling in America: An Update Study (Washington, D.C.: Technical Assistance Research Programs Institute, April 1986).

16. Zeithaml et al. (1996).

17. Ibid.

18. Personal correspondence.

19. Quoted in “Rallying the Troops,” On Achieving Excellence, volume 11, February 1996, p. 2.

20. Interview with Peter F. Drucker, Harvard Business Review, volume 71, May–June 1993, p. 120.

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