Three Key Characteristics of Services

Services are deeds, processes, and performances. — Zeithaml and Bitner

A service is an act or performance offered by one party (service provider) to another (customers) that creates value and provides benefits for customers at specific times and places as a result of bringing about a desired change in—or on behalf of—the recipient of the service (Lovelock, 2001, p. 3).

There are a number of inherent features of services that distinguish them from most goods, but there are three key characteristics of services that make employee attitudes and behaviors critical for tourism and hospitality organizations (Lovelock, 2001; Zeithaml and Bitner, 1996).

We’ll spend the remainder of this entry delving deeper into each, but for now, here they are:

  • intangibility
  • inseparability
  • heterogeneity (variability)

1.     Intangibility.

The central products of tourism and hospitality organizations like hotels, transport companies, travel agencies and tour operators are, to a large extent, intangible services (although tangible elements are used to provide services).

This means that services are value creating performances, deeds or actions rather than objects, and customers cannot see, feel, taste, or touch them in the same way as tangible goods prior to purchase (Zeithaml and Bitner, 1996).

Because services are intangible, customers look for and use tangible and performance cues to evaluate them before, during and after consumption and delivery.

As many services of tourism and hospitality firms are produced and consumed simultaneously with the presence of customers and based on human (employee) performance or actions, some of the most important cues are the service providers’ personalityOpens in new window, appearanceOpens in new window, attitudes and behaviors (such as courtesy, competence, responsiveness and interpersonal skillsOpens in new window), especially during service delivery or so-called service encounter (Bitner, Booms and Tetreault, 1990; Hartline and Jones, 1996).

In this respect, Bitner et al. (1990) proposed that frontline contact personnel personify and represent the organization because:

  • they are the service and organization in customers’ eyes;
  • they help to form the image of an organization.

In this way, intangible services of tourism and hospitality organizations and intangible transaction are ‘tangiblezed’ in the personality, appearance, attitudes and actions of contact employees.

As a result, the service outcome and quality is often assessed and determined during the dynamic and often face to face interaction between service providers and customers in tourism and hospitality organizations.

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2.     Inseparability.

Inseparability refers to the simultaneous production and consumption of services (Zeithaml and Bitner, 1996). It is possible to produce goods in the factory behind the scenes first and then sell them to the customers for consumption or use, and if not sold, one can stock them to sell at a later time.

By contrast, service providers and customers cannot be separated during the production/delivery and consumption of most services in tourism and hospitality organizations; the customers’ presence is required for the production and consumption of services to take place.

As employees are an integral part of the service experience, and many services are performed by them in tourism and hospitality, the nature and quality of employee-customer interaction (usually face to face) and contact during production and consumption become important determinants of service quality and customer satisfaction.

Once again, one can see the importance of the attitudes, appearance and actions of employees during this customer-service provider interaction.

3.     Heterogeneity

Heterogeneity refers to the variability and inconsistency of service standards and quality customers receive (Bateson, 1995). Depending on the time, the context and the people, “various service employees will perform the same service differently and even the same service employees will provide varying levels of service” (Kurtz and Clow, 1998, p. 13).

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Variability is primarily the result of the people factor (i.e. employees, the recipient of the service and other customers) involved in the service production/delivery and consumption process.

The variability of the delivered service in tourism and hospitality organizations may be caused by the psychological state, personality, attitudes and behaviors of the service providers at different times, different service providers, the recipient of the service (customer) and presence of other customers.

As Zeithamal and Bitner (1996, p. 20) rightly argue

Because services are performances, frequently produced by humans, no two services will be precisely alike. The employees delivering the service frequently are the service in the customer’s eyes, and people may differ in their performances from day to day or even hour to hour.

Heterogeneity also results because no two customers are precisely alike; each will have unique demands or experience the service in a unique way. Thus, heterogeneity connected with services is largely the result of human interaction between and among employees and customers. Because services are heterogeneous across time, organizations, and people, ensuring consistent service quality is challenging.

The variable characteristics of services make standardization, productivityOpens in new window, and consistency more difficult in service organizations. The variability of the services implies that service quality and customer satisfaction depend on, among other things, the ability, motivationOpens in new window and willingness of the personnel to satisfy customer needs in a consistent manner.

Consequently, the intangibility, inseparability and variability features of services make employee attitudes and behaviors critical for service quality, customer satisfaction and loyalty, competitive advantage, and better organizational performance in tourism and hospitality organizations, as well as any service organizations.

There are many models that acknowledge and stress the critical role of employees in a service organization’s success. Two of the best known of these are the Gaps Model of Service Quality and the Service Profit Chain.