Discover the five service ‘gaps’

Parasuraman, Zeithaml & Berry introduced the SERVQUAL framework in 1985. It is essentially a process that describes five potential service gaps that organisations should minimise if they want to be known for consistently delivering service excellence. Minimising each gap contributes to an organisation’s capacity to meet or exceed the expectations of its customers.

The gaps are described below with an examples provided to help you to understand what each gap ‘looks like’.

Gap 1 The Management Perception Gap
A gap can exist between managements understanding of customer expectations and the actual expectations of customers. If management get this wrong, everything else they do will be wrong and the service gap is likely to grow exponentially. Organisations must do everything in their power to minimise the chances that Gap 1 exists.

Cocac Cola has dominated the soda drink market for decades. yet, in the early 1980s Coca-Cola decided to introduce ‘New Coke’ (some of you will remember, many of you won’t.) The tatse for ‘New Coke’ was supposed to be a modern taste that the ‘consumers wanted.’ Nothing could have been further from the truth. Coke sales plummetted. Management had clearly misunderstood their market and had made a series of poor decisions as a result of their misunderstanding.

If you create Gap 1 then everything else you do as an organisation will take you further away from providing what your customers want. It is for this reason that Jack Welch, former CEO of GE said:

“Service. If you haven’t got it, don’t even bother getting out of bed if you want to be a senior leader. It’s such an entry level requirement it isn’t even worth talking about it.” (Jack Welch, ex GE CEO)

Gap 2 The Quality Service Standards Gap
It is one thing to be able to understand the expectations of those you serve. A gap can then emerge if your translation of those expectations into service standards is inaccurate. Service standards are effectively the systems and processes that you put into place to ensure that you can consistently meet the expectations of your customers. This is very easy to get wrong and requires a high understanding of the expectations of your customers, as well as a high level of understanding of how your organisations works if you are to minimise this gap.

An example of Gap 2 in action is provided by a quote from a research participant. The person was a fitness centre manager. In this example, niotice how it connects to the concept of Structure Drives Behaviour.

Quote (Research participant)
The members said that they wanted the gymnasium to open at 6am. So I employed the staff to start their shift at 6am. The members were still not happy. I was confused. When I asked them again why they weren’t happy they said, “We told you that we wanted the gym open at 6am, not ‘opening’ at 6am. There’s a difference!” Finally I understood. The staff would be paid to start at 5:45am so that the gym would be truly open as had been requested. I had been wrong. I had misinterpreted the expectations of the members.

Gap 3 The Service Delivery Gap
After all the systems and processes have been created, both the automated and human elements of the system must do what they are supposed to do. System errors or breakdowns and humans not doing what they are supposed to do can create immediate service gaps. No system or human is perfect or infallible. As such your organisation must consider what it will do if a Service Delivery Gap does occur.

A retail operation requires staff to work from a start time to a finish time. Usually there will be a staff member who is responsible for opening the retail outlet at a certain time. If that staff member is late then the retail outlet may not be open when customers expect it to be open. In this example, human error is responsible for creating a service gap.

Quote (Research participant)
Ultimately your staff have to do the right thing. It’s important to have the best systems and processes that you can, but ultimately your staff have to do the right thing. They have to properly implement what they are supposed to do.

Gap 4 The Market Communication Gap
If you say that you will respond to online customer feedback within 24 hours and you consistently take 48 hours to do it, then you have created a Market Communication Gap.

The local barber who cuts my hair has two signs out the front of his barber’s shop. One sign says that the shop will be open at 8:30am. The second says 8:45am. The barber is rarely there before 9am. He has no idea how many people have looked in his window when he wasn’t open when he advertised that he would be. My expectations are consistently not met. One day a new barber will move into an empty shop in the shopping strip. What do you think I will do?

Sorry mate. I know that I said sorry the last couple of times but my car broke down and I had to wait for my wife. Sorry mate.

Gap 5 The Perceived Service Quality Gap
The final gap is the perceived service quality that the customer has of their total experience in relation to their original expectation of the product or service. Ideally there is no gap here or, if there is a gap, it is in the context that the perceived service level is higher than original expectations. Unfortunately, the four previous gaps can create a significant negative gap at Gap 5.

I describe this gap like this because service providers are often unaware that this gap exists. As such they don’t do anything to close this gap. This leaves them exposed to a competitior or new service provider from appearing to ‘steal’ their customers ‘overnight’. The reality is that their customers were simply waiting for a better alternative to ‘pop up’, so when it did they ‘defected’ as quickly as they could. Do you think my barber (Gap 4 above) is at risk of this occuring?

A similar gap can exist for internal service providers. I am aware of teams of internal staff who have failed to provide high service standards to others within their organisation. When their service has been ‘outsourced’ those staff and team members have become indignant. “How dare they outsource our department!”. Yet they had not been prepared to ‘see’ other staff as their ‘customers’ and treat them accordingly.

Quote (Research participant)
You know they don’t really have to do all that much. If they just met my expectations I’d be happy. But they really don’t seem to care. And as soon as I get a chance to go somewhere else I will. And they won’t even know what happened to me. It’s a shame, really. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Your challenge is to be aware of these five gaps and to be pro-active in managing them. This is a never-ending activity because customer expectations can change ‘overnight’.

Please share your experiences with relation to how you have managed the five service gaps.

Gary Ryan enables individuals, teams and organisations to matter.
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