In today’s competitive market, service quality is one of the most important criteria for determining a business’s success or failure. A company may provide a very good product, but without the quality of service, that product will never become popular. Thus, improving the quality of service is of paramount importance to any manager and any company. At the same time, the quality of service is difficult to measure. While there have been a number of efforts to study service quality, finding a general agreement on the way to measure the concept has been a challenge. The first cohesive instrument that enabled managers and researchers to do so was the SERVQUAL questionnaire that was developed in 1988 by a body of academics, namely Parasurman, Zeithaml, and Berry. The questionnaire is based on the expectancy-disconfirmation paradigm and separates the notion of service quality into five different constructs:
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- Tangibles – equipment, uniforms, company facilities, appearance, and other tangible factors;
- Reliability – how timely, accurately, and reliably a company performs its services;
- Responsiveness – the ability to work with customers and respond to their wishes and desires in a timely manner;
- Assurance – the ability to inspire confidence and trust in a customer;
- Empathy – the level of individualization and attention to every customer.
SERVQUAL is widely used in the airline industry, where the quality of service plays a pivotal role in a company’s success. Most airline companies are relatively equal in terms of the speed and technological level at which they operate and provide services at similar prices. Between two similar companies, the customer will choose the one with the better quality of service. In this literature review, we will investigate the use of SERVQUAL in the airline industry.
What is Service Quality?
As we investigate SERVQUAL in the scope of this research, some basic definitions are necessary. The first term requiring discussion is quality. Defining quality has always been troublesome as it is not something tangible. An early definition offered by Crosby (1979) in his book Quality is Free, suggests that quality means “doing it right the first time.” However, this definition is rather ambiguous – what can objectively be considered “doing it right”?
This definition is further expanded on by Seth, Deshmukh, and Vrat (2005), who states that “quality means meeting the requirements of the customer” (p. 920). However, the research avoids a one-sided approach, mentioning that quality also means the elimination of objective non-quality traits present in a product or service. This is important as the customer is not always capable of judging the quality of provided services.
Parasuraman, Zeithaml, and Berry (1988) also maintain that quality of service should primarily be perceived through a customer-centric model. According to the SERVQUAL definition, quality stems from a comparison between the customers’ perception of what kind of services a company or business has to offer and what it actually offers. At the same time, Parasuraman et al. (1988) state that service quality from the organization’s perspective can be graded based on said organization’s requirements and rules of conduct.
Determinants in Service Quality
Several researchers and models name different numbers of determinants of service quality; however, most of them usually mention the same key determinants in defining quality. Parasuraman et al. (1991) list ten determinants: responsiveness, reliability, competence, courtesy, access, communication, credibility, security, tangibles, and customer understanding. These determinants were later comprised into six subgroups, which are professionalism and skills, attitudes and behavior, accessibility and flexibility, reliability and trustworthiness, recovery and reputation and credibility (Parasuraman et al., 1991).
Bitner (1992), in his work titled “The Impact of Physical Surroundings on Customers and Employees,” adds the concept of servicescape to the list of SERVQUAL determinants. This particular subject states that the company environment surrounding both the customers and the employees has an effect on how customers perceive the quality of services done on their behalf, as well as how qualified said service is, from an organizational perspective. To summarise, Bitner claims that attractive, tidy service facilities improve the perception of quality.
In their discussion of customer service quality, “The Nature and Determinants of Customer Expectations of Service,” Parasuraman et al. (1993) define three levels of service. The first is when said services exceed the customers’ expectations, thus satisfying them. This is the level of service all companies must strive for. The second level of service is when the customer perceives provided services to be “adequate.” The third level is classified as a gap – when service is seriously beneath customer expectations.
The precursor of the SERVQUAL five-dimensions model was, arguably, the Haywood-Farmer Service Quality model (Haywood-Farmer, 1988), which contained three service quality attributes. These attributes include:
- Physical facilities, properties, and procedures;
- People behavior and conviviality;
- Professional judgment.
Finn and Lamb (1991), in their review of SERVQUAL scales, expand on the Haywood-Farmer model instead of coming up with five dimensions of service quality. These are:
- Tangibles comprising equipment, uniforms, company facilities, appearance, and other tangible factors;
- Reliability, which allows measuring how timely, accurately and reliably a company performs its services;
- Responsiveness, the ability to work with customers and respond to their wishes and desires in a timely manner;
- Assurance, which is the ability to inspire confidence and trust in a customer;
- Empathy, the level of individualization, and attention to every customer.
A system derived from SERVQUAL is called SERVPERF and was developed by Cronin and Taylor (1992). It shares many similarities with SERVQUAL as far as dimensions are concerned, but it is more focused on measuring quality based on performance rather than customer perception of service. Dimensions used in that model are expectations, performance, importance, future purchasing behavior, overall quality, and satisfaction. Out of these five dimensions, the first three are shared with SERVQUAL.
Service Quality in the Airline Industry
In the airline industry, customer satisfaction and quality control are of paramount importance. In order to detect changes and weak spots in service strategy, airline companies use either SERVQUAL or SERVPERF models.
Sabri and Oguz (2011), in their comparative studies of implementation of both SERVQUAL and SERVPERF models in Istanbul Ataturk Airport and Sabiha Gokcen International Airport, found that the weighted SERVPERF model lent more accurate results due to having pore variables throughout all five dimensions. The researchers note that the tipping point between the two was the empathy and reliability dimensions, while in the rest, the two systems showed comparable results.
In “Service Quality and Customer Satisfaction of a UAE-Based Airline: An Empirical Investigation” (Hussain, Nasser, and Hussain, 2015), the authors use SERVQUAL as a primary tool for measuring customer satisfaction and service quality. In order to do so, they analyzed the results of 253 questionnaires, which indicated that out of all determinants, service quality, perceived value and brand image were the most significant factors in promoting customer satisfaction.
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The situation is different in Nigeria. According to a quantitative study conducted by Chikwendu, Ezem, and Ejenwa (2012), which used SERVQUAL as their primary instrument for measuring service quality, the primary determinants that lent positive results for local airline companies were empathy, responsiveness and technical aspects of their services, except for reliability. At the same time, tangibles scored an all-time low, with a score of -5.71, which is a very poor level of customer service and requires much improvement.
The review of Malaysian Airlines conducted by Norazah Mohd Suki (2014) shows a situation that is both similar and different from previous research studies mentioned in this literature review. This study was conducted using the SERVQUAL model as the main measurement instrument. According to this research, the empathy factor plays the deciding role in customer preference choices of particular airline services. Tangibles and terminal tangibles, according to SERVQUAL, were of least importance to passengers using Malaysian airline companies.
SERVQUAL and its five dimensions of customer service quality were extensively used in a study on service quality and passenger satisfaction on Indian Airlines, performed in 2012 by Archana and Sumbha. According to their findings, the two most important dimensions for Indian customers were empathy and tangibles, namely comforts and cuisine. The importance of tangibles decreased from premium to economy class flights, while empathy remained equally important for passengers of all economic backgrounds.
Korean studies dedicated to the subject under consideration in their own country, performed by Yu Kyoung Kim, Yong Beom Kim, and Yong Il Lee (2011), use both SERVQUAL and SERVPERF scales in order to assess the levels of service quality of local full-service companies and low-cost flights. According to the studies, perceived customer service quality plays the deciding role in passenger satisfaction. Unlike customers in other countries, Koreans value reliability and tangibles over empathy at all levels of flights.
Researchers who study customer service quality among U.S. airline qualities tend to rely on SERVQUAL and SERVPERF models, as well. Most researchers use custom grading systems based on either of the two and adjusted according to their needs. A DEA analysis performed by Kanghwa Choi, Don Hee Lee, and David L. Olson (2015) showed an interesting trait in low-cost commercial flights. Perceived quality of customer services for these companies usually was much higher than anticipated as many customers had lowered expectations, to begin with, in particular, towards tangibles and levels of reliability.
SERVQUAL’s five dimensions are useful not only when studying service quality of different companies but also can be used to determine passenger loyalty. Research performed by Raphaël K. Akamavia, Elsayed Mohamed, Katharina Pellmannc, and Yue Xua showed that during service failures, employee benevolence and efficacy could mitigate much of the negative feedback. Thus, the study shows that while tangibles, reliability, and responsiveness play a large part in winning loyalty, empathy is paramount in keeping that loyalty during service failures.
When assessing customer satisfaction using the SERVQUAL scale, a certain level of disparity needs to be offered to the respondents in order to properly assess their opinions regarding airline services. The so-called “fuzzification” process involves three intervals, which later transfer to five SERVQUAL dimensions. These intervals, according to research performed by Pakdil and Aydin (2008), are Optimistic, Neutral, and Optimistic.
Criticism of the SERVQUAL Model
Although the SERVQUAL model seems to see plenty of use in many research studies dedicated to airline customer service quality, as was amply illustrated by the abundance of presented material about airline companies from different regions around the world, the model is not without its flaws. It was criticized from its early conception and has constantly been improved upon, eventually evolving into SERVPERF and other variations.
The main point of criticism for the SERVQUAL model comes from Cronin and Tailor (1994). In their comparative analysis of the SERVQUAL versus the SERVPERF model, they state that the very conceptualization of the model is flawed since it is based on a satisfaction paradigm rather than an attitude model. At the same time, the researchers state that there is a massive difference between service quality perceptions, quality satisfaction judgments, and expectancy-disconfirmation judgments.
According to Babakus and Boller (1992), who performed an empirical analysis of the SERVQUAL model, the expectation section of the system is not particularly useful as most of the weight is carried by the perception scores, which have the most impact on the overall results of the analysis.
This matter is further investigated by Teas (1993) in his study, titled “Expectations, Performance Evaluation, and Consumers’ Perceptions of Quality.” In it, he points out the erroneous tendency in grading scores on different processes and questions if equal scores on these processes have different weight and meaning from one to another.
Another point for which SERVQUAL is criticized is its lack of adaptability. This matter is reflected on by Buttle (1996) in his article published in the European Journal of Marketing. In it, he states that due to the ever-changing demands and opinions regarding customer service, any results received through the use of SEQUAL questionnaires have little longevity as scores received several years ago may no longer apply to the current situation.
Coutlhard’s (2004) critique of the SERVQUAL model is more recent and emphasizes the fact that SERVQUAL has a dimensionality problem when it comes to certain intricacies and aspects of particular industries. He states that the five dimensions mentioned in the SERVQUAL analysis are not generic and should be refined by factor analysis before being applied in a particular industry.
Brown, Churchill, and Peter (1993) state that SERVQUAL is used so widely in all areas of customer service because of its relatively high reliability. At the same time, the researchers note that its overall reliability is below that of a non-difference measure used in service quality analysis. At the same time, SERVQUAL fails to provide a differential validity to each of its components.
Despite the criticism, however, a review of 20 years of SERVQUAL research performed by Riadh Ladhari (2009) finds that the instrument remains one of the primary tools in service-quality research. This indicates that the practicalities of the system trumped the majority of theoretical concerns posed by its critics and that the results of these analyses proved to be useful and practical enough to disregard certain weaknesses and downsides associated with this method of research. In his summary, Ladhari uses over 30 applications of SERVQUAL in various industries to demonstrate the point.
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