Mon, 26 May 2003

The value of service lies in a moment of truth

Roy Goni Contributor Jakarta

Will services provide a competitive advantage for a company? The answer is a definite "yes".

Today, companies realize that, in the long term, their products alone cannot bring in profits, but the intangible element of services -- or to be more precise, excellence in services -- assure lasting profitability.

With today's highly educated and demanding consumers, companies have no other choice but to satisfy them to the fullest as well as maintain their loyalty by providing only the best in services. These sophisticated and fickle customers also demand services that satisfy esthetically and cater to their needs for self-actualization.

In marketing jargon, marketers of major companies agree that providing excellence in services, apart from increasing a company's competitive edge, also secures "the value migration in the minds of consumers".

In today's highly competitive environment and in this era acknowledged as the "service economy era", all sorts of companies -- be they product- or service-oriented -- are racing to provide their customers with the best interpretation of their wishes. Major companies -- owners of some of the world's leading brands, like Coca Cola, Nokia, Mercedes Benz and BMW -- have for years recognized the importance of high standards in their services and the implementation have resulted in customers' loyalty.

However, service excellence is easier said than done. Empirical studies of companies that have succeeded as the best service providers, like Singapore Airlines, Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore and Shangri-La Hotel, for instance, indicate that their reputations have not been achieved overnight: They are the result of long, arduous work based on genuine commitment and consistency at all levels of each company.

The studies also reveal that an important factor was the leadership element that, not only at the initial stages, but consistently maintained the commitment to provide excellent services and positively infected all management and staff.

Consumers' perceptions about a company's performance are actually formed at several touch-points on various occasions, right from the purchase of the product to much later, after the product has been utilized.

Jan Carlzon, former CEO of the Scandinavian airlines, SAS, called them "moments of truth". The moments of truth occur during every interaction between a consumer and the company's products and services, and each one is vital, as it can be productive and provide opportunities or, on the contrary, become a threat for the company.

Three major elements form consumers' perceptions about a company's service quality: Content, or tangible benefits of a product; infrastructure of service delivery; and finally, but no less important, is context, or what consumers experience physically and in their minds during the purchase and usage of a product. This is often referred to as the "how" of what a company delivers, which is later reflected in long-term satisfaction on the part of the consumer.

Focusing on these three elements, with its state-of-the-art central reservation system, Shangri-La Hotel, for example, ensures maximum satisfaction for its customers throughout its service, including accuracy of information in relation to confirmation of bookings and so forth.

Its highly professional and knowledgeable staff is another added value for the customers at every moment of truth at this hotel. The positive result is a superior brand equity that is enjoyed by the Shangri-La hotel chain.

Singapore Airlines (SIA) has gained a worldwide reputation for a number of qualities, including its outstanding service on the ground and on board, as well as its modern fleet. Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore, a favorite among many Indonesians, is also famous for its excellent service.

Flexibility is another key factor when companies design company-customer interface. Obviously, hardware and software, as well as highly professional staff, are required to provide instant solutions to unexpected problems that might occur on occasion. Regular surveys, or consumer satisfaction mapping, are also necessary to gauge the results and make quick changes.

In the end, it all boils down to a company's philosophy, and whether it treats its customers as genuine equity instead of merely as objects.

To sum up, it takes courageous and committed leaders making continuous efforts to turn "excellence in service" from a slogan into reality. The writer is a senior lecturer in marketing at the school of economics at Unika Atma Jaya University in Jakarta.