A service encounter is simply defined as a customer’s actual interaction with a service company. Shostack (1985) defined service encounter as the period of time that a customer interacts with a service. Merritt (1977:198), a linguistic scholar, views a service encounter as an instance of face to face interaction between a server who is ‘officially posted’ in some service area, that interaction being oriented to the satisfaction of the customer’s presumed desire for some service and the server’s obligation to provide that service.
The service encounter is also known as the ‘moment of truth’ in which the customer often develops a perception about the business and often creates a differentiation from other competitors. Solomon et al (1985) points out that service encounters are role performances. A service encounter includes a customer’s interaction with other customers, employees, machines, automated systems, physical facilities, and any other service provider visible elements.
Researchers such as Czepiel et al 1990 believe that the quality of the interaction between customers and service providers during the service encounter is important because it is at this level where customers judge the services provided to them. It can therefore be argued that to a greater extent the service encounter determines the quality of the service on offer both positively and negatively when analysing the interaction between service employees and service customers, interaction between service customers themselves, interaction of a customer with technology, service setting, service script and blueprinted service encounters.
However there are other factors that determine the quality of the service on offer such as the intermediaries and the processes. To a greater extent the service encounter determines the quality of the service on offer by analyzing the interactions involved in the encounter. Service employees involved in the service encounter can determine the quality of the service on offer as thet interact with the customer during the core production and consumption of the service. The service employees are responsible for the actual delivery of the service to the customer and are divided into the front line and back office service employees.
Front line service employees need to be well dressed and should poses good communication skills so as to assist the customer to experience a quality service hence failure to do so can lead to a poor service being offered. For example when a customers goes into a bank to withdraw money and fail to correctly fill in the withdrawal slip. The front line service employee should be able to assist the customer without making them feel like they are illiterate hence a quality service can be offered. Also if the service employee is not smartly dressed the customer tends to perceive the service being offered as that of poor quality.
The back office service employees also have an indirect effect on the service being offered in the service encounter. The front line depends on the back office as the back office offers support services to ensure that the transaction taking place in the service encounter moves smoothly. For example in a hotel the service employees in the kitchen ensure that a good meal is cooked which will then be delivered by the waiters who are the front line service employees and if the food tastes bad, the service offered in that encounter is deemed to be of poor quality.
It can then be argued that the service employees in the service encounter determines the quality of the service on offer as a they are the ones responsible for closing Gap 4 (service quality gap model) which entails to the void that is between the standard of quality promised and the actual service delivered hence there action can determine a positive or negative service offer. Service customer interaction in the service encounter determines the quality of the service on offer. In the encounter there are a lot of customers involved and there is a relatively high level of interaction between the customers.
Interaction is during core production and consumption with either a total stranger or acquaintances. This interaction in the service encounter has an effect on the quality of service being offered for example where customer are waiting in a queue to collect airline tickets and customer ‘C’ decides to jump the queue. This will result in customer ‘A” and or ‘B’ complaining and perceiving poor service offering as there is no measure to safe guard an uninterrupted service consumption. Service customer interaction can also be between the customer and technology.
The customer may be required to interact with technology in a technology based service encounter to experience the service on offer. In such a service encounter the customer is in control and might be willing to participate but not possessing the necessary skills, knowledge and abilities to operate the machinery for example for a customer to purchase goods online or book a hotel reservations using the company’s website requires the customer to be computer literate hence when not and fails to place an order the service on offer would be deemed by the specific customers as of poor quality.
Lovelock and Gummesson (2004) suggest that the service offer and encounter are less variable when machine-intensive technologies are utilised in service encounters since variability of the service encounter posses a great threat to the quality of service on offer. In a case where the customer successfully interacts with the technology in the service encounter this will result in a quality service being offered. The service setting in the service encounter can also determine the quality of the service on offer.
Scholars like Goffaman (1972) portray service encounters as performances in a theatre where there is a setting which represents the environment in which the service encounter occurs. The setting is composed of the furniture, designs/layout, background, ambiance and the building material. The setting can also be referred to as the physical evidence in the marketing mix. During the service encounter the setting gives the customer perceptions both positive and negatively.
High end furniture, layout and ambiance will result in the customer being offered quality service due to the high level of investment in the encounter. For example the VIP section service encounter in an airplane has better quality service as compared to that of the economy service encounter. Goffaman (1972) further argues that there is a script that is available during the service encounter for both the service customer and employee. The script just like in a theatre provides the participants of the encounter with a set of actions to take during participation.
The script might consist of verbal responses or series of actions on the part of the service employee which are there to ensure that the gap according to Parasuraman et al (1985) between the consumers’s perceived service offer and actual service offered is closed or reduced. For example when a customer calls a Multichoice call centre for a query they normaly have a script which goes by, “Good morning. Thank you for calling Multichoice South Africa. My name is Sandra and how my I help you? Although the script would ensure that the customer receives a quality service offer in the service encounter during the core consumption, at times service employees are restricted from offering superior service based on their judgement. A successful service script will result in a quality service offer in the service encounter as a customer script represents their skills, knowledge and abilities hence customers easily depict the activities needed to obtain the service..
Blueprinted service encounter can be a decisive factor on the quality of service on offer. Shostack (1982) suggested that blue printing allows quantitative description of critical service elements such as logical sequences of actions and processes and time that occur at a place of service delivery. Service blueprinting allows a customer oriented service offer by employees as the employee is able to view there role in the service encounter as an integrated whole.
Blueprinting also allows the service company to identify the lines of weakness in the chain of service activities as the parts where the customers experiences quality are more visible. Service recover strategies can also be crafted after the blueprint to address the lines of weakness available. This will ensure that in the service encounter were a is supposed to have experienced the service quality and an unfortunate incident occurs detrimental to the service quality, the customer should be compensated hence countering the unfortunate incident.
For example when a bus during a safari trip experiences technical problems which results in the customers being delayed, the service provider should inform the customers of the problem and if it can not be solved customers can be promised a free ride next time. The service recovery strategy would ensure that in the service encounter disturbances do not impact the positive quality of the service on offer. However there other factors that also determine and influence the quality of the service on offer. Intermidiaries play a significant role in the etermination of the quality of the service on offer as there reputation may be incongruent with the quality of an organisation and this congruency adversely impacts the customer’s perception of the organisation’s service offer. For example in the insurance sector Cell Insurance prefers to deal with broker companies such as Alexander Forbes because of there good reputation with serving customers, despite that the two companies have the same second major shareholder, as the broker reputation reinforces the Cell Insurance customer perception of quality of service on offer.
Scholars such as Dube and Renaghan (2000), cited by the business teacher. org. uk, postulate that intermediaries may also prove incapable to properly represent and sell the service to the customer. Although intermediaries can be a good source of more revenue they can also pose as a threat of widening the difference between the service delivered to customers and the promise to customers about the service quality in there endeavours to lure more clients and obtain there profits.
For example intermediaries of budget air lines may indicate that the airline offers in-flight entertainment while the quality is limited as was the case with Air Asia were customers complained that they had been misrepresented about in-flight entertainment since all passengers viewed the same program on a single television set. Air Asia. Processes can also have an influence on the quality of the service on offer. The process refers to the way the systems are utilised to assist the organisation within its delivering and its services.
An efficient process will often foster a good perception of quality service, customer loyalty and confidence in the company. For example the banking system which sends out credit cards automatically, without any interaction or request form the customer, when the old one has expired requires an efficient process to identify expiry dates and renewal. In conclusion one can safely argue that the service encounter determines the quality of the service on offer as seen through the service employee, both direct and indirect, interaction with the customer, service customer interaction with other customer in the service encounter, service customer nteraction with technology, service setting when looking at the service encounter as a theatre, blueprinted service encounter and service recovery strategies put in place in the encounter. However there are other factors which also determine the quality of the service such as the reputation of the intermediary and there ability to correctly represent and advertise the service.