This article is a review of the literature related to the study of service quality in corporate and recreational sport and fitness programs. It considers earlier discussions of conceptualization and operationalization aspects of consumers’ perceptions of service quality. It reviews several models used by researchers in the past, as well as more recent approaches to understanding the constructs of service and service quality and the various means used to measure them.
Quality of service has been studied within the discipline of business management for years, because the market is increasingly competitive and marketing management has transferred its focus from internal performance (such as production) to external interests like customer satisfaction and customers’ perceptions of service quality (Gronroos, 1992). However, the concept of service quality has only recently—over the last two decades—gained attention from sport and recreation providers and those who study them (Yong, 2000). The service-quality framework known as SERVQUAL comprises a traditional disconfirmatory model and was the first measurement tool to operationalize service quality. Although it made a contribution to the field of service quality and was very popular among service-quality researchers in many areas, SERVQUAL proved insufficient due to conceptual weaknesses in the disconfirmatory paradigm and to its empirical inappropriateness.
Later service-quality frameworks included a greater number of dimensions than SERVQUAL offered. Most recent models, such as Brady’s (1997) hierarchical multidimensional model, have synthesized prior approaches and suggest the complexity of service-quality perception as a construct. Because of this complexity, despite numerous efforts in both business management and the sport/fitness field, the study of service quality is still in a state of confusion. No consensus has been reached on its conceptualization or its operationalization of consumers’ perceptions of service quality.
Service and Service Quality
Service quality has long been studied by researchers in the field of business management. However, they have reached no consensus concerning how the service quality construct is best conceptualized or operationalized. In presenting the literature that reflects this lack of consensus, it is first necessary to focus on the definitions and characteristics of service and service quality. The concept of service comes from business literature. Many scholars have offered various definitions of service. For example, Ramaswamy (1996) described service as “the business transactions that take place between a donor (service provider) and receiver (customer) in order to produce an outcome that satisfies the customer”(p. 3). Zeithaml and Bitner (1996) defined service as “deeds, processes, and performances” (p. 5). According to Gronroos (1990),
A service is an activity or series of activities of more or less
intangible nature that normally, but not necessarily, take place in
interactions between the customer and service employees and /or
systems of the service provider, which are provided as solutions
to customer problems. (p. 27)
Some researchers have viewed service from within a system-thinking paradigm (Lakhe & Mohanty, 1995), defining service as
a production system where various inputs are processed, transformed
and value added to produce some outputs which have utility to the service
seekers, not merely in an economic sense but from supporting the life of the
human system in general, even maybe for the sake of pleasure. (p. 140)
Yong (2000) reviewed definitions of service and noted the following features of service that are important to an understanding of the concept. First, service is a performance. It happens through interaction between consumers and service providers (Deighton, 1992; Gronroos, 1990; Ramaswamy, 1996; Sasser, Olsen, & Wyckoff, 1978; Zeithaml & Bitner, 1996). Second, factors such as physical resources and environments play an important mediating role in the process of service production and consumption (American Marketing Association, 1960; Collier, 1994; Gronnroos, 1990). Third, service is a requirement in terms of providing certain functions to consumers, for example problem solving (Gronroos, 1990; Ramaswamy, 1996). From these points Yong (2000) concluded that “a service, combined with goods products, is experienced and evaluated by customers who have particular goals and motivations for consumers for consuming the service.” (p. 43)
Among researchers generally, there is no consensus about the characteristics of service. According to Yong (2000), their various conceptualizations fall into two groups. First, there are those researchers who view the concept from the perspective of service itself. They pay attention to the discrepancy between marketing strategies for service and goods, in an approach that differentiates service (intangibles) from goods (tangibles). The suggestion is that distinct marketing strategies are appropriate for the two concepts. Parasuraman, Zeithaml, and Berry (1985) as well as Zeithaml and Bitner (1996) identified the following features of service that distinguish it from goods: Service is intangible, heterogeneous, simultaneous, simultaneous in production and consumption, and perishable.
Pointing out the unique features of service advances understanding of the concept, but it has drawn criticism, for example because the identified features are not universal across service sectors. As Wright (1995) noted, first, a service industry depends more on tangible equipment to satisfy customers’ demands, while some customers do not care whether or not goods are tangible. Second, some service businesses are well standardized; an example is franchise industries (Wright, 1995). In addition, some customers value equality and fairness in the service provided. Third, many services are not simultaneously produced and consumed (Wright, 1995). Fourth, highly technological and equipment-based services could be standardized. Critics other than Wright (Wyckham, Fitzroy, & Mandry, 1975) have argued that the four-point approach to service ignores the role of customers.
The second group of researchers conceptualizing service comprises those who view service from the perspective of service customers. These researchers focus on the utility and total value that a service provides for a consumer. This approach points out that service combines tangible and intangible aspects in order to satisfy customers during business transactions (Gronroos. 1990; Ramaswamy, 1996). The approach implies that because consumers evaluate service quality in terms of their own experiences, customers’ subjective perceptions have great impact upon service businesses’ success or failure (Shostack, 1997).
Conceptualization and Operationalization of Service Quality
Although researchers have studied the concept of service for several decades, there is no consensus on how to conceptualize service quality (Cronin & Taylor, 1992; Rust & Oliver, 1994), in part because different researchers have focused on different aspects of service quality. Reeves and Bednar (1994) noted that “there is no universal, parsimonious, or all-encompassing definition or model of quality” (p. 436). The most common definition of service quality, nevertheless, is the traditional notion, in which quality is viewed as the customer’s perception of service excellence. That is to say, quality is defined by the customer’s impression of the service provided (Berry, Parasuraman, & Zeithaml, 1988; Parasuraman, Zeithaml, & Berry, 1985). This definition assumes that customers form a perception of service quality according to the service performance they experience and in light of prior experiences of service performance. It is therefore the customer’s perception that categorizes service quality. Many researchers accept this approach. For example, Bitner and Hubbert (1994) defined quality as “the consumer’s overall impression of the relative inferiority/superiority of the organization and its services” (p. 77). But their definition of service quality differs from that of the traditional approach, which locates service quality perception within the contrast between consumer expectation and actual service performance (Gronroos, 1984; Lewis & Booms, 1983; Parasuraman, Zeithaml, & Berry, 1985; Parasuraman, Zeithaml, & Berry, 1990).
Parasuraman, Zeithaml, and Berry (1985) viewed quality as “the degree and direction of discrepancy between customers’ service perception and expectations.” According to this approach, services are different from goods because they are intangible and heterogeneous and are simultaneously produced and consumed. Additionally, according to the disconfirmation paradigm, service quality is a comparison between consumers’ expectations and their perceptions of service actually received. Based on the traditional definition of service quality, Parasuraman, Zeithaml, and Berry (1985) developed their gap model of perceived service quality. The model incorporates five gaps: (a) the gap between management’s perceptions of consumer expectations and expected service, (b) the gap between management’s perceptions of consumers’ expectations and the translation of those perceptions into service-quality specification, (c) the gap between translation of perceptions of service-quality specification and service delivery, (d) the gap between service delivery and external communications to consumers, and (e) the gap between the level of service consumers expect and actual service performance. This disconfirmation paradigm conceptualizes the perception of service quality as a difference between expected level of service and actual service performance. The developers of the gap model proposed 10 second-order dimensions consumers in a broad variety of service sectors use to assess service quality. The 10 are tangibles, reliability, responsiveness, competence, courtesy, credibility, security, access, communication, and understanding (Parasuraman et al., 1985).
Using these 10 dimensions, Parasuraman et al. (1988) made the first effort to operationalize the concept of service quality. They developed an instrument to assess service quality that empirically relied on the difference in scores between expectations and perceived performance. Their instrument consisted of 22 items, divided along the 10 second-order dimensions, with a seven-point answer scale accompanying each statement to test the strength of relations. The 22 items were used to represent 5 dimensions, ultimately: reliability, responsiveness, tangibles, assurance, and empathy. Yong (2000) described the five as follows:
Reliability refers to the ability to perform the promised service
dependently and accurately. Responsiveness reflects the willingness
to help a customer and provide prompt service. Tangible refers
to the appearance of the physical facilities, equipment, personnel and
communication material. Empathy refers to caring, individualized
attention the firm provides its customer. (p. 66)
In their seminal study, Parasuraman and colleagues used SERVQUAL to measure service quality as the gap between expectation and perception in several venues: an appliance repair and maintenance firm, retail banks, a long-distance telephone provider, a securities broker, and credit card companies (Parasuraman et al., 1985). The study provided a comprehensive conceptualization of service quality, and it marked the first time, in service-quality research, that an instrument for measuring perceived service quality was used. It became very well known among service-quality researchers.
However, numerous researchers challenged the usefulness of the SERVQUAL scale as a measure of service quality (e.g., Babakus & Boller, 1992; Brown, Churchill, & Peter, 1993; Carmen, 1990; Cronin & Taylor, 1992; Dabholkar, Thorpe, & Rentz, 1996). Carmen (1990) selected four service settings that were quite different from those in the original test and found that in some situations, SERVQUAL must be customized (items added or edited), despite its introduction as a generic instrument measuring service quality in any sector. In addition, Carmen suggested that SERVQUAL’s five dimensions are insufficient to meet service-quality measurement needs, and that measurement of expectation using SERVQUAL is problematic.
Finn and Lamb (1991) argued that “the SERVQUAL measurement model is not appropriate in a retail setting” (p. 487). Furthermore, they argued, “retailers and consumer researchers should not treat SERVQUAL as an ‘off the shelf’ measure of perceived quality. Much refinement is needed for specific companies and industries” (p. 489). According to Brown, Churchill, & Peter (1993) SERVQUAL’s use of difference between scores causes a number of problems in such areas as reliability, discriminate validity, spurious correlations, and variance restriction. Finally, Cronin and Taylor (1992) argued that the disconfirmation paradigm applied by SERVQUAL was inappropriate for measuring perceived service quality. The paradigm measures customer satisfaction, not service quality, and Cronin and Taylor’s study employing solely the performance scale SERVPERF showed SERVPERF to outperform SERVQUAL.
SERVQUAL’s shortcomings result from the weakness of the traditional disconfirmatory definition of service quality which it incorporates. Yong (2000) notes several problems in this traditional definition of service quality. First, customers’ needs are not always easy to identify, and incorrectly identified needs result in measuring conformance to a specification that is improper. Schneider and Bowen (1995) pointed out that
[C]ustomers bring a complex and multidimensional set of expectations to the service encounter. Customers come with expectations for more than a smile and handshake. Their expectations include conformance to at least ten service quality attributes (i.e., Parasuraman et al.’s 10 dimensions—reliability, responsiveness, competence, access, courtesy, communication, credibility, security, understanding, and tangible).” (p. 29)
Second, the traditional definition fails to provide a way to measure customers’ expectations, and expectations determine the level of service quality. Because customer expectations may fluctuate greatly over time (Reeves & Bednar, 1994), a definition of quality based on expectation cannot be parsimonious. It is invalid, empirically speaking, to use the disparity of scores for expectation and scores for perceived service quality to measure service quality.
Oliver (1997) is another researcher who pointed out the traditional model’s difficulty distinguishing service quality from satisfaction. While perception of quality may come from external mediation rather than experience of service, consumers must experience satisfaction in person. In addition, judgments and standards of quality are based on ideals or perceptions of excellence, while judgments concerning satisfaction involve predictive expectations, needs, product category norms, and even expectations of service quality. Moreover, while judgments concerning quality are mainly cognitive, satisfaction is an affective experience (Bitner & Hubbert, 1994; Oliver, 1994). Service quality is influenced by a very few variables (e.g, external cues like price, reputation, and various communication sources); satisfaction, in contrast, is vulnerable to cognitive and affective processes (e.g., equity, attribution, and emotion). Quality is primarily long-term, while satisfaction is primarily short-term.
Discussing various analyses in terms of their definitions of service quality, Yong (2000) pointed out that service quality should not be defined using a disconfirmation paradigm (i.e., by comparing expectation and perceived quality). Indeed, since service quality may not necessarily involve customer experience and consumption, the disconfirmation paradigm does not clarify service quality (Yong, 2000). Furthermore, it is easier to measure service quality if judgment occurs primarily at the attribute-based cognitive level. Yong (2000) stated as well that customer perception of quality to date has been the main focus of service-quality research; consumers’ overall impressions determine service quality. Yong (2000) argues that what constitutes service changes from one service sector to another, so each sector’s consumers may perceive service quality differently, and that service quality is multidimensional or multifaceted. Finally, according to Yong (2000), service quality must be clearly differentiated from customer satisfaction.
Several researchers have approached service quality from perspectives quite different from that of Parasuraman et al. (1988). On the one hand, some scholars argue for multidimensional models of service quality. At first, Gronroos (1984) used a two-dimensional model to study service quality. Its first dimension was technical quality, meaning the outcome of service performance. Its second dimension was functional quality, meaning subjective perceptions of how service is delivered. Functional quality reflects consumers’ perceptions of their interactions with service providers. Gronroos’s model compares the two dimensions of service performance to customer expectation, and eventually each customer has an individual perception of service quality. McDougall and Levesque (1994) later added to Gronroos’s model a third dimension, physical environment, proposing their three-factor model of service quality. This later model consists of service outcome, service process (Gronroos, 1984), and physical environment. McDougall and Levesque (1994) tested the model with confirmatory factor analysis, using the dimensions of the SERVQUAL scale (which provided empirical support for the three-factor model). The three components from the above models, together with Rust and Oliver’s (1994) service product, represent one important aspect of services. All of them contribute to consumers’ perception of service quality (Yong, 2000).
On the other hand, Dabholkar, Thorpe, and Tentz (1996) proposed a hierarchical model of service quality that describes service quality as a level, multidimensional construct. That construct includes (a) overall consumer perception of service quality; (b) a dimension level that consists of physical aspects, reliability, personal interaction, problem solving, and policy; and (c) a subdimension level that recognizes the multifaceted nature of the service-quality dimensions. Dabholkar and colleagues found that quality of service is directly influenced by perceptions of performance levels. In addition, customers’ personal characteristics are important in assessing value, but not in assessing quality.
The two lines of thought on the modeling of service quality were combined by Brady (1997). He developed a hierarchical and multidimensional model of perceived service quality by combining Dabholkar, Thorpe, and Tentz’s (1996) hierarchical model and McDougall and Levesque’s (1994) three-factor model (Brady, 1997). Brady’s model incorporates three dimensions, interaction quality, outcome quality, and physical environment quality. Each dimension consists of three subdimensions. The interaction quality dimension comprises attitude, behavior, and expertise subdimensions. The outcome quality dimension comprises waiting time, tangibles, and valence. Finally, the physical environment quality dimension comprises ambient conditions, design, and social factors. Brady’s hierarchical and multidimensional approach is believed to explain the complexity of human perceptions better than earlier conceptualizations in the literature did (Dabholkar, Thorpe, & Rentz, 1996; Brady, 1997). Furthermore, empirical testing of Brady’s model shows the model to be psychometrically sound.
In a study of service quality in recreational sport, Yong (2000) further developed Brady’s (1997) model, proposing that perception of service quality occurs in four dimensions. The first is program quality: the range of activity programs, operating time, and secondary services. The second is interaction quality, or outcome quality. The third is environment quality. Yong tested his model with a two-step approach of structural equation modeling, and he supported multidimensional conceptualization of service-quality perception.
Perception of service quality is quite a controversial topic; to date no consensus has been reached on how to conceptualize or operationalize this construct. In its summarization of the existing literature about service quality, this article explored the concepts of service, service quality, consumer perception of service quality, and the conceptualization and operationalization of the service-quality concept. It covered several models of service quality, the earliest one of which was SERVQUAL. An application of the traditional disconfirmatory model, SERVQUAL represents the first effort to operationalize service quality. Although it made a great contribution to the field and was very popular among service-quality researchers in many areas, SERVQUAL is now thought to be insufficient because of conceptual weaknesses inherent in the disconfirmatory paradigm and also because of its empirical inappropriateness. Service-quality researchers working after SERVQUAL’s introduction proposed models containing additional dimensions. Brady developed a hierarchical and multidimensional model of perceived service quality by combining the ideas of earlier researchers. The relatively recent approaches like Brady’s (1997) utilize ideas seen in earlier models, yet more fully represent the complexity of the concept of service-quality perception.
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