A Critical Assessment of Servqual’S Applicability in the Banking Context of China

Lianxi Zhou, University of Guelph, Canada
Ye Zhang, Zhejiang University, China
Jia Xu, Zhejiang University, China
ABSTRACT - Based on a customer survey conducted in Zhejiang, a southeastern province of China, this study has specifically assessed three interrelated issues in relation to applicability of SERVQUAL in the Chinese banking context: 1) SERVQUAL as a diagnostic tool, 2) the dimensionality of SERVQUAL, and 3) the predictive validity of SERVQUAL. Our findings support SERVQUAL in terms of its role in exploring specific customer perceptions and expectations of service quality, and the gap between the two. However, this diagnostic value cannot be linked to the prediction of customer satisfaction and behavioral consequences. The findings of this study point to the need to further explore the relationships etween context-dependent dimensions in SERVQUAL and behavioral variables, and to compare its predictive value with that of other alternative service quality measures such as SERVPERF and BANKSERV in a socially and culturally different service context.
[ to cite ]:
Lianxi Zhou, Ye Zhang, and Jia Xu (2002) ,"A Critical Assessment of Servqual’S Applicability in the Banking Context of China", in AP - Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, eds. Ramizwick and Tu Ping, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 14-21.

Asia Pacific Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 2002      Pages 14-21

A CRITICAL ASSESSMENT OF SERVQUAL’S APPLICABILITY IN THE BANKING CONTEXT OF CHINA

Lianxi Zhou, University of Guelph, Canada

Ye Zhang, Zhejiang University, China

Jia Xu, Zhejiang University, China

ABSTRACT -

Based on a customer survey conducted in Zhejiang, a southeastern province of China, this study has specifically assessed three interrelated issues in relation to applicability of SERVQUAL in the Chinese banking context: 1) SERVQUAL as a diagnostic tool, 2) the dimensionality of SERVQUAL, and 3) the predictive validity of SERVQUAL. Our findings support SERVQUAL in terms of its role in exploring specific customer perceptions and expectations of service quality, and the gap between the two. However, this diagnostic value cannot be linked to the prediction of customer satisfaction and behavioral consequences. The findings of this study point to the need to further explore the relationships etween context-dependent dimensions in SERVQUAL and behavioral variables, and to compare its predictive value with that of other alternative service quality measures such as SERVPERF and BANKSERV in a socially and culturally different service context.

INTRODUCTION

Nationwide financial institution reform has been taking place in China since 1997. With China’s entry into the World Trade Organization imminent, the primary mandate of this reform has been to encourage domestic banks to prepare for the new challenges and opportunities that will present themselves as domestic financial markets open up to competition from foreign banks. One of the major facets of the reform has been the restructuring and commercialization of state-owned banks into market-oriented for-profit organizations from their previous status as departments or institutions guided by central Chinese government. The commercialized banks now include the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the China Construction Bank, the Agricultural Bank of China, and the Bank of China. All these banks have been forced to participate in not only domestic but, more importantly, global competition. To prepare for outside competition, these banks have started to adopt sophisticated technologies, and procure innovative equipment and management software developed in Western countries. The growing popularity of ATMs, POS systems, and online business are some indicators of this modernization trend in the banking industry across China.

In addition to upgrading service facilities, most domestic banks appear to have recognized the importance of providing quality services to maintaining competitive advantage. It is not difficult to convince them that superior financial products can be easily imitated by competitors, and thus are not enough to ensure competitive advantage. Banks have come to accept the view that it is the quality of service that may better distinguish them over the long run. However, most bank managers in China know little about their customers, which hinders their efforts to monitor and manage service quality development. Such knowledge is becoming indispensable not only for Chinese bank managers, but for all bank managers.

As China’s banking environment gradually opens to foreign financial institutions, the political and social barriers to market access will eventually give way to constraints related to China’s retail customers (Leung 2000). The persistent effort made by Citibank over the past several years in China may pay off (Chowdhury 2000). Citigroup is keen on leveraging the pool of perhaps $550 billion (US) in Chinese household savings. They believe Chinese households will favor foreign banks because of their superior products and services. In order to develop products and services that best meet the needs of Chinese consumers, a close look at Chinese consumer perceptions of and responses to their current domestic banking services may be very useful. This scrutiny would suggest service problem areas that must be addressed if foreign banks are to achieve competitive advantage operating in China.

The quest for service quality has been an essential strategic consideration for banks attempting to succeed and survive in today’s fierce competitive environment (Berry, Bennett, and Brown 1989; Parasuraman, Zeithaml, and Berry 1988; Newman 2001). This recognition of the strategic importance of providing service quality has led to the documentation by researchers of several approaches for measuring customer perceptions of service quality and satisfaction with banks (Avkiran 1994; Bahia and Nantel 2000; Cronin and Taylor 1992). The SERVQUAL developed by Parasuraman, Zeithaml, and Berry (1988) has emerged as perhaps the most widely recognized scale in the service quality literature. It has been applied to a broad range of service industries across different countries, including retail banking (Parasuraman et al. 1988; 1991; Lam 1995; Newman 2001; Sousa 1999). However, recent research on servie quality using SERVQUAL seems to challenge the scale’s conceptual and empirical foundations (Buttle 1996; Cronin and Taylor 1992; Genestre and Herbig 1996; Gilmore and Carson 1992; Lam and Woo 1997). Many researchers have questioned the reliability and validity of the SERVQUAL scale. In his analysis of measuring service quality, Robinson (1999, p.29) states "Serious doubt must be raised over the future use of SERVQUAL as a means for measuring service quality.At best it can be argued that SERVQUAL is applicable to contexts close to its original setting. it is questionable whether SERVQUAL is a reliable measure of service quality or, indeed, whether it is measuring service quality at all". Nevertheless, SERVQUAL has maintained its position as a pioneering tool used by service providers in the search for consumer data (Jiang, Klein, and Crampton 2000; Lam, Wong, and Yeung 1997; Newman 2001).

The purpose of this study was to assess the applicability and usefulness of SERVQUAL to the Chinese banking context. Based on customer survey data collected in Zhejiang, a southeastern province of China, this study has addressed three interrelated key issues: 1) the diagnostic value of SERVQUAL 2) SERVQUAL’s dimensionality and 3) the predictive validity of SERVQUAL. Few previous studies of SERVQUAL applications have analyzed these three issues in an integrative manner, particularly in relation to Chinese service industries.

BACKGROUND

Despite the problems and criticisms related to SERVQUAL as a measure of service quality, many scholars and practitioners have applied this instrument to a variety of service sectors including retail banking (Lam 1995; Newman 2001). In using this instrument, questions have often been raised about the usefulness of the scale as a diagnostic tool in monitoring and managing service development, the adequateness of its dimensionality, and how well the scale can be used to predict service outcomes such as overall satisfaction and switching behavior. The collective findings have shown mixed support for SERVQUAL as a standard measure of satisfaction within service industries (see Buttle 1996 for a review). Significant variations have been found with regard to the reliability and validity of SERVQUAL across different service sectors and national contexts. Little evidence, however, has been provided from the service context of China, an emerging marketplace for service industries.

Unlike in the U.S., Canada, or other developed countries, service management and marketing research practices were not started in China until the 1990s when growing competition in the field of hospitality became a catalyst. A group of management researchers from Guangzhou Zhongshan University (China) initiated their pioneering research on service quality in relation to Chinese hotels, restaurants and tourism a couple of years ago. So far, several articles have been published in Chinese journals. Their studies have dealt with a range of topics, including tourists’ emotional attachment to service quality (Wang 1995), the most important aspects of hotel services (Zhu and Wang 1999), customer satisfaction models (Wang et al. 1999), and the theoretical application of SERVQUAL to the assessment of China’s airline service quality (Zhao 2000).

In Taiwan, scholars have studied service quality in the medical sector. For example, Lu and Chou (2000) described an evaluation process model for service quality and its application to medical service quality assessment. In Macau, Sousa (1999) used SERVQUAL to perform a comparative analysis of Macau and Guangzhou banking customers, and found the instrument useful for identifying customers’ priority problem areas.

Most of these Chinese studies, however, have simply been compiled or replicated from the relevant studies published in the Western literature. Though the attempt has been made to extend the knowledge into a non-Western context, neither theoretical nor empirical aspects of previous work have een addressed, particularly in the limited studies relevant to the application of SERVQUAL in China. Our research aims to build and extend previous work featured in the Western literature, and to try to adapt the research concerns to the socially and culturally different context of China. To this purpose, we used an integrative approach for analyzing conceptual and empirical issues related to the application of SERVQUAL. This is a pioneering study of the Chinese banking industry based on one of China’s inland provinces.

METHODOLOGY

Study Site

From a marketing point of view, China should not be treated as a single country. There are vast regional differences in consumer reactions to marketing stimuli within China (Cui and Liu 2000; Swanson 1998). Based on economic development and consumer purchasing power, Cui and Liu (2000) have identified seven regional markets in China: South, East, North, Central, Southwest, Northwest, and Northeast. The site focused on in our study represents one of these distinct markets.

Specifically, our survey was undertaken in Zhejiang Province, which is located in the southeastern part of China (adjunct to Shanghai). In terms of market and economic development, Zhejiang is one of the most affluent regions within China. Zhejiang has also been widely considered as an exemplar of market based economy. According to Cui and Liu (2000), people in this region are generally more liberal and more enamoured with foreign goods and services as compared with those in less affluent areas. As such, this region has attracted great attention from both researchers and practitioners including foreign investors. Pioneering opportunities for foreign financial services may exist in this region. Thus, it was desirable to choose this region as the site for this study.

Sample Selection

Our customer survey was conducted in three citiesBHangzhou, Ningbo, and Jinghua in Zhejiang. These three cities are typical ones that represent different levels of economic development in Zhejiang. Hangzhou is the economic and political centre of Zhejiang Province, where all domestic banks have their branches. Ningbo is a coastal city, and is relatively rich as compared to Jinghua.

A convenience sample of 373 bank customers was selected during business hours of major domestic banks across the target cities. After obtaining his/her consent, each respondent was asked to fill out a standard questionnaire (to be described later) at the study site. The fieldwork received tremendous support from the managers of the participating banks. It took almost one month to complete during the spring of 2001. In general, most customers were willing to help and eager to express their concerns about banking service.

Survey Instrument

The survey instrument or questionnaire was adapted from the standard SERVQUAL scales. The original 22 SERVQUAL items were translated into Chinese, and their content validity (wording and meaning) was checked carefully by the researchers of this study. A pre-test was then conducted with a group of bank customers, and minor changes to the survey were made accordingly. As in the original format, a seven-point Likert scale was used for each of the 22 statements of service quality. The first section of the questionnaire contained the 22 statements for measuring customer expectations of ideal banks, whereas the second section was composed of the same 22 statements for measuring customer perceptions of banking service quality. In the third section, we measured a number of outcome variables, which included overall customer satisfaction with service quality and three forms of switching behaviors ("thinking of switching to another ban in the near future", "have started to decrease business relationships with the current bank", "have already made up mind to switch"). Satisfaction was measured using five-point scales (1=not satisfied at all to 5=very satisfied). The three behavioral variables were scaled from 1 (not at all) to 5 (absolutely true). Finally, respondents provided demographic information.

RESULTS

Sample Profile

The sample showed a slight preponderance of female customers (53%), and of young-to-middle age people (44.2% were in the range of 21 to 30 years old, 27.9% were from the 31 to 40 age category, 15.8% were in the range of 41 to 50 years old). In terms of the level of education, a significant majority of the respondents (73%) had a post-secondary degree. More than 65% of the respondents had personal annual income ranged from 10,000 yuan to 50,000 yuan, which is substantially higher than the national average. Also, the sample included people of various occupations, from farmers to professionals.

The subsequent analysis was focused on three issues of wide concern with regard to the SERVQUAL model: 1) SERVQUAL as a diagnostic tool for the improvement of service quality; 2) the dimensionality of SERVQUAL; and 3) the predictive validity of SERVQUAL.

SERVQUAL as a diagnostic tool

The diagnostic purpose of SERVQUAL in the improvement of service quality was examined in accordance with the approach provided in the literature (Lam 1997; Newman 2001; Sousa 1999). The analysis was conducted to compare the differences between the mean scores in performance perceptions and in expectations across the original 22 SERVQUAL items. Table 1 presents performance perceptions and expectation mean scores along with the gap in the means between these two components.

TABLE 1

PERFORMANCE PERCEPTIONS AND EXPECTATIONS MEANS (N=373)

As can be seen, the mean of perceptions on each item differs very significantly from that of expectations on the corresponding item. Hence, in general, the perceived service quality offered by Zhejiang’s retailing banks did not meet customers’ expectations. An individual item analysis revealed that the Zhejiang customers appeared to be most dissatisfied with bank performance in the following areas (the most severe gaps between expectations and perceptions under each item):

Reliability dimension of SERVQUAL

$ Keep promises (5)

$ Show sincere interest in solving customer problems (6)

Responsiveness dimension of SERVQUAL

$ Employees give prompt service (11)

$ Employees are always willing to help (12)

$ Employees are never too busy to respond to requests (13)

Assurance dimension of SERVQUAL

$ Employees have knowledge to answer questions (17)

Empathy dimension of SERVQUAL

$ Customers’ best interests are at heart (21)

$ Employees understand the specific needs of customers (22)

It is interesting to note that most of these items pertain predominantly to bank employees’ deliverable services, caring and individualized attention to customers. Therefore, human resource training in the banking sector of Zhejiang is needed, especially in the areas of employee willingness to help customers, job capability and keeping promises. In contrast, the service tangibles such asthe appearance of the bank’s physical facilities, equipment, personnel and communication materials were perceived to be in relatively good shape. But, this should be interpreted as the result of lower level of customer demand or lower customer expectations in relation to these tangibles (see items 1, 2 & 4 in Table 1).

In general, the SERVQUAL scale appeared to be useful in identifying specific service problems and priorities necessary to address in order to provide quality service experiences for Zhejiang customers. Hence its diagnostic value may be applicable to the Chinese banking context. However, what remains is to determine the extent to which the underlying individual problems are related to overall customer satisfaction, and behavioral consequences. These issues relate to the predictive value of SERVQUAL.

The Dimensionality of SERVQUAL

As in previous studies on SERVQUAL’s dimensionality, an exploratory (principal component) factor analysis was conducted on the original 22 scales items defined by Parasuraman et al. (1988). We analyzed the factor pattern separately for performance perceptions, expectations, and the gap scores between performance perceptions and expectations.

The 22 items yielded a three-factor solution on performance perceptions and on the gap scores, respectively, whereas a six-factor pattern emerged for the expectations. It is interesting to note that these factor patterns are in fact quite comparable with the standard five dimensions provided by Parasuraman et al. (1988). As for the three-factor solution for either performance perceptions or gap scores, the items loaded on the first factor are mainly composed of those related to Empathy and Responsiveness from SERVQUAL. Similarly, the second factor contains most items from the original dimensions of Reliability and Assurance. The items loaded on the third factor are tangibles, as defined, which reflect Tangibility from SERVQUAL. Hence, the original five dimensions of SERVQUAL were conceptualized and combined into threeBEmpathy/Responsiveness, Reliability/Assurance, and Tangibility measures. The three-factor solution on performance perceptions is given in Table 2. Overall, the results indicate that a meaningful pattern or a higher level of abstraction can be obtained from SERVQUAL in the new context, although the original five dimensions of the scale are not confirmed.

Predictive Validity of SERVQUAL

A. Correlation Analysis

To provide a preliminary examination of the predictive validity of SERVQUAL, relevant individual items were used to calculate a composite factor score for each of the five standard dimensions on perceptions, expectations and gap scores, respectively. These factor scores were then correlated with the global service quality measures on satisfaction and three forms of switching behaviors (thinking of switching to a better bank; have decided to minimize exchange relationships with the current bank; have made up mind to switch to a better bank). This approach was in accordance with the recommendations provided in the literature (Lam 1997). The results of the correlation matrix are presented in Table 3.

It can be seen that customer satisfaction is significantly correlated with all the facets of performance perceptions and the gap scores. However, none of the correlation scores between satisfaction and the five dimensions of expectation is significant. Similarly, there are a number of significant correlation scores between the three forms of switching behaviors and performance perceptions and the gap measures, but not between switching behaviors and expectations. These results imply that both performance perceptions and gap measures are key drivers in determining service satisfaction. Though not useful by themselves, the expectations appeared to have already been taken into account when customers provided evaluations base on service perceptions. Cronin and Taylor (1992) made a similar argument based on their findings. On the other hand, the similar strengths of correlation scores between satisfaction and perceptions, and between satisfaction and gap measures seems to indicate that perception measures are adequate to capture overall satisfaction and its behavioral consequences without the consideration of expectation measures. However, it still remains unclear whether performance perceptions or gap scores can be used to predict service satisfaction and/or the switching behaviors. A more robust test is therefore needed with regard to the predictive validity of standard SERVQUAL.

B. Structural Equations Analysis

For the purpose of testing the predictive validity of SERVQUAL in the Chinese banking context, in this section we linked the standard five dimensions of SERVQUAL (Tangibility, Reliability, Responsiveness, Assurance, and Empathy) with overall customer satisfaction and its consequences on switching behaviors. Figure 1 presents the structural equation model of interest, whereby the five dimensions of customers’ perceptions of service quality were used as determinants for customer satisfaction, which in turn impact on loyalty or switching behaviors (performance perception-based model). In response to the concern that it is the gap between customers’ expectations and perceptions of service quality that determines their satisfaction (Parasuraman et al. 1994), we also examined the gap scores as measures for the corresponding exogenous factors specified in Figure 1 (gap-based model).

A summary of the goodness-of-fit indicators for these two tested models is described as follows: The performance perception-based model yielded c2=1145.40 with df=282 (p=.000), an adjusted goodness-of-fit index (AGFI) of 0.78, a Tucker-Lewis Index (TLI) of 0.86, parsimony goodness-of-fit index (PGFI) of 0.66, and a root mean square residual (RMR) of 0.12. These indicators show that the fit of the model is unacceptable at the agreed-upon cut-off value of .90 for those overall fit indexes (Hoyle 1995, p.164). Similarly, the gap-based model also results in a poor fit to the data (c2=738.59, df=282, p=.000, AGFI=0.83, TLI=0.87, PGFI=0.69, RMR=0.16).

Hence, our findings do not support the standard structural pattern of the SERVQUAL model in relation to behavioral consequences in the Chinese-specific context. This leads us to conclude that SERVQUAL as a standard tool for service quality may not be applicable to the banking context in China (Zhejiang) to yield predictive value. However, it should also be noted that parameter estimates for the specified structural relationships (Table 4) showed somewhat directional support for the predictive value of SERVQUAL. As can be seen, all of the g’s (the relationships between SERVQUAL dimensions and customer satisfaction) were not statistically significant but in the expected direction. Also, the links between customer satisfaction and switching behaviors were confirmed (b1, b2 , b3).

CONCLUSION AND DISCUSSION

This study examined the applicability and usefulness of SERVQUAL in the Chinese banking context. Our findings supported SERVQUAL in terms of its role in exploring specific customer perceptions and expectations of service quality, and the gap between the two. However, this diagnostic value cannot be linked to the prediction of customer satisfaction as well as relevant behavioral consequences. Our results showed that in its original dimensional structure, neither performance perception measures nor gap scores were significant determinants for customer satisfaction and switching behaviors. With respect to the dimensionality of SERVQUAL, the results from our data were different from yet reasonably comparable with the standard dimensions defined by Parasuraman et al. (1988). Specifically, the original five dimensions of SERVQUAL were combined into threeBEmpathy/Resposiveness, Reliability/Assurance, and Tangibility measures. This suggests that a meaningful pattern or perhaps a higher level of abstraction can be obtained from SERVQUAL in the Chinese banking context.

TABLE 2

FACTOR ANALYSIS (PERFORMANCE PERCEPTIONS)

In accordance with the existing literature, the findings of the present study also raise questions about the predictive value of the SERVQUAL scale. While previous researchers (e.g., Babakus and Boller 1992; Cronin and Taylor 1992) were mostly concerned with the usefulness of service expectations in the prediction of behavioral variables, we found that the predictive validity of the standard SERVQUAL scale was poor even with the use of performance perceptions or gap scores as predictors. However, it remains interesting to see whether or not the predictive value can be improved by focusing on the combined dimensions in SERVQUAL. There is evident to suggest that the reduced number of items of the original SERVQUAL scale can evoke more independent and distinctive dimensions, which may contribute to the predictive validity of the scale (Llosa, Chandon, and Orsingher 1998). Alternatively, this study appears to lend support to the proposal of alternative service quality measures. For example, SERVPERF scale designed by Cronin and Taylor (1992) measures service quality performance and eliminates the expectations component. The significant correlations between performance perception measures and customer satisfaction and behavioral variables in our study may reflect the validity of Cronin and Taylor’s performance-based service quality measurement instrument. Similarly, Avkiran’s (1999) BANKSERV, is a single scale measure of service quality designed to allow customers to reflect on their perceptions and expectations in a single statement. This measure may be related to the usefulness of the gap scores (between performance perceptions and expectations) demonstrated in this research. From a managerial point of view, these alternative measures may be more cost effective for monitoring and managing service quality development. Nevertheless SERVQUAL, as the most widely recognized method of measuring service quality, should still be considered and compared with other alternative service quality scales, especially with regard to their predictive validity in the socially and culturally different service context of the present study.

TABLE 3

CORRELATION MATRIX (N=373)

FIGURE 1

A STRUCTURAL EQUATION MODEL (STANDARD SERVQUAL DIMENSIONS

TABLE 4

LISREL STRUCTURAL PARAMETER ESTIMATES (N=373)

A future concern is the potential of other alternative methods of service quality measurement in the research context of interest here. Banking services in China are not as sophisticated as those in North America or other developed countries. Chinese customers have just begun recognizing the benefits of improved banking service quality. But their demand for service dimensions is still very limited, and their tolerance for poor service quality appears to be high. They seem to be more concerned with the process of delivery rather than the outcomes of service. These characteristics may justify the applicability of SERVQUAL as it includes measuring the process of service delivery (Buttle 1996; Genestre and Herbig 1996). Future research may need to focus on comparisons of SERVQUAL with other more extended methods such as the Banking Service Quality (BSQ) measure adapted by Bahia and Nantel (2000). The BSQ measure is comprised of 31 items for six dimensions (effectiveness and assurance, access, price, tangibles, service portfolio and reliability). A focus on broad service dimensions tends to be beneficial for bank managers in the long run. It allows identification and response to customers’ priority problem areas and other service demands. While SEVQUAL can be selected as a basis for monitoring a service quality improvement process in China’s bank context, the competitive advantage for a bank may result from a broadened perspective on service quality. An exploration of alternative service quality measures tailored to a specific context tends to be a wise choice.

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