Assessing Actual Service Performance: Incongruities Between Expectation and Evaluation Criteriam

Valerie A. Taylor, University of South Carolina
Anthony D. Miyazaki, University of South Carolina
ABSTRACT - A key link in both service quality and service satisfaction models is the link between the actual service and the perceived service. However, this link, which is particularly critical for services that are high in credence qualities, is often weak and has received limited attention in the marketing and consumer behavior literature. The processes involved in forming expectations and evaluations for such services are considered in this paper and particular incongruities are illustrated. The authors then present propositions which examine the process by which consumers may evaluate services high in credence attributes and discuss consumer and marketer implications of the discussed incongruities.
[ to cite ]:
Valerie A. Taylor and Anthony D. Miyazaki (1995) ,"Assessing Actual Service Performance: Incongruities Between Expectation and Evaluation Criteriam", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 599-605.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Page 599-605

ASSESSING ACTUAL SERVICE PERFORMANCE: INCONGRUITIES BETWEEN EXPECTATION AND EVALUATION CRITERIAM

Valerie A. Taylor, University of South Carolina

Anthony D. Miyazaki, University of South Carolina

[The authors thank Bill Bearden, Joe Urbany, and three anonymous reviewers for their insightful suggestions.]

ABSTRACT -

A key link in both service quality and service satisfaction models is the link between the actual service and the perceived service. However, this link, which is particularly critical for services that are high in credence qualities, is often weak and has received limited attention in the marketing and consumer behavior literature. The processes involved in forming expectations and evaluations for such services are considered in this paper and particular incongruities are illustrated. The authors then present propositions which examine the process by which consumers may evaluate services high in credence attributes and discuss consumer and marketer implications of the discussed incongruities.

INTRODUCTION

Significant advances are being made concerning satisfaction and quality perceptions for services. However, a key link in the service quality model has received limited attention: the link between the actual service and the perceived service, particularly regarding services high in credence attributes (i.e., those that cannot be easily evaluated by consumers without consulting expert opinion [Steenkamp 1990]). Because many consumers are not able to appropriately evaluate services high in credence attributes (e.g., auto repair, technical services, medical procedures), there are concerns regarding consumer fraud. Specifically, the opportunity exists for service providers to misrepresent services that are needed or performed, which ultimately might result in monetary and other types of losses to consumers and loss of consumer confidence toward the companies or industries involved. (Additionally, consumer inability to appropriately evaluate services high in credence attributes might alternatively work against the service provider. In this situation, rather than consumer fraud, the concern is that consumers may perceive the service more negatively than deserved.)

Consequently, an understanding of the processes involved in consumer evaluations of services high in credence attributes would make an important contribution from both public policy and management perspectives. In this paper we explore a portion of the decision making process that consumers face in making judgments about service quality. Specifically, we address the attribute incongruities between expectations and evaluations and the role of ambiguity in the consumer satisfaction process for services high in credence attributes (cf. Bolton and Drew 1991; Parasuraman, Zeithaml, and Berry 1985; Spreng and Olshavsky 1993).

The "Sixth Gap"

In their conceptual model of service quality Parasuraman et al. (1985) illustrate five discrepancies or gaps "regarding executive perceptions of service quality and the tasks associated with service delivery to consumers" (p. 44). The five identified gaps are (1) consumer expectationCmanagement perception, (2) management perceptionCservice quality specification, (3) service quality specificationsCservice delivery, (4) service deliveryCexternal communications, and (5)-expected serviceCperceived service.

Our research concerns services which are high in credence attributes, and are therefore difficult, if not impossible, for consumers to evaluate. In essence a sixth gap is indicated for services in which technical (actual) performance cannot be reasonably assessed. This sixth gap is a critical discrepancy between service delivery (the actual service) and service perception (on which consumer evaluations must be based). Although the Parasuraman et al. (1985) model indicates an essential connection between service delivery and service perception, Zeithaml (1988) illustrates the lack of correspondence often found between objective quality (actual service delivery) and subjective quality (based on the service perception). When a consumer is unable to form a reasonably accurate perception of the service being rendered, whether due to lack of knowledge on the consumer's part or due to the nature of the service (i.e., key attributes take the form of credence properties), the consumer will undoubtedly experience difficulties in forming an accurate or unbiased evaluation of service quality (cf. Klein and Oglethorpe 1987). Unfortunately, the inadequacy in the evaluation may not be known to the consumer (a critical issue with both managerial and public policy concerns, and one that we consider in the following discussion). It is noted that the examination of the sixth gap is important to researchers of service satisfaction as well as service quality, since both rely on a service perception that should reasonably reflect the actual service delivery.

Service Satisfaction and Service Quality

Much of the recent service satisfaction and service quality literature has focused on a disconfirmation model, in which consumers compare their perceptions of the service with some comparison standard, resulting in a feeling of satisfaction or dissatisfaction, or a judgment of service quality (Bearden and Teel 1983; Hill 1986; Parasuraman et al. 1985). Service perception has also been referred to as an evaluation or perception of service performance. However, it is important to note that this evaluation is not equivalent to an estimation of service quality. In fact, this evaluation (or perhaps, more clearly stated, "service perception") has been proposed to be an antecedent to the development of a service quality assessment (Bolton and Drew 1991; Cronin and Taylor 1992; Parasuraman et al. 1985, 1988). [Although some controversy exists concerning the use of the disconfirmation model for service quality measurement, both the Cronin and Taylor (1992) SERVPERF measure and the Parasuraman et al. (1988) SERVQUAL measure use service perception (i.e., service "performance" perception) as a key determinant in assessing service quality. Thus, the formation of an accurate service perception is critical to the consumer's construction of a quality assessment in either model.] Several variants of the disconfirmation model also exist for service satisfaction, yet all depend on service perception in order to form the satisfaction judgment (see, e.g., McGill and Iacobucci 1992; Spreng and Olshavsky 1993; Yi 1993).

Although there is currently conflict regarding the particular processes that lead to satisfaction and quality judgments, one common premise in the literature is that the consumer is able to somewhat accurately assess the performance of the actual service. Considering that some core benefit is initially sought by consumers when soliciting a service, this core benefit would appear to be the most important factor from an overall economic perspective. (That is, the core benefit should be key to decisions involving satisfaction, quality judgments, willingness to pay, and desire for repeat purchases.) Thus, to make meaningful satisfaction judgments and tenable estimations of quality, one must first be able to make a reasonably accurate evaluation of the service performance in question, that is, the core benefit. In light of this necessity, it is essential to understand the estimation and evaluation processes that are based on what often is a misconstrued perception of "true" service performance.

PERCEIVING AND EVALUATING SERVICE ENCOUNTERS

Credence Nature of Many Services. People often purchase and consume services that are high in credence attributes, which Darby and Karni (1973) define as "those [attributes] which, although worthwhile, cannot be evaluated in normal use" (p. 68). [Nelson (1970) delineates between "search" qualities (those which can be known before purchase) and "experience" qualities (those which can be known only after purchase). Darby and Karni (1973) further specify that experience attributes can be known costlessly after purchase, while credence attributes "are expensive to judge even after purchase" (p. 69).] This is the case when consumers are unfamiliar with the intricacies of a particular service, and thus must purchase diagnostic information at an additional cost (often from the same service provider). Darby and Karni propose that the line between experience attributes and credence attributes is sometimes fuzzy, in that some credence attributes may become discernable after the passage of time. For example, treatment received by a doctor for back pain might not be assessable directly following the initial service visit or prescription of medication, but over time, the continuation or cessation of pain provides evidence of the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of the doctor's care.

The credence nature of many services creates a dilemma for consumer evaluation of these services. Darby and Karni (1973) suggest that the implications surrounding this dilemma are potentially severe, and that opportunities exist for service providers to fraudulently misdiagnose and/or mismanage service encounters (see, e.g., Yin 1992).

Core benefits and peripheral benefits. When a service is purchased, buyers are presumably in need of, or desire, some "core benefit" in exchange for their funds. Although other benefits may also be both expected and included in the final service package, the core benefit presumably drives the buyer to seek out a service provider. Peripheral benefits, however, may be either added benefits that carry obvious monetary or convenience value (e.g., a "loaner" car or shuttle service while one's car is being repaired) or marketer-controlled environmental factors that enhance the pleasure or comfort (or reduce the discomfort) associated with the service encounter, (e.g., a clean and pleasant waiting area or the availability of fresh coffee while waiting). [The "service encounter" encompasses the period of time in which the buyer experiences the service (Bitner, Booms, and Tetreault 1990; Shostack 1985). Most models assume that the consumer can use both quality cues and quality attributes (cf. Steenkamp 1990) to make evaluative judgements concerning the service encounter.] Thus, core service benefits are those central to the solicitation of the service, and result from the actual performance of the core service. Peripheral service benefits include all other benefits, such as those resulting from the marketer-controlled service environment, the manner of delivery of the core service, and buyer-seller interactions.

Consider the previous example of going to a physician for the treatment of back pain. The core benefit of soliciting the physician's services would be to relieve oneself of the back pain. Peripheral benefits that carry monetary or convenience value might include receiving training or instruction on how to prevent back pain, and perhaps home remedies for dealing with future pain. Peripheral benefits that enhance the comfort of the service encounter might include friendly staff, a pleasant waiting area, and the appearance of professional treatment. Other peripheral benefits may fall into both categories, such as a timely appointment, a short waiting time, and convenient parking.

The literature is replete with examples of how different "peripheral" benefits may be important in determining satisfaction, perceived quality, and in deciding which service provider to choose (see, e.g., Bearden and Teel 1983; Bitner 1990, 1991; Bitner, Booms, and Tetreault 1990; Churchill and Surprenant 1982; Crosby and Stephens 1987; McGill and Iacobucci 1992; Parasuraman et al. 1985, 1988). Unfortunately, little focus has been given to the role that the "core" service benefit plays in determining these outcomes, particularly in cases where the core benefit is high in credence attributes.

The Table presents several marketplace examples of services high in credence attributes with each core benefit and set of peripheral benefits. A delineation is made between the core and peripheral benefits sought. Further, a distinction is made between expectation and evaluation attributes. As is evident from the Table, in each instance there is clearly an expectation for the core attribute. However, unless a consumer is an expert in the particular service category, there is no way to evaluate this attribute directly. For instance, in the case of the oil change service, unless consumers are sufficiently knowledgeable, they have no way to evaluate that the oil in their vehicle was changed correctly (or even changed at all), although this expectation surely exists. Therefore, the inability to objectively evaluate a service, or (in many cases) to even determine whether it was performed, may bias or obstruct the processes of satisfaction judgment and service quality perception that are discussed in the literature. In other words, if consumers are not able to directly evaluate the performance of a particular service, they may base their judgments of service quality on the "wrong reasons" (i.e., not on the core service benefit). This may then result in the consumer forming satisfaction judgments based on the evaluation of peripheral service benefits rather than core service benefits, and hence interject bias into the evaluation of the core service benefits. Thus, if consumers cannot "accurately" determine the performance of a particular service with respect to the core service benefit, they cannot form either satisfaction judgments or perceptions of service quality that accurately reflect the performance of that core service benefit. We now explain the impact of this phenomenon in more detail and offer several propositions.

PROPOSITIONS

To this point we have illustrated the importance of understanding how consumers and marketers deal with the dilemma identified in "the sixth gap": the disparity which often occurs between service delivery and perceived service performance. We now present a conceptualization of the evaluation process surrounding the sixth gap, which is discussed within the framework of the disconfirmation paradigm, wherein expectations are compared to perceived performance in making satisfaction judgments.

TABLE

MARKETPLACE EXAMPLES OF SERVICES HIGH IN CREDENCE ATTRIBUTES

Incongruity Between Expectations and Evaluations of Service Benefits

Before seeking out a service, consumers are assumed to have a need, and therefore, are assumed to have certain expectations as to what they anticipate the service will offer (in terms of levels of service benefits) or expectations as to what they desire in order to meet their needs (Spreng and Olshavsky 1993). [The services referred to in this section ar those which have core service benefits high in credence attributes.] The important point is to note that some expectation is present concerning the core service benefit. Although this expectation may be limited to only an assumption that the core service will be provided, many consumers are likely to expect, at the very least, a satisfactory level of performance (whatever that is for the particular service) or even a superior level of performance in reference to the particular cost (if an optimizing strategy is assumed). Although some peripheral benefits may be considered in selecting a particular service provider, because they are relatively less important in solving the core need, fewer of the peripheral service benefits would presumably be considered (and thus fewer pre-encounter expectations would be formed concerning them) in relation to the number that are later evaluated.

After selecting a service provider and making an agreement to purchase the desired core service, actual service delivery takes place. This consists of the delivery of the core service benefit(s) and the peripheral service benefits. However, because of the credence nature of the core service benefit, the consumer is not able to determine (by definition) that the service was performed correctly, and may even be unable to determine if the service was performed at all. For example, although you might watch the mechanic lift up the hood and hook your car up to some type of technical device in the process of performing a routine diagnostic check of your car engine, unless you were knowledgeable about the service being performed, you would not be able to determine the accuracy or appropriateness of the diagnosis of the vehicle's condition. However, many of the peripheral service benefits would be directly observable (e.g., the pleasant decor of the waiting area, the shuttle service, the clean work area).

McGill and Iacobucci (1992) propose the possibility of an incongruency between the attributes used for expectations (comparison standards) and evaluations. Specifically, they propose that consumers who lack experience with a particular service have pre-experience expectations that are relatively incomplete, while post-experience evaluations are based on a more thorough set of attributes (thus post-experience comparison standards are often formed).

We conceptualize this incongruency from another perspective: that when consumers are unable to directly evaluate the core service, their pre-encounter expectations are likely to be based on the core service benefit(s), whereas their post-encounter evaluations likely are focused on peripheral service benefits. For example, a consumer evaluating an oil change would likely have expectations on both core and peripheral service benefits (i.e., core benefit: that the oil is changed correctly; and peripheral benefits: that there is a pleasant environment in which to wait and there is a short waiting period). However, it is likely that only the peripheral benefits will actually be evaluated since there is no way for the non-expert consumer to evaluate the core service benefit(s) directly. Thus, with respect to perception of overall service performance, peripheral service benefits are likely to be included with (and even take the place of) the initial core benefit expectations in this evaluation, as compared to the formation of the pre-encounter overall service performance expectation where core service benefits were the primary focus.

Thus, there is an incongruency between the criteria on which the service expectation is formed and the criteria that the consumer is able to actually evaluate. Specifically, for service situations that have core service benefits that are high in credence attributes, a lack of congruency will exist between the criteria used in forming an expectation of overall service performance and the criteria used in forming an evaluation of the overall service performance. Expectations of service performance will be based on criteria pertaining to both core service benefits and some peripheral service benefits, whereas evaluations of service performance (i.e., perceived overall performance) will be based only on peripheral service benefits. This creates the aforementioned dilemma for consumers in evaluating service performance levels, which further extends to the formation of future judgments of service quality. This incongruency between the criteria used to develop expectations and those used to evaluate service performance leads to our first set of propositions.

P1: As the number and degree of credence attributes in the service increases, the degree of incongruity between the expectation and evaluation criteria that consumers use in assessing that service will increase.

Specifically, concerning the core and peripheral service benefits:

P2a: In forming judgments concerning the core service benefit for services high in core credence attributes, the number of expectation criteria will be greater than the number of evaluation criteria used in the assessment.

P2b: In forming judgments concerning the peripheral service benefits for services high in core credence attributes, the number of expectation criteria will be less than the number of evaluation criteria used in the assessment.

P2c: For services high in core credence attributes, expectation criteria will exist for both core and peripheral service benefits; evaluation criteria will exist primarily for peripheral service benefits. Whereas for services low in core credence attributes, there will be more congruity between expectation criteria and evaluation criteria.

The next section considers whether some consumers make inferences about core performance although only the peripheral benefits can be evaluated.

Alternate ProcessesCOblivious Vs. Cognizant Consumers

The question remains as to whether consumers will form any type of evaluation concerning the core service benefits. It seems plausible that consumers have a need to manage their service provider choices by making inferences about overall service quality. An individual difference variable can be conceived which suggests alternate processes in the formation of overall performance evaluation (i.e., the perceived performance for the service encounter as a whole). We suggest that there is a continuum of consumer awareness of the inability to evaluate the high credence attribute core service benefits. This continuum ranges from a low end, where consumers are oblivious to their inability to make objective evaluations, to a high end, where consumers are quite cognizant of this dilemma. [Some determinants as to a consumer's position on this continuum are likely consumer education, experience with the particular service, and/or need-for-cognition (NFC). Specifically, those consumers who have more knowledge and experience regarding the service and are high in NFC would be more "cognizant" than those who have less education or experience and are lower in NFC.] We suggest that how a consumer evaluates core service performance and overall service performance depends to some degree on his or her level of awareness.

Consumers low in awareness may be inclined to infer a certain level of performance about the core service benefit (basing these inferences on evaluations of peripheral service benefits). These "oblivious" consumers may think that all is well as far as their ability to evaluate overall service. In fact, they may believe (falsely) that their ability to evaluate the core service performance is unrestricted. They necessarily use peripheral service benefits as cues (whether appropriate or not) to infer core performance, resulting in a relatively confident belief about their ability to evaluate core service performance. They then base their overall evaluations of service performance on some combination of their peripheral benefit evaluations and their (necessarily inferred) core service evaluations.

Conversely, consumers high in awareness are unlikely to form a perception of core service performance and likely to proceed directly to the formation of some overall service performance evaluation. These "cognizant" consumers know that they cannot directly perceive the core service performance. As a consequence, several outcomes may result. Cognizant consumers may (1) delay core performance evaluation until they can somehow directly evaluate it by either (a) learning how to evaluate core service benefits (if that is possible) or (b) using a trusted (perhaps hired) source to evaluate performance for them; (2) accept that they cannot evaluate it and purchase insurance (i.e., actual insurance, service contracts, warranties, etc.) as protection against potentially bad performance; (3) grudgingly base the core service benefit performance evaluation on "rational" or "sensible" cues (particularly if they are high need-for-cognition); (4) remain frustrated; (5) accept the ambiguity as part of the purchase/consumption process.

In all cases except (3) above, the cognizant consumer will likely neglect to form an evaluation of the core service benefit performance, and will purposefully base overall service performance on some of the peripheral service benefit evaluations. It is important to note that in either case (i.e., making an inference about core service performance or neglecting to do so), the consumer still does not necessarily form an unbiased or reasonably accurate perception of the core service performance, and thus may not form an accurate perception of overall service performance.

Concerning case (5) above, in which the consumer accepts ambiguity as a part of the purchase process, is it reasonable to presume that consumers will be content in forming performance perceptions when they know that diagnostic information concerning the core service benefit is missing? Yalch (1992), commenting on Sirdeshmukh and Unnava (1992), suggests that evaluations may "tend to be based only on a limited amount of information even when much information is provided" (p. 278). This may explain some consumers' complacency in not being able to evaluate the core service benefit, particularly if it is felt that certain peripheral service benefits reliably predict core benefit performance.

Role of Perceived Ambiguity

Yi (1993), addressing the role of ambiguity in consumer satisfaction processes, found that expectations for an ambiguous product (one that was difficult to evaluate) drove satisfaction, whereas performance drove satisfaction for an unambiguous product (that was easier to evaluate). We conceptualize ambiguity with respect to how diagnostic consumers perceive the peripheral service benefits to be in predicting core service benefit performance. Thus, cognizant consumers, because they tend to perceive high ambiguity concerning the ability of the peripheral service benefits to predict core service performance, will be less likely than oblivious consumers to make an inference concerning core service performance. Conversely, because oblivious consumers do not tend to perceive the ambiguity, they are more likely to be unaware of their incapacity to evaluate the core service benefit(s). Hence, they are more likely to make inferences about the performance of the core service based on the peripheral benefits even in the face of ambiguity between the peripheral and core service benefits. This leads to the following two propositions:

P3: The more (less) perceived ambiguity concerning the relationship between the performance of a particular peripheral service benefit cue and the performance of the core service, the less (more) likely that cue will be used in forming a performance inference regarding the core service.

P4: "Cognizant" consumers are less likely to form inferences about the core service benefit than are "oblivious" consumers.

Ambiguity and Confidence in the Perception of Performance

We propose that consumer inability to form evaluations concerning the core service benefit will result in consumers holding their overall service performance evaluation with a low degree of confidence. Other researchers have similarity proposed that ambiguity affects the degree of confidence of a judgment. For example, in a discussion of reference pricing, Klein and Oglethorpe (1987) propose that "the greater the ambiguity of a stimulus being evaluated, the harder it should be to confidently establish a fair price" (p. 186). Further, they suggest that expectations should be held with more confidence and used more frequently when the stimulus is unambiguous. We propose a similar line of thinking.

P5: The more (less) perceived ambiguity concerning the relationship between the performance of the group of peripheral service benefits (as a whole) and the performance of the core service, the less (more) confidence will be held in (a) the perception of core service benefit performance and (b)-the perception of overall service performance.

MARKETER (SERVICE PROVIDER) IMPLICATIONS

To this point, we have presented a situation in which consumers, because of the credence nature of the core service attributes, are largely unable to evaluate core service performance. We have also developed the consumer implications of this dilemma. We now discuss five potential actions or reactions of marketers to consumers' inabilities to evaluate core service performance.

First, there is evidence supporting the idea that some marketers provide or emphasize key attributes that are easier for consumers to evaluate (McGill and Iacobucci 1992). This marketing action may lead consumers to have less concern for the core service benefit even when expectations are being formed. Presumably, this would result in consumers having a stronger degree of confidence in their evaluations, since they are based on concrete evidence for the cues included in the evaluation model. That is, if consumers focus expectations on peripheral service benefits, and then because of the credence nature of the core service benefit focus evaluations on peripheral service benefits, there is much congruity between expectation and evaluation criteria.

Second, service providers may expand both employees' and customers' perceptions of the service package that is sold. Here the marketer's message might be that it offers much more than the core service, giving consumers alternate "core" service benefits (previously considered peripheral benefits by cognizant consumers) upon which consumers could form evaluations of overall performance. Unfortunately, this also dilutes or diffuses the focus that should be on the core service. For instance, certain oil change services have successfully expanded their marketplace images to be more than just an oil change service. Their customers likely think about the peripheral service benefits as much, if not more than, the core service(s) when they think about what these companies offer. As another marketplace example, a particular muffler repair company provides consumers with peripheral service benefits that can be "objectively" evaluated (e.g., written estimates and a promise to take customers into the garage for explanations of the recommended repairs). Thus, their consumers likely focus their evaluations on these peripheral service benefits rather than the core service benefit which they may be unable to evaluate.

Third, the service provider may also try to emphasize credibility and build trust. This can be done through recommendations, seals of approval, capitalizing on the number of years in business, and making certifiable credentials (such as degrees, certificates of training, membership in trade organizations, and government licenses) known to consumers.

A fourth alternative is that service providers (or industry representatives) may choose to train consumers in how to evaluate the core service performance. Presumably, with training, previously "oblivious" consumers would become more cognizant of their inabilities to evaluate core service performance. In addition, in some instances, consumers might be educated such that they actually could directly evaluate the core service performance. As such, this appears to be the best option from a public policy perspective.

Finally, if a large number of consumers are found to be oblivious of their inability to evaluate performance, service providers may choose to ignore the issue and let things continue as they are.

In effect, the first two strategies increase the importance of the peripheral service benefits and lessen the concern about core service benefits. Thus, these strategies dilute the ambiguity for the consumers attempting to make evaluations by giving them more concrete attributes on which to focus. Hence, there would be more congruity between their expectation and evaluation criteria. An important public policy issue arises if consumers are led astray by this marketer action and are persuaded to focus on cues that may not reflect true performance in the core service (and thus lead to long-term dissatisfaction if the performance level is overestimated). This state of affairs would be particularly troubling since many consumers still would not have recognized their inability to evaluate the core service benefit.

CONCLUSIONS

Given the difficulty of accurately perceiving core service benefits when the core service is high in credence attributes, and the importance of perceived service performance in the construction of satisfaction judgments and service quality assessments, this area of research is of particular importance to both academia and marketing management. The significance of this marketplace phenomenon is highlighted when one considers the impact of the growing service sector, and the increasing managerial focus on customer service elements of the product offering. Further, this research identifies a sixth gap in the service satisfaction model and explores the processes by which consumers cope with the nuances created by this sixth gap.

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