Satisfaction and Consumer Services

ABSTRACT - This paper seeks to make a conceptual contribution to the measurement of consumer satisfaction for services. This involves a conceptualization of product evaluation in the services context and a description of the confirmation/disconfirmation paradigm of satisfaction/dissatisfaction. The author proposes that the unique characteristics of services implies different consumer evaluation processes from those used when assessing tangible goods. An effort is made to integrate a taxonomy of "qualities" into the confirmation/disconfirmation model which will account for these differences.


Donna J. Hill (1986) ,"Satisfaction and Consumer Services", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, eds. Richard J. Lutz, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 311-315.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, 1986      Pages 311-315


Donna J. Hill, Indiana University


This paper seeks to make a conceptual contribution to the measurement of consumer satisfaction for services. This involves a conceptualization of product evaluation in the services context and a description of the confirmation/disconfirmation paradigm of satisfaction/dissatisfaction. The author proposes that the unique characteristics of services implies different consumer evaluation processes from those used when assessing tangible goods. An effort is made to integrate a taxonomy of "qualities" into the confirmation/disconfirmation model which will account for these differences.


While the consumer satisfaction/dissatisfaction literature continues to grow at a substantial rate, comparatively little attention has been paid to consumer satisfaction and dissatisfaction with respect to services (Liechty and Churchill 1979; Zeithaml 1981). Given the escalating significance of services in the economy, it is suggested that satisfaction with these offerings should be a concern to both consumers and businesses. The primary objective of service providers is to develop and provide offerings that satisfy consumer needs, thereby ensuring their own economic survival. To achieve this objective, service providers will need to understand how consumers choose and evaluate their offerings.

The objectives of this paper are threefold. The first is to present a conceptual basis for understanding consumer satisfaction processes. Second, the unique characteristics of services will be identified. Finally some propositions concerning the consequences of these characteristics on expectation formation and perceived performance which. in turn. effect outcome judgments will be presented.


The key elements of the satisfaction/dissatisfaction process are: (1) some a priori basis of evaluation (e.g., expectations of product performance); (2) comparison of perceived performance with expectation; and (3) a post-purchase judgment that the experience was noticeably better or worse than anticipated leading to feelings of satisfaction or dissatisfaction. The disconfirmation paradigm is presented graphically in Figure l.

Satisfaction is an evaluation rendered that the (product) experience was at least as good as it was supposed to be (Runt 1977). Specifically, an individual's expectations are: (1) positively disconfirmed when performance exceeds expectations; (2) negatively disconfirmed when performance is less than expectations; and (3) confirmed when performance is approximately equal to expectations. Satisfaction is related to the size and direction of the disconfirmation experience where disconfirmation is related to the person's initial experience (Churchill and Surprenant 1982). However, the relationship may not be so simple, Woodruff, Cadotte and Jenkins (1983) suggest that the relationship, instead of being monotonic and continuous is rather one of zonal ranges.

Although in the traditional disconfirmation approach to satisfaction/dissatisfaction the exact confirmation of expectations is the definition of satisfaction, it is assumed here that exact confirmation does not produce feelings of either satisfaction or dissatisfaction. Oliver (1980) suggested that one's expectations perform the function of an adaptation level in that they define the baseline or standard against which subsequent performance is judged, i.e., a norm. Woodruff et al. (1983) suggest that expectations are based on experience (product and brand) and that some interval around a performance norm is likely to be considered equivalent to the norm. They call this interval a "zone of indifference." Positive or negative disconfirmation results when perceived performance is compared with expectations and the resulting evaluation is outside the zone and thus different enough from the norm to be recognized as such.



Weak disconfirmation of expectations whether positive or negative tends to be assimilated away (Olshavsky 1977). Perceptions of performance which are close to expectations are within a latitude of acceptable performance, and are assimilated toward the expectation (Olson and Dover 1977; Olshavsky and Miller 1972). Performance which is above or below the norm, but within the indifference zone, leads to indifference. Positive disconfirmation logically leads to satisfaction which, in turn, may lead to positive responses such as brand or store loyalty, favorable word of mouth, and "complimenting behavior." Negative disconfirmation.has the opposite effect. That negative disconfirmation has adverse consequences to the producer, including a tendency for negative word of mouth to occur, is well documented (Richins 1983).

An expectation is the perceived likelihood that a product possesses a certain characteristic or attribute, or will lead to a particular event or outcome (Olson and Dover 1979). In this view expectations are belief probabilities of attribute occurrence. These beliefs perform two functions: (1) they serve to provide the foundation for attitude formation and (2) they serve as an adaptation level for subsequent satisfaction decisions (Oliver 1980).

Expectations are formed based on such factors as: (1) the actual product including prior experience and brand attributes, (2) exposure co marketing activities including advertisements, price and image, and (3) communication from social referents such as word of mouth information or observation of referents usage of the product.

As noted earlier, expectations are compared to perceived performance in order to arrive at an evaluation. Perceived performance is affected by characteristics of the product and circumstances surrounding its acquisition. Gronroos (1983) suggested that perceived performance is composed of two qualities, functional and technical. Technical quality has to do with what the consumer receives from purchase of the product. Functional quality has to with how the consumer receives or purchases the product, the events surrounding the acquisition of a product. In general, technical dimensions can be judged in a much more objective manner than can functional quality dimensions which are perceived in a very subjective way.

Nelson (1970) distinguished between two characteristics of products: search qualities, attributes which are very tangible and can be evaluated by examination prior to purchase; and experience qualities, attributes which can only be evaluated during or after consumption. Darby and Karmi (1973) added a third dimension, credence qualities, which are characteristics the consumer may find impossible to evaluate even after purchase and consumption.

Perceived performance is a very complex area but it seems evident that it is a function of both technical and functional elements. Consumers are quite capable of having responses to each element that differ from the other. "The food was great, the service poor" are comments often encountered in an evaluation of a restaurant. Secondly, the timing of the performance evaluation and the ability of the consumer to evaluate the product will vary by characteristics of the offerings itself. These characteristics include search, experience and credence qualities. Zeithaml (1981) has proposed a taxonomy based on these last three qualities.


There is a growing literature stream which teals with differentiating physical goods from services (Bateson 1977; Eiglier and Langeard 1977; Shostack 1977; Berry 1980). Although not all authors agree that services marketing should develop as a distinct area of marketing theory, (see Wyckham, Fitzroy and Mandy 1975 for another point of view) there is general consensus that services share some unique characteristics that differentiate them from physical goods. The three most frequently mentioned ones are: intangibility, nonstandardization, and simultaneous production and consumption.

A service is mainly immaterial or intangible. Intangible means that the product has no existence except to the degree that it is produced and consumed, the finished product cannot be inventoried. Bateson (1977) states that "services are doubly intangible; they are impalpable" they cannot be touched by the consumer -- and they are difficult for the consumer to grasp mentally ("the mental image" of the service is "fuzzy"). Czepiel (1980) poses that services often have a larger number of relevant attributes than physical goods; and that intangibility means a larger proportion of those attributes are not amenable to physical methods of measurement or control. That is, services tent to be high in experience qualities and low in search qualities.

This experience quality implies that services are an activity or a process rather than a physical entity. The service can be consumed only as long as this process continues. This simultaneous production/consumption nature of services implies that the customer has a high degree of involvement in the production of the service. In fact, Eiglier and Langeard (1977a) define a service as the outcome of an interaction between the client, the service personnel, and the physical environment. Two other implications evolve from this characteristic. First, because the service encounter is frequently a dyadic interaction, the abilities of an individual as a consumer are linked inextricably to characteristics of the seller. The ability of the service provider to perform the service is frequently dependent upon the consumer fulfilling certain role behaviors. For instance, in order for the physician to arrive at a correct diagnosis, the patient must correctly describe symptoms. Second, the high involvement of the consumer means that services are not very standardized, that is, there is a great teal of variability from one service encounter to the next for one individual and between individuals engaging the same service.

Other differentiating factors frequently cited are the complex nature of most services compared to physical products, a higher level of perceived risk (Eiglier 1977), greater search costs in brand switching (Zeithaml 1981), a lack of both pre- and post-purchase evaluative criteria (George, Weinberger and Kelly 1985) and difficulty of the service firm in attempting to differentiate itself from its close competitors (Eiglier and Langeard 1977b). This last characteristic implies that services tend to be grouped by the consumer into product categories rather than being differentiated by brand. This, in turn, implies that product based rather than brand based expectations are more extensively employed in evaluation of services. For instance, expectations concerning performance of a physician will more likely be based upon experience with physicians in general and not one in particular.

Finally, there is really no such thing as a pure physical good or a pure service. Most, if not all, examples used in the services marketing literature lie somewhere on the physical good/service continuum. Taxonomies built on the aforementioned dimensions can be quite useful to researchers interested in developing theoretical frameworks for the study of products positioned near the service end of the continuum. Therefore several taxonomies useful for the purposes of this paper are presented in Appendix A. Taxonomies can be useful in explaining Lovelock's (1983) proposition that "many commonly heart generalizations about service marketing to not hold true across a wide range of service industries or situations."



As products move along the continuum from tangible to intangible expectations become more "fuzzy" and it therefore becomes more difficult for the consumer to develop a clear precise norm or standard for evaluation.

Hypothesis 1a: The more intangible a service becomes, the wider the zone of indifference.

Hypothesis 1b: As information concerning a service moves from high to low, the zone of indifference becomes wider.

In the absence of a tangible product upon which to base one's evaluation of the exchange the sociaL and physical contexts increase in importance (Berry 1980; Lovelock 1979; Shostack 1979). Green, Langeard and Favell (1974) found, in their study of attitudes toward new and existing retail services, that word-of-mouth was used to: (ascertain projected levels of confidence in an untried service; (2) alleviate the no prepurchase testability problem; and (3) form an image of the otherwise nontangibly representable service.

Price and physical facilities have also been shown to be important cues to the service consumer since expectations must be formed without employing such tangible factors as style, color, label, feel, package, brand name, etc. (Eiglier et al.; Beesom 1973).

Hypothesis 2: As intangibility increases there is greater reliance on functional quality as opposed to technical quality dimensions for evaluation of perceived quality.

It is expected, however, that technical service quality is always paramount. No amount of functional encounter satisfaction can compensate for a service never performed. Some researchers have suggested that the performance attributes that lead to dissatisfaction are different from those that lead to satisfaction (Swan and Combs 1976). Dissatisfaction is caused by a failure of technical performance, while complete satisfaction also requires that the functional performance is above or at expected leveLs. It has been suggested by Czepiel, Solomon and Surprenant (1985) that functional satisfaction can overcome only small deficiencies in technical service quality.

Hypothesis 3: There exists a latitude of acceptance for the service customer within which small deficiencies in technical service will be overcome by encounter satisfaction.

This latitude of acceptance is wider for services than for physical goods due to the fact that services involve more encounters.

Recall from our foregoing discussion that if information obtained prior to product exposure is negative or positive, then weak disconfirmation will produce assimilation in the game direction

Hypothesis 4: The following sources of information have a larger effect on evaluation of services' performance than on evaluation of the performance of tangible goods:

a. word of mouth

b. price

c. image

Not all information is weighted equally. For instance word of mouth is generally held to be more credible than commercial messages and usage experience beliefs are held much more confidently than beliefs based on external sources. In addition, information which is similar to information already obtained is perceived as not adding much to overall knowledge but information which is different may receive more attention and weighting (Nisbett and Ross 1980).

Mizerski (1982) presents findings that suggest unfavorable word of mouth ratings, as compared to favorable word of mouth ratings on the same attributes, prompt significantly stronger attributions to product performance, belief strength and affect toward products. Furthermore, the less objective the criteria available for evaluation, the more this information is viewed as reflecting the source's personal feelings and thus should prompt more potential nonstimulus causal attributions. A larger potential causal array (which exists for services) would then provide more latitude for differences in attributions with each information type. The greater the attributional differences, the greater the impact on belief and effect formation. Oliver (1977) suggests that the impact of personal influence depends on the discrepancy of the influence attempt from the recipient's initial opinion.

Hypothesis 5: Negative word of mouth, when received has greater impact on outcome evaluation, than Positive word of mouth.

Hypothesis 6: The more intangible the service the more likely the consumer is to view the information as reflecting the source's personal feelings, and this in turn will mediate it's effect. The mediation will be either negative or positive depending upon such factors as the source's expertise, credibility and the consumer's initial opinion.


For services which are more inseparable, the product is produced by both parties sometimes with equipment. Several researchers have suggested that in such situations role theory can be used to explain expectation formation (Solomon, Surprenant, Czepiel, and Gutman 1985; Smith and Houston 1983). It is assumed that each party to the transaction has learned a set of behaviors (a script) that is appropriate for the situation. Furthermore, in the case of a person's encounter with a novel situation, he or she will attempt to employ an existing script similarly structured (transferring a script for purchase of bus fare to purchase of air fare) or an idealized script derived from TV, movies or books. Within this conceptualization satisfaction with a service is seen as function of the congruence between perceived behavior and the behavior expected by role players. Such a view implies that role similarity across services is a viable basis for classifying services.

Hypothesis 7: As the degree of personal encounters with the customer increases the more opportunity exists for both positive and negative evaluations.

Degree of personal encounter can be measured in terms of complexity, length or degree of personal involvement from the service provider.

When high consumer involvement is required for delivery of the service failure to obtain satisfaction may not be blamed entirely on the producer, since the consumer must adequately perform his or her part in the production process as well. Consumers have three sources to which attribution of blame may be placed: the service provider, the consumer himself, and the equipment used in the service delivery. For instance a perm that turns out poorly could be the fault of the hairdresser, the consumer for not adequately describing the desired style, or the perm formula itself.

Hypothesis 8a: The more sources there are to which to attribute blame the wider will be the zone of indifference.

This in turn implies that the initiation of unusual satisfaction or dissatisfaction outcomes is (i.e., recommendations to friends, letter writing, legal action, etc ) is less likely to occur with services than with products where there are fever personal encounters and interaction between service provider and customer.

Inseparability frequently implies a high degree of variability as services high in separability depend on who provides them and when and where they are provided. This, in turn, means that expectations as a norm become more difficult to develop.

Hypothesis 9: As service increases in variability the width of the indifference zone increases. This is accentuated as experience and expertise narrows.

Simultaneous Production and Consumption

As production and consumption move closer together there is a tendency to evaluate the service during, rather than after, consumption. This means that other people in the purchasing process have an opportunity to impact upon the evaluation. Other people here would include not only peripheral service providers such as clerks but other clients as well. Such encounters may take place in ques or reception areas or in a group setting (such as exercise classes or group therapy). Furthermore, other hypothesis already suggested would imply that there is a halo effect created by the early stages of any service encounter.

Other Characteristics

Many services are very complex, some services (e.g., medical diagnosis or pest control) are so technical or specialized that consumers possess neither the knowledge nor the experience to evaluate whether they are satisfied, even after they have consumed the product. These products are high in credence qualities. Experience and credence qualities imply high search costs. Gathering information for such products often involves trial usage or personal visits to examine only one brand at a time, and often the information is simply not available or extremely difficult to obtain.

Hypothesis 10: As services become more compiles consumers will:

a: form fewer expectations

b: perceive others as more knowledgeable about alternatives

c. reduce search activities

d. depend upon other's recommendations as opposed to commercial sources

Hypothesis 11: As services become higher in credence qualities consumers will turn to others for evaluation.


There-are two main directions in which customer satisfaction can be influenced: (1) what the customer expects and (2) what the customer perceives. The point is that these two factors need to be conceptualized as psychological phenomena and not necessarily as reality. The unique characteristics of intangibility, nonstandardization and simultaneous production and consumption lead to a much different process for evaluation of services than tangible goods. The psychological phenomena taking place is mediated by these special characteristics. In an early study, Day and Bodur (1977) reported that, compared to tangibles, dissatisfaction with services was related to the quality of the supplier's performance rather than to marketing practice and price related issues. This in turn, may be a reflection of the psychological phenomena taking place within the service sector.

Although some of these processes are implicitly understood and utilized by service providers, they have not been systematically integrated into the satisfaction/dissatisfaction paradigm. Such an integration would benefit not only the researcher but the service provider as well. By learning to research and understand the dimensions of their own services, managers can have a significant impact upon their customers' satisfaction with the service encounter. Researchers need to identify unique and relevant dimensions of physical and service products and then systematically relate these to the process of evaluation. As Zeithaml, Parasuraman and Berry (1985) suggest a research priority in services marketing is empirical study that transcends specific industries in order to test service marketing concepts across service industries as a whole




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Donna J. Hill, Indiana University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13 | 1986

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