The Service Experience As Theater


Stephen J. Grove and Raymond P. Fisk (1992) ,"The Service Experience As Theater", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 455-461.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 455-461


Stephen J. Grove, Clemson University

Raymond P. Fisk, University of Central Florida


The increased interest in services marketing during the past decade reflects a growing appreciation of the role services play in the economies of the United States and the world. Nearly 70 percent of the Gross National Product of the United States and other industrial nations can be traced to services (Lovelock 1991), while up to three-quarters of those employed in some countries labor in service sector occupations (Bateson 1989).

Scholars and researchers have given significant attention to how the marketing of services differs from the marketing of goods (Berry 1980; Sasser 1976; Zeithaml, Berry and Parasuraman 1985; etc.). One key characteristic that distinguishes services marketing is the simultaneity of production and consumption of the service product (Bateson 1989; Berry 1980; Zeithaml, Berry and Parasuraman 1985). Services exist only in the time in which they are rendered and are living processes that cannot be disassembled (Shostack and Kingman-Brundage 1991, p. 243). Essentially, services are fashioned from the interaction between service providers and customers and, as such, service quality is comprised of both process and outcome dimensions (Gr÷nroos 1982; Parasuraman, Zeithaml and Berry 1985; Sasser, Olsen and Wyckoff 1978). These various aspects of service delivery underscore the notion that services are complex, behavioral phenomena that can be quite difficult to understand or describe. A review of the services marketing literature compiled by Fisk, Tansuhaj and Crosby (1988) reveals that less than fifteen percent of the total service literature to attempts to conceptualize the service experience. In short, conceptual frameworks are needed (Bowen 1990; Upah, Berry and Shostack 1983; Lovelock 1991) that demonstrate common characteristics of services, capture the processual nature of services, and address the "descriptive language problems" (Shostack 1984) plaguing the services literature.

In an effort to satisfy this need for conceptual frameworks, the discussion that follows posits a general framework for services marketing based upon the metaphor of behavior as drama. The underpinnings of the drama metaphor are presented, along with several key concepts that it offers for the description of services marketing. The service experience as theater is further developed and implications ensuing from the framework are given. Finally, some research issues are examined and concluding comments are given.


The metaphorical depiction of behavior as drama is the basis for a distinct model of human interaction that offers insights most forcefully when examining face-to-face interactions among individuals (Brissett and Edgley 1990). As such, it is particularly relevant as a means to describe service encounters. As a sociological school of thought born from the symbolic interactionist paradigm, the behavior as drama metaphor has generated wide attention. Writers such as Kenneth Burke (1945, 1950, 1968), Erving Goffman (1959, 1967, 1974) and R.S. Perinbanayagam (1974, 1982, 1985), have contributed much to the development of the dramaturgical perspective. Underlying their observations is the tacit understanding that people are symbol users who interact with each other based upon the meanings they assign to the sundry elements present at any behavioral setting. Dramaturgy, then, is greatly concerned with the broad issue of communication, both discursive (speech and language) and nondiscursive (gestures, clothing, and other objects), and the connection between the two (Brissett and Edgley 1990). Definitions of reality emerge as action occurs and those present strive to make sense of behavior situations. Social reality, then, is not simply like drama, it is drama in so far as it a discourse involving articulation, definition and interaction (Perinbanayagam 1974, p. 533).

The application of the drama metaphor to behavior is probably best represented in the scholarly efforts of Goffman (1959, 1967, 1974), and most readily in his work, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Goffman describes social behavior as theatrical "performances" in which "actors" present themselves and their actions in such a manner as to fashion desired "impressions" before an "audience." During interaction actors continually adjust the expressions which they "give" and "give off" in the context of a "front region." To a large extent, the success of the actors' front region performance (i.e., how believable, sincere and/or authentic it appears) is enhanced by rehearsal in "back regions," away from audience's view. Here critical aspects of actors' presentations are planned and practiced to arrive at a general coherence among the dramaturgical elements necessary to staging a believable performance. Through it all, however, is the realization that performances are fragile processes that are easily undermined by the most minor of mishaps.

The role of the audience in developing and maintaining a definition of an interactive situation cannot be ignored. The audience's evolving expectations and continuous communication (verbal and nonverbal) of its responses to a performance as it unfolds provide the actors with needed information to guide their behavior toward a desired outcome. While the meanings and interpretations that an audience assigns to a behavioral encounter may be partially a function of previous learning, their validation occurs during or following the interaction. In other words, meanings are not absolute or static characteristics of the world, but are the result of a continuous social process (Burke 1945). Further, it is important to note that this negotiation of a definition of the situation occurs, whether or not it is by design, since all behavior is ostensibly expressive in nature (Zicklin 1968). Actors may vary with respect to their awareness of the dramaturgical character of behavior; being aware simply enables one to transform the impression formation character of his/her behavior to impression management (Miller 1984).

The metaphor that behavior is drama and the various principles that it engenders provide a framework for describing, understanding, and communicating about services experiences. Based upon the metaphor and, to a significant degree, some of Goffman's (1959) observations, we develop a view of services experiences that unifies and extends beyond much of the extant services principles. In essence, our contention is that services themselves are drama and may be understood as theatrical performances.


The nature of services marketing and the proposition that behavior is drama share several parallel characteristics. Both are concerned with the tactics and strategies employed by people to create and sustain desirable impressions before an audience. Both, also, suggest that one way to achieve this is by careful and prudent management of the actors' expressive behavior and the physical setting in which it occurs. Reflecting observations of services scholars, Goffman (1959) notes that in their performance "... service personnel ... enliven their manner with movements which express proficiency and integrity .. to establish a favorable definition of their services or product" (p. 77). Clearly, Goffman recognized that services issues are resplendent with dramatic character.

Many of the drama concepts and principles may be used to capture the service experience. Among those most central to services understanding are actors/audience, setting and performance.


Similar to a theatrical production whose success relies upon the acumen of those on stage, the quality of one's service experience is largely affected by the service's contact personnel. The service's actors, the performers of the service, are often perceived by their audience, the customers, as the service itself (Gr÷nroos 1985). Their appearance and their actions are central to the audience's service experience. Consequently, just as theatrical performers must commit themselves to a plethora of considerations to stage a believable performance, the service "actors" must subscribe to a variety of concerns to foster a desired impression before their audience. Among these are the actors' manner and appearance, (their "personal front" in Goffman's (1959) terminology), their ability to enact their service role properly, and their overall dedication to the service performance.

One's dress, grooming and demeanor impart an attitude, mood and/or identity to others (Solomon 1985) and can add tangibility to a service (Berry 1980). The actors' skill may be reflected in their knowledge, courtesy, competence and communication abilities, each of which represents an aspect of service quality (Parasuraman, Zeithaml, and Berry 1985). Diligence in learning and performing one's service roles contributes quality to the consuming audience's overall impression of service excellence (Shostack 1977; Zeithaml, Parasuraman, and Berry 1985). The actor's commitment to a service production is likely to be at least partially a function of a service organization's internal marketing effort (Gr÷nroos 1985; Sasser and Arbeit 1978) that is designed to impart a consumer orientation. The various dimension of the actors' service performance are most critical in service encounters that rely on a high degree of personal contact with the customer, such as restaurants, hospitals, cruises, etc., or that are characterized by repeated contact, such as banks, the postal service, etc. Among these industries there exists the opportunity to create a competitive advantage through service actors, a notion discussed by Berry, Parasuraman, and Zeithaml (1988) as the "people factor."

Of course, it is impossible to discuss actors' performance without implicitly or explicitly considering the audience. The audience plays a critical role in the determination of a service production across many diverse services. In many services, the audience (customer) must be present for the service to occur (e.g. hairstyling, air travel, etc.). This is a circumstance recognized by services scholars as inseparability of production and consumption (Berry 1980; Lovelock 1981, 1983; Shostack 1977). In short, the person receiving a service or other audience members present at the service encounter may affect the quality of the service's delivery and/or outcome (Booms and Bitner 1981; Lovelock 1983; Parasuraman, Zeithaml and Berry 1988; Pranter and Martin 1991). A customer's unwillingness to cooperate in a service production or inappropriate, disruptive behavior on the part of other customers sharing a service experience can destroy a service performance.

Similar to the audience of a theatrical production (that has a measure of responsibility to ensure that a satisfying performance is staged by adhering to certain standards of behavior), the customers of a service are also obliged to embrace various behavioral rules. Among these are expectations that the customers will refrain from disrupting others' service experiences, learn how they can aid the actors in producing a satisfying show (e.g., provide service personnel with the necessary information to perform their responsibilities properly) and be tolerant of slight imperfections in the service production to preserve the sanctity of the overall performance. These considerations are particularly important in high contact services, in self-service operations whose outcome is so reliant on the audiences' participation (Lovelock and Young 1979), and in services that demand a high degree of customization (e.g., physician services).


Another key component in the depiction of services as theater is the physical setting in which the service is delivered. As in the staging of a theatrical production (that uses scenery, lighting, props, and other physical cues to influence the audience's perceptions), a service's "setting can play an enormous role" in affecting consumers' impressions of a service (Shostack 1977, p. 78). The various features of a services setting combine to help define and facilitate the service exchange (Baker 1987; Booms and Bitner 1982; Zeithaml, Parasuraman and Berry 1985) and provide evidence and tangible cues of its reality. As in theater, by manipulating and/or mixing the elements of the physical setting in different ways, the audience's perceptions of the service can be changed or variously rearranged. Consider the perceptual differences created by different settings found at a Motel 6 versus a Hyatt Regency Hotel or at a Denny's restaurant versus a Bennigan's restaurant.

The setting plays an important role in positioning a service organization and attracting a specific clientele (Booms and Bitner 1982). Further, it can be used to inform new customers as to the nature of a service (e.g. upscale or mass appeal) or aspects of the service delivery (e.g. full service or self-service).


Performance is the set of activities that occur before an audience. Likening the process of service delivery to a theatrical performance seems a reasonable proposition given the role that the setting, actors and audience play in both. The service performance, like its theatrical counterpart, relies upon the of many elements: (1) those operating in the back region who support the front stage "show"; (2) the management of the front region's setting; (3) the actors' commitment to the importance of sustaining a believable performance; and (4) the coordination of the overall effort among the various cast members.

The importance of region behavior is based upon Goffman's (1959) observation that a perceptual barrier bounds a front area where a performance occurs and a back area where actors may act out of character, rehearse their routines and plan the front stage action. Behavior in the front region is devised to meet an audience's approval, while behavior in the back region is normally not open to the audience's inspection. In fact, in most service designs, it is imperative to keep the two regions separate so as to avoid compromising the credibility of the performance. The audience is not normally granted access to back regions of restaurants (kitchen area), auto repair (the garage itself), hospitals (doctors and staff lounges), etc. Nevertheless, much of what contributes to a satisfying front stage performance occurs in the back area.

One function that often takes place back stage is the management of the physical setting. The control of the front region's atmospherics, (e.g., lighting, temperature), the coordination of the physical evidence with the actors' service (e.g., ensuring the props, equipment, and other tangible cues are available, maintained and properly expressive) and the overall service design are part of the back region activity. A physical setting breakdown may profoundly damage the audience's perception of the service performance.

Another component of performance is the actors' overall commitment to the show, as evidenced by their adherence to various "defense practices" (Goffman 1959). Involved here are service workers' subscriptions to dramaturgical loyalty (acceptance of a moral-like responsibility to sustain a believable performance), discipline (commitment to learning one's part and avoiding gestures or mistakes that might compromise the performance) and circumspection (determination in advance of how best to stage the show). These considerations collectively comprise the foundation of service workers' ability to project a performance which the audience finds satisfying. Whether contact personnel in restaurants, hospitals, professional offices, airlines, hotels, or other such services, their performance is enhanced through internalization and adherence to these dramaturgical principles.

The success of a service performance, like that of a theatrical production, requires that all involved cooperate as team members to stage the performance. A single actor in the front region or support personnel in the back can undermine the overall effort simply by failing to sustain vigilance during the show. The audience's perception of service quality is a fragile phenomenon that is easily affected. Consequently, service workers must share a common respect for the importance of the performance.


Figure 1 conceptually models the service experience as theater. At the heart of every service experience is the performance. Both the firm and the audience share in the creation and continuance of the performance. Surrounding the performance is the physical setting. Typically, the physical setting is owned or controlled by the firm. However, if a service is delivered to people's homes, then the physical setting is owned or controlled by the audience member.

The "physical setting" of the firm includes the furniture, decor, and atmospherics in the front region of the service theater. Most service organizations are sensitive to the influence the physical setting of their service theater may have on the audience. The architecture of a service firm's building conveys first impressions to customers. A well-chosen architectural design can make the service organization much more approachable (Donovan and Rossiter 1982). The internal furnishings and decor of the service theater are especially important influences on consumers. For example, the Olive Garden restaurant chain follows through on its name by decorating with large quantities of living plants to make its restaurants garden-like.

Surrounding both the performance and the physical setting is the front region. This includes both the firm's front region and audience's front region, which overlap. In the "front region," the performance is given in "public" and is open to the audience's inspection. Behaviors in the front region must meet the approval of the audience. Of course, the firm and the audience each have a back region.



Normally, the back region and front regions are kept quite separate. In the model, arrows are shown connecting the front and back regions to highlight the fact that information, people and things must pass between the two regions. Audiences that are allowed access to the back region of the firm may witness behavior inappropriate for the front region (cursing, slovenly demeanor, complaining, and other "out of character" activity). To prevent mishaps, the corridor between the front and back regions is routinely closed to the audience. Further elaboration on the model in Figure 1 will be structured around the front and back regions.

The Firm's Front Region

The firm's front region is a complicated mixture of personal front, defensive practices and impression management. The "personal front" concerns the appearance and behavior of those representing the firm. All customer contact personnel present a personal front to the audience. A major part of the training given service employees concerns teaching them to successfully convey the proper personal front. In some service organizations, this is little more than smile training. In others, extensive training is provided. Walt Disney Co. puts new employees through Disney University to indoctrinate them in guest relation procedures. New Disney employees are also taught the "Disney Look," which includes specified make-up colors for women and the absence of facial hair for men.

"Impression management" relies upon the actors' adherence to the "defensive practices" of loyalty, discipline, and circumspection (Goffman 1959, pp. 212-218). In terms of loyalty, the service actor learns to avoid any behaviors that might destroy the impression for the audience. Discipline concerns actors' learning their parts thoroughly and avoiding unwittingly committing gestures or mistakes, which are potentially disruptive to the desired impression. Discipline includes keeping one's personal problems away from the front regions and exercising self-control in difficult situations.

The Firm's Back Region

The firm's back region exists to facilitate the firm's front region. Many back region activities are indispensable to a successful service production but are not, by their nature, appropriate for front region observation (e.g., rehearsal of routines, attention to defensive practices, etc.). In the back region, actors often drop their "personal front" and step out of character. Also, service performers may use the backstage to memorize their scripts or rehearse their parts.

A well-staged performance depends upon the ability of secondary support staff to provide the correct inputs. Secondary support can include a technological dimension. For example, restaurants must depend on the proper operation in the back region of ovens, stoves, food preparation appliances, and dish washing machines. Also, much like a theater, most service management functions occur behind the scenes. The traditional management functions of planning, organizing, staffing, directing and control occur in the back region.

The Audience's Front Region

Like the firm, the audience's front region is a complicated mixture of personal front, protective practices and impression management. The "personal front" concerns the appearance and behavior of the audience members. The issue of how to behave in public (i. e., on stage) is quite significant to consumers. Every consumer has personal anxieties concerning the potential embarrassment of inappropriate public behavior. A major part of the consumer training given to children by their parents concerns teaching them to successfully convey the proper personal front in public settings.

Consumers learn through experience that some service organizations expect their audience to arrive bathed, shaved, coiffed and dressed in formal style. Such expectations are common for gourmet restaurants, the opera, a courtroom appearance, or a college graduation. Other service organizations are less rigid in their expectations. A consumer entering a convenience store is often greeted with a sign at the door saying "No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service."

"Impression management" as practiced by the audience relies upon "protective practices." Protective practices are the audience's efforts to overlook occasional miscues or problems with the performance in the interest of preserving the impression fostered by the actors. While there are limits to the customers' willingness to protect a performance, quite often one may overlook a dirty utensil or a slight billing error in order to allow the "show to go on." Challenging such minor errors may create a major disturbance and affect the delicate balance of the interaction. Therefore, there is a implied understanding or expectation that the audience should endeavor to allow the actors and their performance some measure of latitude.

Also, to a limited degree, it may be said that the audience engages in "defensive practices" on its own behalf. Loyalty means that they avoid behaviors that convey negative impressions about themselves or their companions. For example, a married couple seeking a home improvement loan from a bank would seek to convince the loan officer that they were both good money managers. Discipline refers to the actors' obligation to learn their parts thoroughly and avoid committing mistakes, which are potentially disruptive to the desired impression. The couple that has a fight in a restaurant or the child who throws a temper tantrum in the grocery store disrupts the performance for other audience members.

The Audiences's Back Region

The home is the audience's back region. It is a place of refuge from public performances. At home, consumers may dress and act according to their own rules. Consumers are known to go to great lengths to protect the privacy of their back regions. This may include unlisted telephone numbers, the use of answering machines, and the creation of "rules" as to when the person can be contacted at home.

At home, consumers mentally rehearse their parts in planned service experience. This might include reviewing what to tell a physician about the symptoms of one's illness or what to tell a travel agent about one's vacation travel needs. The home is also a source of secondary support, though usually done by the consumers. These activities would include wardrobe maintenance and personal grooming. Secondary support would also include maintenance of a car for transportation to the service theater. Further, the consumer must manage the back region, which includes planning future service needs and budgeting for service expenditures.


The experiential nature of services suggests that the service experience as theater may be effectively researched with observational research techniques that capture the processual and subjective nature of the service product (Grove and Fisk 1991). One promising observational method is participant observation (Grove 1986; Hirschman 1986). In participant observation, information about the effectiveness of various drama devices (actors' personal fronts, the physical setting, defensive practices, etc.) for creating and maintaining a desired impression may be gathered by observers who participate in the service encounter. Participant observation is a technique well-suited to dramaturgical analysis (Meltzer, Petras and Reynolds 1978). In addition, participant observation has been employed via "secret shopper" programs to investigate the service delivery of several organizations. For example, Walt Disney Co. routinely hires professionals to shop its parks and rate its stores, amusements, personnel, etc., all under a condition of concealment to protect against "unnatural" respondent behavior (Meister 1990).

The Critical Incident Technique (Flanagan 1954) is a promising observational technique for studying the service experience as theater. The Critical Incident Technique uses in-depth interviews with customers to assess specific instances of services experiences that were especially satisfying or especially dissatisfying. A recent study of airline, hotel and restaurant services resulted in an extensive classification of critical incidents that affect customer satisfaction/dissatisfaction (Bitner, Booms and Nyquist 1990). Similar critical incident studies could focus on the actors, audience, setting and performance as sources of satisfaction or dissatisfaction.

Other qualitative and/or unobtrusive data gathering methods might prove valuable for investigating the services experience as theater. Focus group research, case studies and non-directive interviews represent additional means for studying drama aspects of the service experience.


In depicting the service experience as theater, we have assumed that the sociological concepts of dramaturgy can be fully applied to services. This assumption is a mild one. Dramaturgists claim that all human interactions can be assessed from a dramaturgical framework.

The service experience as theater framework captures many of the experiential dimensions of a service. From the marketer's perspective, attention to the dramaturgical details of a service exchange may enable the marketer to deliver consistently higher levels of consumer satisfaction. From the consumer researcher's perspective, the service experience as theater offers a novel perspective for describing and analyzing consumer service experiences.


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Stephen J. Grove, Clemson University
Raymond P. Fisk, University of Central Florida


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19 | 1992

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