From behind the counters … Balancing the customer service equation

Customer service is undoubtedly one of the most topical issues in organizations across the globe. Today’s customers are highly knowledgeable and aware of their rights, needs and wants more than ever before. The internet and its related technologies have definitely made a significant impact on the way business is done. For instance, customers have better access to product information and are able to transact instantly at the click of a button. They can also build or kill the brand image at an amazing rate as word of mouth is spread faster via various social media platforms. Consequently, competition for customers has become more aggressive as geographical boundaries rapidly disappear and businesses can now easily reach out to markets all over the world. The customer experience is now a key factor in the consumer decision-making process. In fact, the establishment of customer contact centres, stand alone customer service departments and even specialist customer service consultants is a clear indication of the importance of enhancing the customer experience. Such efforts are indeed, justifiable. After all, customers are the lifeline of organizations hence; they deserve all the pampering and attention.

Having worked in the service industry as a frontline employee, I have grown to appreciate customer service from the other end of the equation ….that of delivering the service rather than receiving it. Frontline employees are a vital link between the organization and its customers, yet they are often overshadowed by the customers when customer service issues are being considered. It is therefore, no surprise that more attention is significantly drawn toward customers – what should and should not be done for them, what they expect and what all service providers should know about satisfying their needs and attaining service excellence. It is quite tempting to forget that these frontliners are in fact also customers, the internal customers of the organization who have their own needs and expectations. They do not only deliver services but also contribute immensely toward the sustainability and growth of the business. Essentially, customer service personnel are tasked to sustain the business by delivering an excellent service that not only draws clients but also retains them on behalf of the employer.

Whilst there are very high expectations of frontline staff, very little is known and appreciated with regards to the activities that take place ‘behind the scenes’. It is obviously not the intention of this article to divulge the intricacies of the activities that take place behind the counters. Rather, it is a call to decision makers to facilitate even better service delivery by considering the contact staff’s side of the equation.

A key issue which many frontline workers have to deal with, at least in my country, Zimbabwe and other developing nations, is that of inadequate resources. It is really amazing how contact staff often have to exercise ingenuity in a quest to satisfy the customer. Often times  (and  mostly  unknown to both employer and customer) frontline staff go out of their way to deliver an acceptable service to customers, covering up for what the employer has failed to provide. This can be anything really, from using personal phones, compromising one’s safety and unfortunately lying to customers when the truth would be totally unacceptable and ridiculous to the customer. Yes, this is unfortunately a reality of service delivery.  For instance, when the hotel has not paid up for its reservations system and the system provider withdraws their service; imagine the reaction the reservations agent would get if they were to say “ Sorry ma’am we can’t assist you at the moment as our system hasn’t been paid for and we have been disconnected.” It would be a complete bummer! What’s more, that would probably be the last customer the employee would serve before they are fired.

Employers should provide adequate resources for seamless service delivery. Apart from inconveniencing customers, the lack of sufficient resources also frustrates and demotivates frontline staff. Inasmuch as employees are expected to deliver an excellent service, it is only fair to provide the necessary resources for this to be attained. Whilst it is appreciated that everything cannot always be perfect, run outs of resources should not become a norm. When it does happen it needs to be properly managed in order to avoid frustrating, demotivating and expecting employees to work out some unimaginable miracles. When employees improvise and show resourcefulness it is certainly commendable. However, to continuously expect maximum returns with very little investment is problematic and could well be a ticking time bomb.

Training is crucial in attaining service excellence. Failing to properly train frontline staff is detrimental to the service encounter. The fast paced global village is making it more and more important for organizations to keep up with trends in their various industries. Failure to do so could result in obsolescence and eventually loss of business. To this end, there is need to consistently train contact staff on the latest trends be it latest versions of working systems, industry regulations or customer expectations. It is truly frustrating for a client to wait an additional minute simply because the one serving them is still struggling to operate the newly installed system. It is even worse when contact staff continue doing things the old, long and monotonous way. Making sure that frontliners are well-trained and confident enough to serve customers in the trendiest way is a huge asset and should not be overlooked.

Apart from the issue of inadequate resources and training, lack of synchronization of the various departments in a company also has adverse effects on frontline staff.  A spirit of ‘us’ and ‘them’ is prevalent in many organizations. Frontline staff (and even staff from other departments) do not know where they fit into the whole organization. What role do they play? What is the significance of their respective duties in the overall performance of the company? What are the implications of their actions? How do they contribute to the organization’s goals and mission? Failing to answer these questions can have far reaching effects on the service provider. Customer contact staff and indeed every other person in the organization should know where they fit into the equation and how their actions impact on the entity’s success or failure. Such knowledge enhances the performance of customer service personnel, energizing them by the knowledge that they are making a meaningful and essential contribution to the success of the organization. Conversely, staff are often fragmented as for example, a customer service agent may not know how their work translates to revenue. If they knew, they would probably ensure that they perform their duties perfectly in order to enhance revenue generation.

A moment of truth gone awry is a nasty experience for the customer….and yes of course even for the person serving the customer. Unfortunately, most times when the service encounter fails to live up to expectation, the man or woman delivering the service has to face the music alone, even when it is clearly a management or organizational issue. Some managers and supervisors have an amazing way of suddenly vanishing into thin air when service delivery goes bad.  There just isn’t anyone to explain the circumstances to customers, leaving the frontliners to bear the brunt of the justifiably, enraged clients. Be it a delayed flight, a super slow service in the bank or poor mobile network connectivity, management or whoever is in charge should ensure that necessary steps are taken to not only inform customers and explain the hitch but also to provide extra support to service personnel. Keep them informed of measures being taken to rectify the problem. Advise them on what to tell customers and provide them with necessary resources to manage the situation. When the system has gone down, activate manual back up and provide the requisite resources such as stationery and additional communication channels. All efforts should be made to maintain seamless service delivery. As rightly stated by Donald Porter, “Customers don’t expect you to be perfect. They do expect you to fix things when they go wrong.”

While there is a great persuasion to only focus on the external customer in a crisis, it is even more important to consider frontliners as they are evidently an important part of the equation. To balance the equation, management should take heed of customer contact personnel. They should ensure that they are well equipped to handle the prevailing crisis. By so doing, the staff become more confident and capable of assisting clients during the hard times. Failure to consider the customer service staff in such scenarios worsens the service encounter and further complicates service recovery. It has often been said that it is easier to save a new customer than gain a new one, but I believe it is even easier to retain an existing customer than losing and trying to save one.




The mystical Chinhoyi Caves: Zimbabwe’s “sleeping” tourism giant

blog caves3

The majestic Victoria Falls have over the years become synonymous with Zimbabwean tourism.  Although the world wonder is shared by Zambia and Zimbabwe, the Victoria Falls are the epitome of Zimbabwe’s tourism, receiving thousands of visitors annually. Indeed, the resort town offers a host of exciting activities and services to tourists. However, the Falls are by no means the only attraction to Zimbabwe. In fact, the country is endowed with a plethora of natural attractions, flora and fauna. The Eastern Highlands, the Matopo Hills, the Chinhoyi Caves and various game parks and safaris spread across the country all typify the country’s rich potential for tourism development. Unfortunately these other destinations are often overshadowed by the “mighty” Victoria Falls and are in dire need of aggressive marketing efforts both locally and abroad. Growing tourist activities and arrivals to these destinations will not only increase tourism receipts but also contribute toward the development of the respective surrounding communities.

The Chinhoyi Caves are one of the attractions which are not well appreciated and marketed both locally and beyond the country’s borders. Managed by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, the recreational park is undergoing transformational developments and is geared to become a key attraction in the country and region. The park which comprises the mystical caves, a picnic site and a motel is located about 125km from the capital city, Harare. Conveniently situated along the Harare Chirundu Highway and about 8km from Chinhoyi town centre the Chinhoyi Caves Recreational Park serves both as an ultimate and stop over destination for those travelling along the route. The Highway provides access to the resort town of Kariba as well as being the gateway from Southern Africa to Central, Eastern and Northern Africa via Zambia. It is therefore, a busy route, creating a potentially lucrative market for the resort.

The breath-taking yet mysterious caves which are the parks’ main attraction are of cultural and geographical significance. The caves are traditionally known as Chirorodziva, a term supposedly derived from the 17th century when locals were flung into the pool by a migrating Angoni Tribe on its way up north. Chirorodziva therefore, loosely translates to the “pool of the fallen” in reference to the Sleeping Pool in which the locals were thrown. It is also believed that Chief Chinhoyi and his people often hid in the caves from raiding tribes. Several tales are often told of how the caves provided a sanctuary for the indigenous people during the liberation struggles in Zimbabwe, with some spirit mediums believed to draw their strength and prowess from the caves.

Intrinsically woven into a network of tunnels and caverns, the caves are an amazing permutation of dolomite and limestone.  A steep stair case in the larger cavern, known as the Wonder Hole, leads to the Sleeping Pool. The Wonder Hole is a key feature of the caves, characterised by an artistic formation of limestone which creates a striking, natural artwork of spikes and carvings in the cave’s interior. As one reaches the end of the staircase there is a fence (though not as high and visibly secure as expected) providing a barrier to the sleeping pool.   The Sleeping Pool, a clear cobalt blue, exudes a mystical aura, yet leaves one gaping in awe at its stillness and yet breath-taking view. The depth of the pool ranges from about 80 to 90 metres and also has several passages branching from beneath the waters. This presents a great opportunity for divers to explore the deep waters, providing exploration opportunities for diving enthusiasts. 


 The Dark cave is accessed through a different entrance and walking through it is also quite an experience. Much caution is however, required as the staircase is quite steep and slippery. The cave which is conveniently illuminated by light bulbs, leads to an alternative view of the sleeping pool. Going through the caves can take as long as you wish depending on the amount of time at your disposal.

After touring the caves, visitors can enjoy a hearty meal at the motel or an outdoor meal at the picnic site. On a hot day, visitors can enjoy a refreshing swim in the motels’ pool. Although a larger pool is desirable, it still serves the purpose of providing much needed ‘cooling off’ in the generally warm Makonde climate.  With readily built braai stands dotted across the picnic site, revellers can enjoy outdoor meals and barbeques. The natural outdoor environment is quite refreshing and whether in transit or having specifically travelled to visit the caves, visitors can enjoy the serene atmosphere at the park.

Whilst the park is still under transformation, there is much potential for tourism development. More efforts should be directed toward marketing the destination, given the various facilities that are offered. The park provides a unique venue for weddings, conferences and other events. Having been to the “Caves” (as the park is also affectionately known by locals), several times myself, I totally recommend the recreational park. Each visit I have made to the caves has been absolutely captivating and refreshing, always leaving me in awe as if it were the first. It is perfect for a family outing, school tour, romantic getaway and events venue. So, the next time you are enroute to Kariba, or further on to Zambia, Tanzania or beyond, do take a recess at Chinhoyi Caves. It will be worth your while! Better still put the destination on your holiday plans and spend a few days camping at the site.



My sister and I… on our umpteenth visit to the ‘Caves’!



Chinhoyi Caves. (2014). Retrieved March 12, 2017, from Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority:

Zivira, T. (2017, January 25). The rebirth of Chinhoyi Caves Motel. Retrieved March 13, 2017, from News Day:



Service recovery : Lessons from a Zimbabwean banking encounter

Customers don’t expect you to be perfect. They do expect you to fix things when they go wrong.” ~ Donald Porter

A few months back I moved over to Steward Bank. The bank’s flexibility and innovativeness particularly lured me to open an account with them, which I did with ease. With the prevailing cash crisis the bank was proving to be a great convenience for me and I was one happy client until a couple of weeks back. My “not so pleasant” service encounter provoked my thoughts on the ‘responsiveness’ dimension of service quality. Whereas the bank deserves credit for its innovative and “everyday banking for everyday people” philosophy, I was left pondering on their sincerity regarding convenience for ‘everyday people’ or rather, who they define as ‘everyday people.’

 So I needed to make a rather urgent transfer of funds using the mobile banking application. This is a transaction I had previously been doing without any hitches save for the occasional network connectivity issues which were really nothing out of the ordinary. After several fruitless efforts to transfer funds in this particular instance, I decided to call the customer contact centre.  What had really sent me into panic mode this time around were the error messages to the effect that my account was not sufficiently funded. I had just received some funds into the account and the transfer I was attempting to make was way below the funds I knew I had in my account. Had bank charges increased? Had the till operator in the supermarket (I had been to previously) overcharged me? I was totally baffled and left with more questions than answers.

Contacting the call centre was my best option at that point as attempts to obtain a statement via mobile banking were no longer possible given my supposedly ill funded account.  I confidently dialled the contact centre number for assistance. After all, customer call centres are an effective and convenient way to solve customers’ problems and surely this bank’s centre would somehow resolve my issue in a jiffy. Wrong! I never got past the automated responses and ringing tone that comes after selecting the option to speak to an agent. My call was never picked. Failing to access the call centre was probably more frustrating than the real problem that had prompted me to call the centre in the first place. Each time I was placed on hold for several minutes on end until the call was eventually disconnected and I know that Steward Bank are not the only culprits on this one – companies that put you on hold till you can hold no more! The irony of these call centres is that they actually have the nerve to continuously remind you while on hold, that your call is important to them…seriously, an important call that can be placed on hold until forever. Important my foot! I honestly think we are better off without these centres unless and until a proper mode of managing them is adopted. Probably, outsourcing the service to specialist contact centre companies could provide better results.

 I then resorted to social media and contacted the bank on Twitter. Here I got a response, the system was being upgraded and things would normalize soon. In essence, this response did not solve my problem as I still had not succeeded  in making the funds transfer and I needed to know how my recently funded account had mysteriously become insufficiently funded. Now the response on Twitter was relatively prompt and credit to the bank for their efficient social media platform. Yet again it is the source of my other contention with the bank. “Everyday banking for everyday people”- I was left wondering what would happen to those clients who are, by the way, also everyday people, yet have no access to social media platforms such as Twitter? As I later realized when I eventually decided to physically visit the banking hall at Eastgate Shopping Mall, the bank also serves elderly folk, low income earners and many others who have no access to such social media as Twitter. Whilst they may be on Whatsapp for communication purposes, reality is that Twitter to them, is not of any relevance. How then do they get their issues promptly resolved when the call centre to which they have access, is not responsive???

Anyways, at this juncture the call centre had not yielded any results and the response on Twitter had not done justice to my situation either. I finally decided to physically visit the bank (115km away).    I did not even get into the banking hall, instead I found myself in the midst of a long, winding queue, appearing distorted in some sections as some clients had resorted to sitting on the pavements. As I pondered my next move (given the helplessly large crowd of people ahead of me) I noticed a group of young men and women clad in purple t-shirts standing by a small desk near the banking hall entrance. These were the bank’s agents registering even more clients to join the bank. I abandoned my position in the queue and made a beeline toward the agents. Thanks to one enthusiastic young man who eagerly assisted me. In fact he was so polite that all the harsh words I had rehearsed were whipped off my tongue and I found myself having the calmest conversation with him as if all was well.  He at least managed to disengage my panic mode as he helped me access my balance which after all the trouble, was in fact sufficiently funded.  His advice though was that I try transacting in the early hours of the day, preferably between 1 am and 3am as the system was rather overwhelmed.

 In total, it had taken close to a week to rectify my problem and this brought into perspective the issue of responsiveness in service quality management. Of course there are several learning points from this encounter but in this article for now I focus on responsiveness.

Parasuraman & Berry (1988) identified responsiveness as one of the dimensions in the SERVQUAL model of service quality measurement. According to them, responsiveness relates to the willingness of frontline staff to help customers and provide prompt service. Employees need to be willing to respond promptly to customer enquiries. I am in total concurrence with this assertion. However, having worked as a frontline employee myself, I am of the opinion that employee willingness alone does not suffice for the provision of excellent responsive service. Often times, particularly in our Zimbabwean context, where many organizations operate under constrained conditions, employees are not well equipped and supported to be as responsive as they ought to be. Their ability to be responsive is often ill supported by a lack of resources and bureaucratic organizational structures. Regardless of a frontline worker’s willingness to provide prompt assistance to clients, if the employer has not provided adequate resources, service excellence will not be achieved.  Resources, be they human, software, hardware, facilities or in any other form, need to be adequately provided to foster responsiveness in service delivery. Employees are often driven into providing sub standard services because of management shortcomings. Frontline staff typically bear the brunt, in worst cases even receiving slaps and nasty insults from disgruntled customers. 

 If for instance, I had managed to get into the banking hall and approached the enquiries or help desk, I certainly was not going to have any kind words for the front line staff serving me. However, further analysis would probably show that the problem could have been with the system that was indeed overwhelmed or the call centre was inadequately manned.  It could be the bank is enjoying the client recruitment spree so much that it has forgotten to ensure that all necessary systems and resources are in place and capacitated to fully serve all of us at any one given time. These are purely my assumptions as I am no IT expert and neither do I have much knowledge on what goes on behind the scenes in a bank. I really need not burden my poor brains with knowledge of the nitty grittys of how the bank operates behind the scenes and all the associated technical jargon. My primary concern as a client is to simply get the service that I have been made to believe I can get from the bank. Whatever happens behind the scenes, if my expectations are not met, the service quality is poor and satisfaction is in the red. From a customer service standpoint this is a red flag and there is need for housekeeping on the service provider’s part.

As noted by Donald Porter, Customers do not expect service providers to be perfect all the time, they appreciate that once in a while things may go wrong.  What is important is the service recovery; how well businesses manage service failure. Systems can go down, connectivity can be disrupted or suppliers can be delayed, whether planned or unplanned such phases need extra cautious management. These are highly sensitive periods which can either make or break client relations. If well managed, customer frustrations can be kept at bay; in fact customers can empathize with the service provider and better tolerate ensuing inconveniences. It goes beyond simply ‘regretting any inconvenience caused’; there has got to be genuine empathy and more importantly, a ‘responsiveness enabled’ environment should prevail.

In the encounter I have just narrated, failure to reach the call centre worsened my situation, yet it is at such times that the call centres should be well supported to ensure that customers are assisted as best possible. My experience in the service industry however, has shown me that at such periods management is barely supportive, leaving frontline staff to think up of excuses to give customers and deal with the repercussions by themselves. It is an unfortunate situation, and is the topic of discussion for another day. Kumar & Meenakshi (2006) assert that service related problems tend to escalate swiftly, hence the need to solve these problems at an early stage. Had I managed to speak to a contact centre agent at the onset, I am sure I would not have felt half the frustration and dissatisfaction I felt. Whilst service providers may seem to be able to get away with compromised customer service today, when bargaining power of customers seems to be low, it most certainly will haunt them, for though we exist today, we live for the future.


Kumar, A., & Meenakshi, N. (2006). Marketing Management. Noida: Vikaz Publishing House.

Parasuraman, A., & Berry, L. L. (1988). SERVQUAL: A Multiple-item scale for measuring customer perceptions. Journal of Marketing , 64 (1), 12-40.



Stepping-up the tourist experience in Zimbabwe: A “Service Encounter Cascade” Approach

 Zimbabwe’s Minister of Tourism and Hospitality Industry, Dr Walter Mzembi was in 2016, endorsed by both SADC and the African Union to take over the reins at the UNWTO this May. Whilst his win would be historic in marking him as the first African to occupy the UNWTO top post, it would also have significant implications to his home country, Zimbabwe. Apart from placing Zimbabwe on the global centre stage, a win for Dr Mzembi is envisaged to among other things, positively influence tourist traffic into the country.

As the country, the region and continent at large brace for the much anticipated elections, it is only prudent to review the country’s tourism sector and bring into perspective some critical issues regarding the sector’s growth. While significant efforts have since been made to market destination Zimbabwe across the world, much is yet to be done in improving the quality of the tourism product. In light of the anticipated increase in tourist arrivals, it is vital to ensure that the levels of service delivery are not only satisfactory but also a culmination of synchronized efforts in the delivery of quality, seamless service. Rather than focusing on individual service encounters, there is need to consider the Zimbabwean tourist experience as a service encounter cascade. Interactions with each service provider would then be regarded as a service encounter, a constituent of the broader cascade. By managing the quality of services as part of a cascade, each encounter is dovetailed to the preceding and/or ensuing encounter thus facilitating seamless service delivery.

Such an approach, is more beneficial to the tourism sector. Firstly, tourists enjoy seamless service and have greater satisfaction from the Zimbabwean tourism product. An excellent service experience has been argued to generate positive word of mouth (WOM). In fact, Kim, Holland, & Han (2013) assert that satisfied tourists tend to communicate their positive experiences to others. They further posit that such customers are better candidates for repeat visits which are crucial for creating a loyal clientele base. Morgan, Pritchard, & Piggott (2003) in their study of the tourism sector concluded that negative WOM has potentially devastating effects on the image of a destination, with dissatisfied visitors readily spreading the word of their unpleasant experience. Positive WOM on the other hand, contributes toward business survival and growth as existing customers make repeat visits and potential tourists are converted to actual clients through the conviction of positive WOM. It is evident therefore, that whilst attracting tourists is necessary for tourism growth, it is more important to ensure that their actual experiences are not only satisfactory but of excellent quality as this often determines their loyalty and the type of communication they pass to potential markets.

The service encounter cascade is essentially a sequence of service encounters. Lovelock & Wright (2002) simply refer to the service encounter cascade as a flow chart for which they identify three major benefits;

  • Facilitation of a more profound understanding of the individual process that eventually forms the customers’ overall service experience.
  • Identification of the encounters that customers have with different front line staff and specific physical facilities.
  • Relating the behaviour and experience of customers at each stage to the back ground processes that are required to develop quality service at the frontline.

 It is suggested that not all encounters are equally important in building long-term relations. For every organization, certain encounters can be integral to customer satisfaction (Ruskin-Brown, 2005). In adopting the service encounter cascade approach in tourism service management, it would be essential to identify such encounters and the respective service providers for instance domestic airline operators(e.g. Air Zimbabwe, Fast Jet and other charter flights) providing connectivity between local destinations.

Understanding and managing service encounter cascades is essential in creating a positive image. Customers evaluate service quality from their experiences at each encounter. Zeithaml and Bitner (2000) assert that such evaluations determine customer satisfaction, with positive evaluations typically leading to greater satisfaction. This concept can be adopted on a larger scale in the tourism sector to study and understand the important elements at each encounter. The encounter cascade could typically begin from accommodation and flight reservations through to flight arrivals, shuttle services, hotel or lodge stays, restaurants, vehicle hire, sightseeing tours and recreational activities through to flight departure at the end of the visit.

A service encounter cascade approach in the management of tourism service quality helps to create a better destination image for the country. An unpleasant experience with one service provider has the power to spoil the entire trip resulting in not only loss of future repeat visits but also the spread of negative WOM. For instance, an inefficient domestic transport service can, apart from frustrating travellers, reduce leisure time (and expenditure) at a destination as much time is lost to travelling. Whilst businesses set to benefit from tourist expenditure at the destination could lose out on potential sales, the tourist’s perception of the entire experience may be totally ruined even to the extent of deciding never to return.

In addition to benefitting tourists, service management through the encounter cascade also benefits the various service providers who constitute service encounters in the cascade. As highlighted earlier, unpleasant encounters elsewhere along the cascade can be potentially detrimental to future business. The adage, “one bad apple can ruin the whole basket,” has much relevance in managing the service encounter cascade. One negative encounter can drive the customer away, regardless of several, previous positive encounters.  Satisfied customers are likely to make repeat visits as well as generate new clients through spreading positive WOM. Rather than focus on an individual business, the encounter cascade approach helps ensure service excellence from all elements of the tourism product. It is also worth noting that various providers of service to tourists are part of the tourism product and as such are affected by the activities of other service providers. Improving the entire product will therefore, benefit all businesses in the encounter cascade.

Finally, the Zimbabwean tourism sector stands to benefit from an overall, improved destination image. Growth is set to improve in terms of actual arrivals and receipts, ultimately contributing toward GDP. Employment levels may also improve as more arrivals would create more jobs to serve the additional visitors. Likewise, local industries supplying both goods and services to players in the tourism sector will experience a boost in sales as tourist arrivals increase. Ultimately, the country’s competitiveness as a tourist destination will be set to improve.

Regardless of the outcome of the impending UNWTO Secretary General elections the tourism sector should essentially ‘up its game’ in pursuit of service excellence. Management of the tourist service encounter is however, not the ultimate solution to the country’s tourism growth. It is an important element which if supported by other interventions could resoundingly improve performance of the tourism sector. In future issues I shall also consider such other interventions necessary for the enhancement of tourism growth in not only Zimbabwe but also the SADC.


Kim, S. H., Holland, S., & Han, H. S. (2013). A Structural Model for Examining how Destination Image, Perceived Value, and Service Quality Affect Destination Loyalty: A Case Study of Orlando. International Journal of Tourism Research , 15 (4), 313-328.

Lovelock, C., & Wright, L. (2002). Principles of Service Marketing and Management. (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Morgan, N. J., Pritchard, A., & Piggott, R. (2003). Destination branding and the role of stakeholders. Journal of Vacation Marketing , 9 (3), 285-299.

Ruskin-Brown, I. (2005). Marketing your service business. London: Thorogood .

Zeithaml, V., & Bitner, J. (2000). Services Marketing : Integrating customer focus across the firm (2nd ed.). Boston: McGraw Hill.


Service encounter management: A source of competitive advantage


Today’s fast paced and highly competitive markets often compel businesses to make significant investments in advertising and other marketing initiatives to attract and retain customers. Whilst such investments are worthwhile and crucial for business success, service encounter management is equally vital, yet many service providers adopt a lukewarm approach toward it. Di Julius (2008) is of this assertion and argues that business success lies in customers and their perceptions of service quality. Subsequently, it is essential to focus on the service encounter, particularly in service oriented enterprise. In the face of aggressive competition, service encounter management presents a potential source of competitive advantage. If well executed, managing the service encounter can efficiently produce extraordinary results. The following sections shed more light on the service encounter and how it can be managed for business success.

The service encounter essentially signifies the epitome of service delivery. Services although classified as intangible, are comprised of both tangible and intangible, elements. These are incorporated to create an emotion, experience or memory for the customer.  The encounter therefore, is the “Ahaa!” moment, also known as “the moment of truth”, a term popularized by Carlzon (1987). It is during this phase that all efforts to deliver a service are put to the test as the client experiences the service and generates an opinion on quality. The service encounter literally describes the customer’s interaction with various elements of the service such as facilities, equipment and the frontline staff.

Understanding and managing the service encounter should be a priority for all service providers simply because customers draw their perceptions on service quality from the service encounter. Unlike with goods, where their quality is tested and assured technically via predetermined standards and measures, the quality of services is determined by the customer during the encounter. Service quality is a key determinant of customer satisfaction, which in turn influences loyalty, growth and ultimately profitability. In fact, Bitner (1990) asserts that service encounter management can make or break relations between the customer and the business. As a result, service encounter management can be a reasonable source of competitive advantage especially for those businesses that are not financially sound enough to invest in advertising campaigns, price wars or other marketing tools to attract and retain customers.

Effective management of the service encounter can be achieved by breaking down the encounter into three key components namely, the service environment, service personnel and support services (Lovelock and Wright, 2002).  Understanding how these three elements interact and influence the customer is crucial in attaining service excellence.

The Service environment

 This essentially relates to the physical or tangible aspects of the service. The service environment needs to be carefully developed and maintained as it gives customers an idea of the service quality. In other words, the environment hints customers on what to expect from the service. Before frontline staff gets the chance to even talk to the client, the environment would have already spoken volumes about the service and the customer in their mind will begin to develop some kind of expectation.  In essence the environment then includes equipment and facilities amongst other elements.

Bitner (1992) posits that the service environment is comprised of

  1. Ambient conditions
  2. Spatial layout and functionality
  3. Signs, symbols and artefacts.

Managing the service environment, therefore, entails considering these three elements and ensuring that they do not only reflect the quality of service offered to customers but also the values and business philosophy of the organization. Management of ambience entails focusing on elements such as colour, temperatures, themes and music. Offices, guest rooms, classrooms and hospital wards for instance, should exude the appropriate ambience, an ambience that stimulates the client and sets the tone for the service to be received. Spatial layout and functionality relate to furniture arrangements and sequential layout for the customer’s convenience. Finally, signage and decor need to be well thought out and designed with the customer in mind.

The service personnel

Frontline staff are the face of the business. In essence, they should embody the values of the organization as they interact with customers. Managing service personnel in the context of the service encounter, entails ensuring that “frontliners” live up to and exceed the client expectations. By so doing customer satisfaction can be achieved and with it the benefits of excellent service such as loyalty, business survival and growth. Equipping contact staff with skills to handle customers appropriately becomes a necessity. The appropriate manner can only be achieved when customers are understood and the onus is on the business to have an in depth understanding of their clientele. This would therefore entail understanding their needs, their wants and economic status, for instance.

Support services

 These are the material and other resources used by staff in delivering  services not only at the shop floor but even “behind the scenes”, in  the back offices. There is obviously need for synchronization of process to ensure seamless service delivery. Serviceability of equipment and office machinery for instance is highly important. Processes and equipment need to be developed to best serve the interests of the customer

Whilst managing a single service encounter can be easily executed, managing several encounters becomes a tougher challenge requiring coordination and team work for the attainment of seamless service. When there are several encounters, the sequence is known as a service encounter cascade and is the subject of discussion in future issues.


Bitner, M. J. (1990). Evaluating Service Encounters: The effects of physical surroundings and employee responses. The Journal of Marketing , 69-82.

Bitner, M. J. (1992). Servicescape: The impact of physical surroundings on customers and employees. The Journal of Marketing , 55-71.

Carlzon, J. (1987). Moments of Truth. Cambridge: M.M Ballinger.

Di Julius, J. R. (2008). What’s the secret to providing a world-class customer experience? New Jersey: Hoboken.

Lovelock, C., & Wright, L. (2002). Principles of Service Marketing and Management. (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.