The Gap Model of Service Quality

What you’ll learn to do: Discuss the gap model of service quality

In the London Underground, “Mind the Gap” signage is ubiquitous, warning passengers of the gap between the platform and the train’s entry/exit stairs. In the retail environment, the danger zone is the gap between customer service expectations and customer perceptions of service. In order to effectively manage the customer experience, retailers need to have that same front and center focus on minding the gap. The framework used to identify and address potential service gaps is the Gap Model of Service Quality, also referred to as the 5 Gap Model. As the second reference indicates, the model involves 5 different gaps.

Originally proposed in a 1985 Journal of Marketing article titled “A Conceptual Model of Service Quality and Its Implications for Further Research,” the Gap Model of Service Quality is framework for analyzing common customer satisfaction issues. In the following sections, we will drill down into each gap individually, identifying root causes and actions to address customer satisfaction issues and close the corresponding service gap.

In the Gap Model of Service Quality, the first gap is the gap of knowledge, reflecting the difference between customer expectations and management’s understanding of those expectations. That is, management doesn’t know what customers expect. Common reasons for this disconnect include and ineffective transfer and analysis of available information. For example, this gap might occur if management fails to solicit and factor in information and insights from front-line employees, field personnel and customer surveys. In a big data world where customers have free access to rating platforms and the inclination to share their experiences, this gap is sometimes referred to as a “listening” rather than information gap. That is, in many cases, the information is there. The key challenge is prioritizing information sources, making sense of and acting on the available information.

Learning Outcomes

  • Outline how a retailer can close the customer expectations and management perceptions gap
  • Outline how a retailer can close the management perceptions and quality specs gap
  • Outline how a retailer can close the quality specs and service delivery gap
  • Outline how a retailer can close the service delivery and communications gap
  • Outline how a retailer can close the actual performance and perceived service gap

Gap 1: Customer Expectation vs. Management Perception

Gap between consumer expectation and management perception: This gap arises when the management or service provider does not correctly perceive what the customer wants or needs. For instance – hotel administrators may think guests want better food or in-house restaurant facilities, but guests may be more concerned with the responsiveness of the staff or the cleanliness of their rooms.

Factors that affect the size of the knowledge gap include:

  • Market research: Before introducing a new product or service into the market, a company must conduct market research to understand whether there would be any demand for the product, and what features should be incorporated. The better this process is conducted, the smaller the knowledge gap will be. There are methods of ensuring that customer desires are taken on board. These include comprehensive studies, gauging satisfaction after individual transactions (surveys immediately after a purchase is made), customer panels and interviews, and through customer complaints.
  • Communication channels: The fewer the layers between management and customer contact personnel, the more likely that customer preferences will be incorporated into higher-level decision making on the product.

practice questions

Gap 2: Management Perception vs. Quality Specifications

Gap between management perception and service quality specification: This is when the management or service provider might correctly perceive what the customer wants, but may not set a performance standard. An example here would be that hospital administrators may tell the nurse to respond to a request ‘fast’, but may not specify ‘how fast’.

The second gap in the service quality framework in the policy gap, reflecting the difference between management’s perception of customer expectations and actual customer service specifications. In this scenario, management may have an accurate understanding of customer expectations but that understanding hasn’t been effectively implemented as operating policy. Specificity is the key here. For example, an expectation that the phone be answered in a timely manner is open to interpretation. Is “timely” 2 rings or 3? What if service personnel are already working with customers? For clarity and operational effectiveness, policies should be developed with the SMART – Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant and Timely – goal-setting acronym is mind. Note, however, that situational factors can complicate matters. Policy that is actionable when things go according to plan may not work when staff calls in sick or there’s an unexpected influx of customers or a power outage or [fill in the blank]. SMART is good. Hiring employees who are able – and empowered – to improvise to achieve the overall customer satisfaction objective is best. Consider whether you should factor in Nordstrom’s Rule #1: “Use best judgment in all situations.”[1] It’s not appropriate for all circumstances, but if so, by all means factor in a personal judgement override.

In order to address the policy-practice gap, companies should clarify, train on, measure and reward performance relative to customer service standards. To be specific:

  • Clearly articulate service levels and business (i.e., budget) assumptions
  • Develop, communicate and train to specific customer service standards
  • Factor service level performance into evaluations for all related personnel
  • Measure performance and adjust resources as required to meet service level objectives
  • Monitor industry service level standards and update policy as appropriate

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Gap 3: Quality Specifications vs. Service Delivery

Gap between service quality specification and service delivery: This gap may arise in situations pertaining to the service personnel. It could happen due to poor training, incapability or unwillingness to meet the set service standard. An example would be when a doctor’s office has very specific standards of hygiene communicated but the hired staff may have been poorly trained on the need to follow these strict protocols.

The third gap in the model is the performance gap, reflecting the difference between service quality specification and service delivery. Given that service is largely a function of human rather than robotic resources, resources versus robotics – at least to date – service quality may be affected by a range of factors including training, aptitude, attitude and heath and cultural factors. The interactive nature of the customer service situation is a factor as well, with customer changes, special requests and the attitude and communication skills they bring to the situation impacting a service representative’s ability to deliver to an established standard.

In a performance gap situation, the issue is generally not the lack of specific service policies but a failure to consistently and reliably meet those service expectations. In order to close this gap, companies should review financial and operating assumptions to ensure that service specifications are achievable. Human Resources-related activities from job analysis and job descriptions to candidate screening, selection, training and evaluation should be reviewed to ensure new employees are capable of and willing to meet service position demands. Developing a well-structured onboarding process, providing product/service training and cultivating a customer-centric team environment can help new service employees get up to speed with a minimum of stress. Indeed, onboarding is a topic onto itself, contributing to productivity, engagement and retention. And, speaking of retention, one critical way to mind the performance gap is to recognize and reward top performers. To summarize:

Validate service quality expectations and align people, processes and culture to support those goals.

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Gap 4: Service Delivery vs. External Communications

Gap between service delivery and external communication: Consumer expectations are highly influenced by statements made by company representatives and advertisements. The gap arises when these assumed expectations are not fulfilled at the time of delivery of the service. For example – a hospital printed on its brochure may have clean and furnished rooms but in reality, it may be poorly maintained – in this case, the patient’s expectations are not met.

The fourth gap in the model is the communication gap, reflecting the difference between the level of service promised and what is received. Consumer expectations are shaped by a range of communications including promotional advertising, website copy and photographs and statements made by company representatives. This gap is commonly due to over-promising or, at the extreme, false advertising (i.e., bait and switch). The classic “under promise and over deliver” advice is a way to avoid this gap. For perspective on this point, read marketing guru Tom Peter’s Under Promise, Over Deliver rant. Key takeaway: Quality, responsiveness and price are all important elements. What’s most important, however, is keeping your word. That will keep customers satisfied, and ensure that you keep your customers.

Specific actions to close this gap:

  • Review communications across all touch-points, including digital (email, website, social media and partner sites), print, and on-premise materials, to ensure accuracy and consistency
  • Implement a “reality check” review and approval process for new campaigns and updates.
  • Conduct mock customer interactions and listen in and provide coaching on point-of-contact conversations to ensure services are being represented realistically
  • Incorporate employee input and customer reviews to make advertising real. Similarly, incorporating actual employees and customers in advertising puts a real face on the business.

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Gap 5: Actual Performance vs. Perceived Service Gap

Gap between expected service and experienced service: This gap arises when the consumer misinterprets the service quality. The physician may keep visiting the patient to show and ensure care, but the patient may interpret this as an indication that something is really wrong.

The fifth or Customer gap represents the overall difference between the customer’s expectations for and perception of the level of service received. This gap can occur due to service issues from gaps 1–4 or can reflect an error in the customer’s judgement of the service received. The customer’s perception is influenced by a range of factors including personal experience and needs, advertising and word of mouth. For example, a customer may have experienced excellent service during a meal but incorrect charges on the bill or boisterous diners at the next table may taint the experience and leave the customer dissatisfied overall. The key point to recognize is that the fifth gap can’t be closed directly; in order to close the customer gap, a retailer needs to close gaps 1–4. Obtaining customer feedback is the key to identifying the root cause(s)—that is, the underlying service gap(s)—and, ultimately, closing the Customer gap.

practice questions