Managing quality in information services*

Jennifer Rowley

Head, School of Management and Social Sciences,
Edge Hill College of Higher Education, Ormskirk, L39 4QP, UK

Abstract: In any environment where a service is being provided for customers it is appropriate to seek to monitor and enhance service quality. TQM (Total Quality Management) is an approach that has been widely adopted for enhancing service quality. This article explores some of the issues associated with the implementation of TQM in the service environment, as they might apply to information services. In implementing TQM in this environment it is necessary to establish some basic definitions by answering questions such as `what is quality?', `who are our customers?' and `how can quality be measured?'. The SERVQUAL instrument has been widely tested as a means of measuring service quality. The article takes the opportunity to review briefly the literature concerned with measuring service quality as a forum in which to explore the concept of service quality.

1. Introduction

Libraries, information providers, information intermediaries, online hosts, database producers, software designers, interface designers and telecommunications agencies can all be regarded as providing a service. In general terms, organisations and individuals may be viewed as offering their customers a product which might be either a good or a service. There is scope for some debate as to whether information is a good or a service. Few would dispute the fact that books are goods and can be marketed as such, and that therefore booksellers and publishers are engaged in selling goods. Other agencies in the information industry provide access to information — this access may most appropriately be seen as a service, although the information to which access is provided may be viewed as a good or service, depending primarily upon how it is packaged. Again CD-ROMs and the information on them are clearly goods. Ultimately, however the product is defined, a significant number of the players in the information industry can be viewed as providing a service.

With the growth of the service sector, in general, there has been a more pressing need to establish some means of measuring service quality and strategies for improving service quality. After an initial exploration of the concept of quality, this article explores TQM as a strategy for enhancing service quality. SERVQUAL is then introduced as one tool for measuring service quality.

2. Perspectives on Quality

Each of the major contributions to the quality debate has offered its own unique contribution on the nature of quality. Against these varying perspectives the five broad approaches offered by Harvey and Green [10] provide a simple, yet useful framework:

Writers on service quality have tended to focus strongly on customer requirements. This tends to emphasise the fitness for purpose view of quality, although the value for money view may also play a role, when the approach seeks to take into account customer's expectations and perceptions, as discussed below.

3. Perceived Quality, Expectations, Perceptions,AttitudesandSatisfaction

The construct of quality as conceptualised in the services literature and as measured by SERVQUAL centres on perceived quality. Perceived quality is defined as the consumers' judgement about an entity's overall excellence or superiority [28]. It differs from objective quality which involves an objective aspect or feature of a thing or event [7,12]. Perceived quality is a form of attitude, related to, but not the same as satisfaction, and resulting from a comparison of expectations with perceptions of performance. We now further explore the relationships between some of these terms.

Oliver's [18] summary of the nature of satisfaction confirms the transaction-specific nature of satisfaction, and differentiates it from attitude, thus:

`Attitude is the consumer's relatively enduring affective orientation for a product, store or process (e.g., customer service) while satisfaction is the emotional reaction following a disconfirmation experience which acts on the base attitude level and is consumption-specific. Attitude is therefore measured in terms more general to product or store and is less situationally oriented'

Perceived service quality, then, is a global judgement, whereas satisfaction is related to a specific transaction. Thus, the two constructs are related, in that incidents of satisfaction over time lead to perceptions of good service quality.

Satisfaction - Specific transaction

Quality - Global attitude

Many authors [9, 15, 20, 25] support the notion that service quality as perceived by customers, stems from a comparison of what they feel that service organisations should offer (i.e., from their expectations) with their perception of the performance of organisations providing the services. Table 1 summarises Gronroos's' model.

Table 1: Summary of Gronroos's' model
Gap 1:

the difference between what consumer expect of a service and what management perceives consumers to expect

Gap 2:

the difference between what management perceives and consumers expect and the quality specifications set for service delivery

Gap 3:

the difference between the quality specifications set for service delivery and the actual quality of that service delivery

Gap 4:

the difference between the actual quality of service delivery and the quality of that service delivery as described in the firm's external communications

Gap 5:

the difference between customer's expectations of service and the perception of service delivered


Quality = Customers perception - Customers expectations.

It is important to note that the term `expectations' is used differently in the consumer satisfaction literature and the service quality literature, since this is a significant source of potential confusion. Specifically, in the satisfaction literature, expectations are viewed as predictions made by consumers about what is likely to happen during an impending transaction or exchange. On the other hand, in the service quality literature expectations are viewed as desired or wants of consumers or what they feel a service should offer rather than would offer.

4. Quality Gaps

Managing service quality is concerned with managing the gaps between expectations and perceptions on the part of management, employers and customers. The most important gap is that between customer's expectation of service and their perception of the service actually delivered, shown as Gap 5 in Table 1 and this is the gap that SERVQUAL is designed to investigate. Nevertheless it is important to recognise the existence of the other 4 gaps shown in Table 1.

5. The nature of TQM for Information Services

TQM is defined as managing the entire organisation so that it excels in all dimensions of products and services which are important to the customers [1]. Excellence in a TQM organisation is defined by customer requirements and needs.

Experience over the last ten years of impelmentation indicates that one single approach is not superior to another [17]. As TQM has become increasingly important, the philosophy has shifted from a pure statistical view of process control [6] towards a systematic view [4] with strong internal and external customer orientation. Interest in service quality has increased substantially in recent years ( [16] although initially the fundamental characteristics of services as summarised in Table 2 have posed a number of issues concerning the management of the quality of services, not the least of which is how to measure service quality. There is a continuing debate concerning the measurement of service quality, which we return to later. Despite the absence of any clear generic indicators of service quality, many service sector organisations have sought to address the issue of quality and to make use of approaches such as TQM with a view to embedding a quality culture in their organisation.

Library and information services managers have long recognised the need for customer orientation that is inherent in the TQM philosophy and some have sought to implement TQM or have been involved with TQM initiatives within organisations that have been involved in TQM. In addition, customer care and other customer focused programmes have been used in training those library staff who are in direct contact with the public.

Table 2: The fundamental characteristics of services

services cannot be evaluated in advance of use


stocks of the service element of the service package cannot be held and services need to deal with demand and capacity directly


the customer must be present before the service can take place


there is inherent variability in the service offered


The main elements of TQM are depicted in Table 3. More specifically these are:

1. Quality is Customer Defined.

Quality is defined in terms of customer's perceptions, or in a more complex model that is widely debated in the service quality literature as the gap between expectations and perceptions. Such customer focus requires not only an attention to internal processes, but also an awareness of the external marketplace. Only a match between the requirements of the marketplace and the internal processes and operations will lead to a quality service.

2. Internal and External Customers.

The only way to ensure that the organisation has a focus on customers that impacts equally on all departments and teams, including those not in direct contact with the external customer, is to encourage each employee to identify those to whom they provide a service and to view those people as their internal customers. In this way the customer orientation can permeate the organisation.

3. Employee Involvement.

Employee involvement follows automatically from the need for all employees to consider their internal customer. Employee involvement means that each individual must take the initiative and not rely upon someone else. In order for this to be achieved, the organisation needs a culture which encourages this behaviour. Everyone must understand that they contribute equally to quality and can only succeed through co-operation and support.

4. Error Free Processes.

The focus of TQM is on prevention to eliminate waste, reduce costs and achieve error free processes. The traditional approach to TQM which developed in a manufacturing environment was a strong focus on process quality control. Service managers need to interpret this focus in a way that is appropriate for services with inherent variability and the less controllable element of the customer.

5. Performance Measurement.

Performance measurement needs to be based upon timely measures of, and feedback on performance through superior quality information systems.

6. Continuous Improvement.

Continuous improverment must be seen as the responsibility of everyone in the organisation. To develop this a focus on training, education, communication, recognition of achievements and team work is often seen as appropriate.

Table 3: The main elements of TQM
  • Internal and external customers

  • Quality is customer defined

  • Employee involvement

  • Performance measurement

  • Continuous improvement

  • Error free processes


Whilst there is some general agreement as to the concepts and philosophy of TQM, there is much less agreement about the route to be taken. Although much has been written on the subject of implementation of TQM, there are many factors that might influence the most appropriate approach to TQM in a specific context. Rather than attempet to offer a model for the introduction of TQM in information services, it is perhaps more fruitful to explore some of the issues that need to be addressed on the road to a successful implementation of TQM. These include:

Defining Quality.

We have already noted some of the difficulties in defining service quality. In addition, global definitions are not particularly helpful — quality must be articulated in terms to which individuals can relate. Teams, departments and individuals need to be assisted in identifying definitions and measures that are appropriate in their context. In a service environment, it is likely that a number of these will relate to speed, timeliness, accuracy and completeness. So, for example, in a library context, typical measures might relate to the speed of response to requests for items delivered via interlibrary loans, or the appropriateness or completeness of a search outcome. Some of these measures will be more difficult to express numerically than others.

Clarifying Customers.

Who are the external and internal customers? Are there any ways in which the customers can be segmented either on the basis of the service that they require, or their attitudes to effective service delivery ? Any debate within service organisations will probably bring out the differing foci of different groups. The online hosts, for example, recognise that their services are used by a number of different market segments, including academic institutions, government agencies, commercial organisations and individuals.

Measuring Quality

There are a number of different approaches to measuring quality:

Complaints: the level of complaints is one indicator of quality, and provides some directions for potential improvements. However, absence of dissatisfaction is not necessarily proof of customer satisfaction and other methods are also appropriate;

Customer surveys: these ask the customers for their assessment of the services offered;

Benchmarking: comparing the organisation with its competitiors;

Employee surveys and suggestion boxes can provide valuable information on the interfaces between teams and departments.

Measures of current quality provide a focus for the continuous improvement program:

Establishing Quality as a Strategic Issue.

Quality as a strategic issue implies acceptance of the importance of customer requirements throughout the organisation;the identification of continuous improvement as a key organisational objective and the introduction of meaningful performance indicators. None of this will take place without top management commitment. Top management commitment is vital for the credibility, continuity and longevity of TQM initiative [2].

Organisational Structure

Organisational structures can be divided into two main categories: mechanistic and organic. Mechanistic structures include functional, bureaucratic structures which tend to be relatively inflexible, with clearly define levels of authority, and decision making that is governed by policies, procedures and rules. Organic structures, on the other hand, employ decentralised decision making whereby both accountability and responsibility are transferred to as low a level in the organisation as effectively possible. Structures such as project teams, taskforces and the matrix approach are common. Organic structures are much more likely to foster the central elements of TQM in respect of responsiveness to customer requirements, participate and creative problem solving and team ethos. Both the structure within the information provider unit and the structure of a parent organisation may have an impact.

Organisational Culture

The term culture is use in relation to corporate identity or personality culture is associated with the philosophy and values which create a common understanding amongst organisational members concerning the organisation's mission and how its members should behave. Robbins [23] argues that effectiveness requires that an organisation's culture, strategy, environment and technology be aligned. Clearly if TQM is to be successful it requires a culture that actively promotes customer requirements, continuous improvement, creative problem solving and a team ethos. Organisations considering the implementation of TQM need to identify and take into account their organisational culture.

Human Resource Management

TQM is a very people centred approach to management. A central concern is employee commitment. Successful TQM depends upon employee commitment. DeCotiis and Summers [3] have identified a number of processes which impact upon commitment:

Management style and leadership always needs to be adapted to the environment. It is important to consider different approaches.


Service organisations have long recognised the need to be able to measure service quality. Such organisations frequently produce questionnaires and use them to assess customer satisfaction and service quality. Although each of these are valuable, they tend to reflect the special features of the individual organisation. In addition there is a recognition that the elusive and abstract nature of service quality can make it difficult to measure. Parasuraman et al.[21] sought to design a general instrument for measuring service quality, known as SERVQUAL. SERVQUAL is a multiple-item scale designed to measure service quality; it encompasses expectations and perceptions concerning a service encounter. A service encounter is defined by Shostack [27, p.243] as `a period of time during which a consumer directly interacts with a service'. SERVQUAL has been recognised as a valuable tool and has been widely used, commented upon and adapted. The SERVQUAL instrument consists of a series of two sets of twenty two statements. Each statement is accompanied by a seven point scale ranging from `Strongly agree ` to `Strongly Disagree'. The first set of statements measure expectations about the service under evaluation, and the second set of statements measure perceptions about the service. Roughly half of the statement pairs are worded positively and the rest are worded negatively.

The numerical differences between the scores reported for the perceptions and the expectations constructs is calculated and makes up the perceived quality score for the dimension being considered. For example, the following statements are items of the Tangible dimension that attempts to measure expectations.

1. They should have up-to-date equipment.

2. Their physical facilities should be visually appealing.

3. Their employees should be well dressed and appear neat.

4. The appearance of the physical facilities should be in keeping with the type of services provided.

The following statements represent the corresponding perceptions measuring items for the Tangible dimension (XYZ represents the company name):

1. XYZ has up-to-date equipment

2. XYZ's physical facilities are visually appealing.

3. XYZ's employees are well dressed and appear neat

4. The appearance of the physical facilities of XYZ are in keeping with the type of services provided.

When the scores for the individual items measuring expectations are averaged, the result is a Tangibles expectation score. Similarly, when the scores of the items measuring perceptions are averaged, the result is a Tangibles perception score. When the expectation scores for items are subtracted from the perception scores for the same items, the average result of these scores is the perceived quality score for Tangibles.


Table 4 summarises the published scores from Parasuraman et al. [21] initial study using SERVQUAL. From such a table it is possible to look at the scores for each service facility, and also to make comparisions between the respective sectors. For example, Table 4 shows that telephone companies score highest for tangibles, credit card companies are highest for relibility and for responsiveness, whilst banks have the highest scores for assurance and for empathy.

Table 4: Mean quality scores for each SERVQUAL Dimension
  Bank Credit Card Company Repair Company Telephone Company Combined































Note: Since perceptions and expectations are measured on a 1 to 7 scale and quality is assessed from the difference, the quality score is distributed along a sclae from -6 to +6, and might be expected to be centred in the negative zone.

SERVQUAL like any other scale that might be proposed as a basis for the measurement of the quality of the service experience can be applied in a number of different ways.

In summary, it can be used to yield information concerning:

  1. The validity and reliability of the scale in specific service environments;

  2. To compare two or more organisations in the same service sector, e.g., two banks, in terms of customer's perceptions of their relative quality;

  3. To compare two different groups of customers' attitudes to a service experience, again in relation to the service dimensions. This approach may allow researchers to investigate the infuluence of cultural differences between,say, two groups of people of differing nationality on their perceptions of service quality;

  4. To compare the relative performance of two different service sectors in terms of performance in relation to the scale dimensions, as in two stores in a chain, or between two or more competitors;

  5. To track trends in service quality, by periodic application of the scale;

  6. To assess one organisation's service quality along each of the five service dimensions by averaging the difference score on items making up the dimensions;

  7. To determine the relative importance of the five dimensions in influencing customers' overall quality perceptions. Parasuraman et al. [2] in their original study performed this analysis and demonstrated that reliability was consistently the most critical dimension;

  8. To categorise a firm's customers into serveral perceived quality segments on the basis of their individual SERVQUAL scores. These segments can then be analysed on the basis of (a) demographic, psychographic and other profiles, (b) the relative importance of the five dimensions, (c) the reasons behind the perceptions reported;

  9. To identify the existence of gaps between clients and management perceptions and client expectation and perception of the service offered;

  10. To test the applicability of the SERVQUAL scale in a variety of different service sectors.

In other words, the scale can be used to yield a rating for the service experience and comparisons can be made when any of the following variables in the service experience are modifield:

  1. The industry context of the service experience;

  2. The profile of the customers undergoing the service experience;

  3. Specific features of the service experience, such as the physical environment, or customer care training programmes.


Service quality dimensions or attributes are those attributes which contribute to consumer expectations and perceptions of service quality. Knowledge of these dimensions, and possibly, the ability to measure them can help to yield an insight into more effective ways of improving service quality.

The work on SERVQUAL described earlier in this article identified five dimensions of service quality:

  1. Tangibles: physical facilities, equipment, appearance of personnel;

  2. Reliability: ability to perform the promised service, along with dependability and accuracy;

  3. Responsiveness: willingness to help customers, and to provide prompt service;

  4. Assurance: knowing customers wants, and being courteous and able to inspire confidence;

  5. Empathy: caring individual attention.

Dotchin and Oakland [5] observe, however, that the range of services used by Parasuraman et al. was rather narrow. They indicate that there is little representation of types of services which provide much opportunity for consumer contact, or intervention in the process. If other service categories had been included, particularly professional services which are high in terms of opportunities for consumer intervention and adaptation, it is possible that other factor grouping would have emerged associated with one or more of the incorporated dimensions: competence, credibility, security or knowledge. Accordingly it is possible that other dimensions might be important in the context of information services.

It is important not to lose sight of the other dimensions that were originally proposed by Parasuraman et al.: tangibles, reliability, responsiveness, communication, credibility, security, competence, courtesy, understanding, and access. Similarly, the earlier work by Sasser et al. [25] identified seven service attributes, which it may be useful to consider:

  1. Security: confidence as well as physical safety ;

  2. Consistency: receiving the same each time;

  3. Attitude: politeness and social manners;

  4. Completeness: ancillary services available;

  5. Conditions: of facilities (clean, comfortable);

  6. Availability: access, location, frequency;

  7. Training: propitious execution.

Lehtinen and Lehtinen [15] defined service quality as a three-dimensional construct consisting of `interactive', `physical' and corporate quality dimensions. Gronroos [8] conceptualised service quality with the two components; technical and functional quality. Hedyall and Paltschik [11] more recently identified two-dimensions, referred to a `willingness and ability to serve' and `physical and pyschological access'.

Babakus and Boller [29] report a study of a utility service which demonstrated a unidimensional scale in this instance. They hypothesise that consumers may form an overall unidimensional abstraction of quality for utility service, and suggest that this may be associated with the level of customer involvement in the service. All of these issues may have significance for different contexts in library and information services, where there may be customer involvement in the service, for example, or alternatively where it might be appropriate to consider the two components: technical and functional quality.

The diversity of opinion with regard to the dimensionality of a scale, suggests that it may be wise to continue to ask the question as to whether it is possible to design a standard measurement scale applicable to a wide variety of services. The domain of service quality may be factorially complex in some industries and very simply and unidimensional in others. Measures designed for specific service industries may be more appropriate.


Whilst the quality concepts embedded in SERVQUAL and the research that uses the scale itself has been very important in fuelling the debate around the nature of service quality, it is appropriate to acknowledge, that in the same way as there is no clear evidence to distinguish between the effectiveness of one approach to TQM compared to another, there is still debate concerning the underlying concept of service quality and the reliability and validity of SERVQUAL in measuring that quality. More specifically, in relation to the formulation of the SERVQUAL scale, questions have been asked about the Likert scale formulation and the way in which responses to the scale are collected, in particular that it is difficult to collect both expectations and perceptions data reliably. There is also a continuing debate about:


This article has drawn wodely on the literature of Total Quality Management and service quality, in order to explore the concepts associated with quality. It is evident that there remain a number of questions to be answered both in the realms of approaches to managing for quality and in the measurement of service quality. Further work in these areas in relation to different participants in the information industry will not only assist those participants to understand what quality means for them, and thereby to achieve the competitive advantage to be achieved through `quality', but will also contribute the understanding of service quality in a way that will be beneficial to all participants in service encounters, including organisations, managers, service employees and customers.


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* Reproduced from Information Services & Use Vol 16, No 1, 1996 with permission of the author.