2020 Volume 23 Issue 2

Exemplary Customer Service

Exemplary Customer Service

Strategies for Establishing a Competitive Advantage and Improved Financial Outcomes

Increasing competition has challenged many service organizations to consider cost-effective ways to distinguish themselves from their competition. Research and empirical evidence have suggested that delivering outstanding, client-focused service is a successful differentiating strategy. Research on measuring service quality outlines that companies should seek to understand their customers/clients’ expectations and then work to meet or exceed them. This analysis reviews the service quality of a consulting firm who provides financial, accounting, and systems consulting services. This analysis can be used as a guide for other service organizations seeking to assess and improve their level of client or customer service.

This report outlines the findings of TCG’s audit of the customer service of Advaco Consulting. The assessment included an in-depth analysis of the service of the company and utilized the SERVQUAL[1] measurement tool for the evaluation. 

Introduction

Digital transformation, global expansion and intensified competition has challenged many service organizations to consider cost-effective ways to distinguish themselves from their competition. Research and empirical evidence have suggested that delivering outstanding, client-focused service is a successful differentiating strategy that improves the company’s bottom line.[2] Measuring and improving service quality is a challenge for most organizations. Research on assessing service quality outlines that companies should seek to understand their customers/clients’ expectations for service and then work to meet or exceed them.

This analysis reviews the service quality of Advaco Consulting, a firm providing financial, accounting and ERP implementation consulting services. The goal is to identify the areas where there is a gap between their customer’s expectations for service quality and the perceived level of service that is being provided. The review includes an audit of the company using the SERVQUAL[3] measurement for evaluating customers/clients’ service expectations and the client’s perceptions of service quality received and the discrepancies between the two. The purpose of the audit is to identify the problematic service delivery areas and provide recommendations on how Advaco may improve their service quality and overall level of customer satisfaction and ultimately their competitive advantage.

Advaco Consulting is a professional services firm that provides financial and accounting consulting and ERP implementation services to both mid-market and enterprise clients. With increasing competition in the 21st century, the company has identified that a high level of customer service is imperative, if they are to maintain a competitive advantage. Advaco asked TCG to review and assess their ability to deliver outstanding customer service to its clients. This report is the outcome of that effort. The assessment focused on the customer service provided by the mid-market consulting team in a midsized city in the Northeast, where the company is headquartered.

Advaco Consulting has grown its mid-market consulting practice by acquiring smaller companies in different geographical regions that were already providing financial, accounting, and ERP implementation services. Apart from the initial purchase of a mid-market practice in their headquarter location, the subsequent purchases were of companies that were under-performing and necessitated assistance in optimizing and improving the services provided to their clients. These acquisitions required the headquarters assist the acquired offices initially to ensure that improvements were made, and that revenue and profitability were improved.

Attracting, developing and maintaining quality consultants has always been the greatest challenge of the organization. The company believes that strong customer service is a direct result of superior and experienced consultants. Advaco outlines standards for customer service to include (a) on time and on budget project completion, (b) strong project management, change management and interpersonal skills and (c) professional dress and presence. Advaco believes that adhering to these standards for customer service contributes to continued and repeat customer engagement and higher financial outcomes.

The purpose of the analysis is to (a) complete an audit of Advaco Consulting to assess the level of customer/client service quality that was occurring and provide recommendations that could assist the company in achieving the highest level of client service, (b) provide a tool for assessing service quality for other similar consulting firms and (c) to suggest possible improvements that a company can make to minimize the gap between the service clients seek and what is being provided by an organization. The study outlines that the SERVQUAL tool and methodology may be beneficial for other public accounting and/or consulting service firms in assessing and improving their service quality.[4] Improved service quality can contribute to higher profitability and positive long-term outcomes.[5]

Method

Accurately assessing the level of service quality is a difficult task, as the factors for superior service are subjective and can vary amongst different industries, companies, and individual customers. It is important that the instrument and methodology used to evaluate quality of service are valid and reliable and provide an accurate rating of the quality of performance. The specific area addressed in this assessment was Advaco’s service delivery process.

Service Measurement Instrument

Parasuraman, Zeithaml and Berry developed a survey instrument, called SERVQUAL that has been evaluated as valid and reliable in measuring service quality.[6] [7] The instrument is a 22-item scale that assesses different dimensions of service quality.[8] The tool outlines; tangibles, reliability, responsiveness, assurance, and empathy as the five dimensions or categories for service to be assessed. While the tool was initially developed in 1995, it has been updated numerous times and continues to be used by researchers and organizations as a tool to assess service quality.[9] [10] The SERVQUAL instrument has been extensively used by both academic researchers and practitioners, as strong assessment for measuring service quality. [11] [12]

The premise of the evaluation tool is that customers/clients have; (1) perceptions of the level of service that they would like to receive (expectations of performance), (2) opinions on the level of service that they experience, and (3) develop performance perceptions based on the degree to which their initial expectations and their actual experiences do or do not align. Through this comparison between a client’s service expectations and their opinion of the service quality they receive, the client develops a conclusion as to the level of customer service they perceive to have experienced. The measure of discrepancy between expectations and perceptions is presented as a gap analysis. Service ratings were evaluated using a Likert scale from 1 to 7 with values as follows:

Table 1: Service Ratings

All dimensions resulting in differential of 15 percent points or higher were investigated in greater detail, using qualitative interviews to develop a more in-depth understanding of the reason for the discrepancy.

Procedures

The assessment performed an audit of Advaco Consulting to assess the quality of service provided by the consulting firm to its clients.

The following procedures were followed.

  1. An auditor was selected that had familiarity with the company and the auditor performed an in-depth analysis of Advaco’s service based on direct customer comments.
  2. A service measurement instrument SERVQUAL was selected.
  3. Customers’ expectations for service were compared to customers’ perceptions of service received and the discrepancies between the two measures were calculated.
  4. Service dimensions that had significant differences between what the customers expected from a consulting firm as compared to what they experienced from Advaco were examined in greater detail.
  5. Advaco’s strengths and weaknesses were assessed and recommendations for improved service were outlined for dimensions where scores suggested improvement was warranted.

Dimensions

The service dimensions evaluated in the analysis included the following categories:

Tangibles: Describes the company’s physical facilities and equipment, such as office space, computers, etc. It also includes the appearance of employees and considers if their dress and presentation is consistent with what the clients would expect from professionals in this type of business.

Reliability: Assesses the company’s ability to perform the promised service reliably and accurately.

Responsiveness: Evaluates the willingness of the organization or its employees to help customers and to provide prompt service.

Assurance: Outlines how knowledgeable and courteous employees are and the degree to which they can inspire trust and confidence from their clients.

Empathy: Measures the level of caring and individualized attention the firm and their employees provide to clients.

For each of the service dimensions above, the SERVQUAL questionnaire provided questions that assess different aspects of service delivery that clients seem to focus on the most when categorizing a company as having strong or weak customer service. This assessment attempted to uncover potential problem areas in the Advaco’s ability to meet its clients’ service needs.

The auditor completing the analysis was: (1) familiar with the company, (2) interviewed eighty percent of clients regarding the company’s strengths and weaknesses and (3) completed more in-depth analysis of areas where expectations and perceptions did not align so that the findings could be translated into applicable and helpful recommendations.

Analysis and Findings

The SERVQUAL questionnaire was completed and the results are presented in Table 1 in summary and Table 2 in detail. The summaries outline the client’s expected levels of customer service compared to perceived levels of customer service and the GAPS between the two. Table 1 provides a summary by each dimension of customer/client service.

Table 2: Expectations Compared to Perceived Levels of Customer Service – In Summary

The detailed survey results of the analysis are provided in Table 2. The analysis outlines each question and the client’s expected level of customer service compared to perceived level of customer service and the GAPS between the two.

Table 3: Expectations Compared to Perceived Levels of Customer Service – 5 Dimensions In Detail

Table 3 outlines the questions that convey a client’s expectation for service and the corresponding question that outlines the perception the client has regarding the quality of service experienced.

Statistical Evaluation: The following tests were completed to ensure the usability of the data for analyzing the customer service measures that compared expectations to perceptions. The means of each dimension and the difference between the means of each dimension were calculated. Results are shown in Table 3.

Table 4: Means of Each Dimension the Difference Between the Means

Due to the nature of the data, it was determined that non-parametric procedures would be used to determine if there was a correlation between the expectations and perceptions. The Spearman’s Rho was computed which measures the linear relationship between the two variables. The calculation found that the correlation between the two variables was acceptable (less than .7, correlations were .079). In addition, it was determined that there was not a significant correlation between the two variables. For the data to be useable and meaningful, there must be a non-linear relationship between the two variables and not excessive correlation. The analysis supports that the data and results can be utilized to consider relevant implications and to suggest needed improvements by the firm to improve service quality.

Analysis

The following provides an in-depth analysis of both the company’s customer service strengths as well as the problematic areas identified from the completion of the SERVQUAL survey.

Tangibles

Overall the clients’ expectations compared to perceptions on the customer service dimension of tangibles were problematic for Advaco. The gap between the two was 29 percent, suggesting that Advaco’s equipment and physical facilities are not what clients expected or require. Specific problematic areas noted were as follows. 

Statement: Up to Date Facilities and Equipment. Advaco’s physical facilities were not as appealing as clients expected. Clients reported that furniture and fixtures were not on par with what they would expect from a professional services firm. Office furniture appeared cheap and inexpensive and director and senior manager’s offices had out of date metal credenzas, as opposed to wooden furniture that matched their desks. The office appeared congested, as the interior walls were lined with small cubicles. Senior consultants and their subordinates were housed in these small cubicles, suggesting that they had limited status within the organization. Décor was not integrated and lacked a professional image. Office space appeared small for the location of the national office headquarters and made the company appear less legitimate as a participator in the mid-market consulting space.

Statement: Employees are well dressed and neat. Consultants did not seem to dress on par with other individuals in sales and professional services roles from similar organizations in the industry. This created an image of less capable or less tenured professionals. Women in the office were sometimes not modestly dressed wearing low cut shirts, miniskirts, etc. Some clients thought this dress degraded the corporate image and these individuals were perceived as less mature and less educated professionals.

Statement: Facilities were consistent with the type of services provided. Clients commented that the training facility was small and crowded and included computer laptops that were quite old and obsolete. The training room was not neat and orderly, as there were many computer boxes and other items cluttering the space. The company conference room was small and not consistent with the expectations of a professional services firm.

Reliability     

Reliability addresses the company’s ability to perform the promised service reliably and accurately. This dimension was the most challenging area for Advaco with the deviation between expectation and perceptions at 31 percent. The audit outlined that the Company did not always perform the promised services on-time and on-budget and billing errors for services (especially service calls) were prevalent. Specific issues were as follows.

Statement: On-time delivery of services and timeline adhered to. Clients noted that sometimes when contracts went over budget, clients were required to pay higher amounts for services than originally contracted for. Advaco promised an on time, on budget project delivery, so when faced with project overruns, clients sometimes became dissatisfied. Advaco project managers focused on client deficiencies when assessing the reasons for overages and did not honestly take into consideration consultant inadequacies or lack of expertise. Project managers were sometimes weak in managing client expectations, client progress and their own team’s progress to ensure an on-time go-live delivery.

Statement: Sympathetic toward client problems and issues. The company did not implement a project evaluation where clients could provide feedback that would enable the company to respond to weaknesses on future projects. The overemphasis on utilization resulted in a greater focus on charging for time, as compared to serving clients. While many competitors in the industry share similar dispositions toward billable time, Advaco positions themselves as a provider uniquely focused on customer service with a client first perspective. In reality, Advaco consultants were often not sympathetic to the client’s perspective, but instead were defensive and abrasive. This was attributed by clients as a result of excessive company demands on consultants providing services. Some of the excessive demands included, minimum billable time targets, expectations of continual chargeability in excess of 100 percent, aggressive and uncompensated business development goals that had to be completed in addition to billable work, and project work well in excess of a standard work week.

Statement: Advaco is Dependable. Consultants and project managers appeared to be stretched too thin which impaired their ability to provide the level of service needed to clients. Appointments were sometimes rescheduled and not completed when initially scheduled.

Statement: Advaco keeps their records accurately. Numerous billing errors occurred on billings. Billing for help desk services were the most problematic. Advaco had difficulty providing the necessary invoice detail in a timely manner. The Company changed their billing system three times in an 18-month period, which seemed to contribute to their difficulties.

Responsiveness

Responsiveness addresses the willingness of the organization or its employees to help clients and to provide prompt service. Advaco’s rating on responsiveness showed a gap of 18 percent between what clients expected and what they perceived as the actual customer service. Advaco was mediocre at performing services when outlined, being willing to help clients and not appearing too busy to assist. Prompt response was the most problematic with a deviation of 29 percent between the expectations and perceptions.

Statement: Service is prompt and employees are willing and able to respond promptly to client requests. Sometimes appointments are not scheduled on a timely basis. Once the initial project is over and consultants had moved onto other projects, follow up and ability to perform additional services was sometimes slow. This is largely a result of the consulting model that continually necessitates adding and starting new projects, without a sufficient number of customer service follow up consultants to address inevitable on-going support. Telephone support service, while followed up on promptly, did not always provide answers to questions or resolution of issues in a timely manner. While consultants are willing to help clients, it appears that they are spread so thin at times, that they could not provide the service needed.

Assurance

Assurance outlines how knowledgeable and courteous employees are and the degree to which they can inspire trust and confidence from their clients. Clients trusted Advaco employees, found them to be polite and felt safe having their transactions with the company. Deficiencies were noted in the area of support being received from Advaco for employees to accomplish their tasks.

Statement: Consultants receive adequate support from Advaco to get their jobs done well. There seem to be too few employees to complete the required workload. Advaco appeared unwilling to provide enough staffing and support to higher-level consultants to ensure that consultants were not burned out and did not have an unreasonable workload. This necessitated that the senior level consultants had to complete all tasks on projects and they often appeared overworked. Consultants being stretched thin and stressed, was apparent to clients and was a concern. Finally, projects were billed by billable hours, but often when the project went over in hours, consultants were encouraged to only bill through their 40 hours in a week, if the contract could not be billed for the overages. The lack of true hours worked on engagements further added to the tension, burnout and turnover of consultants.

Empathy

The Company and its employees scored very well overall, in the area of empathy, despite some consultants occasionally being abrasive. Advaco and its employees were characterized as being caring, providing individualized attention to its clients, understanding its client’s needs and being available for clients at the times the clients needed service. A minor weakness (gap of 14 percent) was noted for the company failing to provide individual attention to clients, but overall the company and its employees were rated highly in the area of empathy for clients.

Recommendations

Improving customer service is not a quick and easy endeavor by most companies, as often the symptoms or issues observed have deeper and more difficult root causes that take an investment of both time and effort to correct. TCG has included both strategic immediate and long-term approaches and recommendations.

TCG’s recommendations to improve customer service at Advaco Consulting are as follows.

Human Capital Transformative Programs and Messaging

Human Capital Transformative Programs and Messaging is considered an excellent strategy for companies seeking to improve their overall level of customer service.[13] Creating a company culture that fosters a focus on client service is essential for any entity seeking to make exemplary customer service an organizational imperative. The addition of transformative programs and messaging, led by a strategic human resources/human capital team can successfully: (1) promote the principles, goals and objectives of customer service that the company hopes to foster; (2) create and maintain a culture that cultivates a service and client first protocol; and (3) improve internal employee satisfaction, with the extended goal of improving both client satisfaction and the perception that clients have of the quality of service they receive. In this area, good intentions are not enough to address the company’s client service deficiencies. Internal and external surveys, comment follow up, and accountability mechanisms need to be added to ensure the issue is addressed and resolved favorably.

Transformative Human Capital Programs and Messaging are defined as a management approach that facilitates and motivates all level of employees to assess their own role in the organization and understand how they may better adopt a customer/client focused, service orientation to meet the needs of clients. The company’s objective is to both identify and satisfy the needs of employees as they seek to be providing service to clients.

Specific strategies for developing a client first/service-oriented culture include:

  1. Promote a management philosophy that endorses the whole company as a service organization, where employees are also treated as customers of the organization. Provide members of the organization with an understanding of the company’s focus and mission.
  2. Develop training, employee motivation programs, employee mentoring and evaluation of whether employees are meeting and achieving the desired outcomes.
  3. Use internal messaging and add programs that encourage employees, meet their needs for professional development, promote new ideas and strategies, and team development.
  4. Provide employees an opportunity to provide input and drive change regarding improvements needed to better serve clients.
  5. Utilize internal and external surveys and project evaluations to understand where improvements can be made and continually make revisions and changes, as needed.

Leveraging Human Capital to Enhance Efficiency and Innovative Adaptation

Of critical importance is to ensure that the company can see the forest through the trees and implements true change and not merely small incremental changes or checked off boxes. In any service organization, it is imperative that top executives find ways to leverage human capital to enhance efficiency and innovative adaptation.[14] An experienced and talented consultant (employee) can be just as valuable and hard to replace as a loyal customer.[15] Competent and talented employees emerge as a result of strategic leaders investing in their team; (a) getting to know them, (b) mentoring, guiding, and learning from them and (c) challenging, teaching and encouraging them.[16] Successful consulting teams emerge as senior leaders invest in building and retaining a talented and committed workforce.[17] Many of the deficiencies noted can be addressed if the tone from the top is an encouraging, mentoring, developing, and supportive culture. 

Improving Reliability and Responsiveness

Two important factors to improving how clients perceive service provided are the company’s reliability and responsiveness. Advaco was evaluated negatively in both areas. Specific suggestions for improvement include:

  1. Professional Development Program: There appears to be an insufficient number of senior level consultants, as compared to many consultants at lower levels. The less experienced consultants need to develop skills in the area of project management, customer relationship management, as well as functional consulting skills. The company needs a formal program for professional development, and little is being done, outside of personal investment outside of Advaco and some informal mentoring by the lead consultants. This provides a great burden for upper level employees and no professional development path or optimism for the less experienced team. Consider adopting and executing a formal professional development program to continually develop the skills of the consulting team.
  2. Client Relationship Manager Role: Traditionally the client relationship manager is also the project manager who has extensive responsibilities on the current engagement, as well as on future engagements which results in them being a strong relationship manager while the project is going on, but unable to adequately sustain this once they move onto the next engagement. In addition, if there are issues with the implementation, client management may feel less willing to present this timely if they feel it could impact the ability to get the job completed. Introduce a client relationship manager that oversees projects on a high level, checks in with the client on needs and requests, facilitates project evaluations, addresses new business and projects that exceed their scope, and addresses any deviations or gaps between customer/client needs and service levels performed.
  3. Record Keeping and Billing: The many disparate systems make billing and record keeping cumbersome and lead to inaccuracies. As a financial systems implementation firm, internal systems should be improved and replaced with one internal, fully integrated system that can provide client billing and invoice detail timely and accurately.
  4. Physical Facilities: Consider making investment in improved furniture and fixtures and office equipment so that client perceptions are not adversely impacted when they visit your location. Through mentoring, professional development seminars, and setting expectations, encourage employees to dress in a professional manner. Provide mentoring, coaching, and evaluation in this area to foster improvements.

Conclusion

The case study presented provides a tool and methodologies that can be used to assist public accounting firms and other financial and managerial consultants in assessing their strengths, weaknesses and GAPs regarding their ability to deliver the quality of consulting and client service that their clients seek. Recommendations are provided to improve Advaco’s overall customer service. This methodology recognizes and appreciates a company’s strong desire to better serve its clients and is confident that utilizing the methodology and subsequent recommendations will be helpful in assisting accounting and consulting firms to achieve their objectives and improve their profitability and outcomes. These recommendations made to Advaco are strategies that all professional services firms can consider when seeking to improve their level of client and customer service.

References

[1] Parasuraman, A., & Zeithaml, M. A. (2005). E-S-QUAL: A Multiple-Item Scale for Assessing Electronic Service Quality. Journal of Service Research, 7(3), 213-233.

[2] Ladhari, R. (2009). A review of twenty years of SERVQUAL research. International Journal of Quality and Service Sciences, 1(2), 172-198.

[3] Parasuraman & Zeithaml, 2005.

[4] Ladhari, 2009.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Hamzah, Z. L., Lee, S. P., & Moghavvemi, S. (2017). Elucidating perceived overall service quality in retail banking. The International Journal of Bank Marketing, 35(5), 781-804.

[8] Parasuraman & Zeithaml, 2005.

[9] Ladhari, 2009.

[10] Yoon, S., & Suh, H. (2004). Ensuring IT consulting SERVQUAL and user satisfaction: A modified measurement tool. Information Systems Frontiers, 6(4), 341-351.

[11] Buttle, F. (1996). SERVQUAL: review, critique, research agenda. European Journal of Marketing, 30 (1), 8-32.

[12] Ladhari, 2009.

[13] Kang, G., James, J., & Alexandris, K. (2002). Measurement of internal service quality: Application of the SERVQUAL battery to internal service quality. Managing Service Quality, 12 (5), 278 – 292.

[14] Yukl, G., & Mahsud, R. (2010). Why Flexible and Adaptive Leadership is Essential. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 62(2), 81–93.

[15] Mahsud, R., Yukl, G. & Prussia, G. (2011). Human Capital, Efficiency, and Innovative Adaptation as Strategic Determinants of Firm Performance. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 18 (2), 229-246.

[16] Drucker, F. P. (2002). They’re not employees they’re people. Harvard Business Review, 80(2), 70-77.

[17] Joyce, W., Nohria, N., & Roberson, B. (2003). What really works: The 4+2 formula for sustained business success. New York: Harper Collins.

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Authors of the article
Mary Kay Copeland, PhD, MBA, CPA
Mary Kay Copeland, PhD, MBA, CPA
Dr. Mary Kay Copeland is a CPA with a professional and academic background in Accounting, Finance, Leadership and Strategy. Author of numerous text and articles, she has published articles in Research on Professional Responsibility and Ethics in Accounting, Journal of Information Systems in the Service Sector, International Journal of Leadership Studies, Journal of Leadership, Accountability and Ethics, The CPA Journal, The MBA Review and The HR Review. Dr. Copeland serves as a Professor of Accounting and Information Systems and Chair of the Master in Accountancy Program at Palm Beach Atlantic University. She holds a PhD in Entrepreneurial Leadership from Regent University and a BS/MBA in Accounting from the University of Buffalo.
Rubina Mahsud, PhD
Rubina Mahsud, PhD
Dr. Rubina Mahsud, is a thought leader in business education, corporate strategy, and leadership. Her work spans from humanitarian aid to Return on Shareholder Equity. Her articles have appeared in the Journal of Managerial Psychology, Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies, Leadership and Organizational Development Journal, Personnel Review, Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal, and Business and Society Review. She currently serves as Associate Professor of Management at the Center for Leadership Formation, Albers School of Business and Economics at Seattle University. She holds her PhD in strategic management and master’s in public health from State University of New York at Albany. Dr. Mahsud prior degrees include Master in hospital administration from University of Birmingham (UK) and medical degree from Jinnah Medical College (Pak).
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