Focus on excelling in e-commerce service quality

In the virtual world customer service is a key difference between brands. Jevons and Gabbot (2000) have stressed the importance of service quality in determining brand loyalty with ref­erence to e-commerce. They say: ‘ the first-hand experience of the brand is a more powerful token of trust than the perception of the brand’.

Research across industry sectors suggests that the quality of service is a key determinant of loyalty. Feinberg et al. (2000) report that if reasons why customers leave a company are considered, over 68 per cent leave because of‘poor service experience’, with other factors such as price (10 per cent) and product issues (17 per cent) less significant.

Improving online service quality

Delivering service quality in e-commerce can be assessed through reviewing existing frame­works for determining levels of service quality. Those most frequently used are based on the concept of a ‘service-quality gap’ that exists between the customers’ expected level of service (from previous experience and word-of-mouth communication) and their perception of the actual level of service delivery.

Parasuraman et al. (1985) suggested that these dimensions of service quality on which consumers judge expected and delivered service-quality levels are:

  • tangibles – the physical appearance and visual appeal of facilities;
  • reliability – the ability to perform the service consistently and accurately;
  • responsiveness – a willingness to help customers and provide prompt service;
  • assurance – the knowledge and courtesy of employees and their ability to convey trust and confidence;
  • empathy – providing caring, individualized attention.

Note that there has been heated dispute about the validity of this SERVQUAL instrument framework (Parasuraman et al., 1985) in determining service quality, see for example Cronin and Taylor (1992). Despite this it is still instructive to apply these dimensions of service qual­ity to customer service on the web. We will now review each dimension of SERVQUAL.


It can be suggested that the tangibles dimension is influenced by ease of use and visual appeal based on the structural and graphic design of the site. The importance of these fac­tors to consumers is indicated by a 1999 study by Forrester Research of 8,600 US consumers that found that the main reason for returning to a site were high-quality content (75 per cent), ease of use (66 per cent), speed to download (58 per cent) and frequency of update (54 per cent); these were the most important aspects of web site quality mentioned.


The reliability dimension is dependent on the availability of the web site, or in other words, how easy it is to connect to the web site as a user.

Reliability of e-mail response is also a key issue; Chaffey and Edgar (2000) report on a survey of 361 UK web sites across different sectors. Of those in the sample, 331 (or 92 per cent) were accessible at the time of the survey and, of these, 299 provided an e-mail contact point. E-mail enquiries were sent to all of these 299 web sites; of these, 9 undeliverable mail messages were received. It can be seen that at the time of the survey, service availability is certainly not universal.


The same survey showed that responsiveness was poor overall: of the 290 successfully deliv­ered e-mails, a 62 per cent response rate occurred within a 28-day period. For over a third of companies there was zero response!

Of the companies that did respond, there was a difference in responsiveness (excluding immediately delivered automated responses) from 8 minutes to over 19 working days! While the mean overall was 2 working days, 5 hours and 11 minutes, the median across all sectors (on the basis of the fastest 50 per cent of responses received) was 1 working day and 34 min­utes. The median result suggests that response within one working day represents best practice and could form the basis for consumer expectations.

Responsiveness is also indicated by the performance of the web site – the time it takes for a page request to be delivered to the user’s browser as a page impression. Since there is a wide variability in the delivery of information and hence service quality from web servers hosted at ISPs, companies should be careful to monitor this and specify levels of quality with suppliers in service-level agreements (SLAs). Zona Research (1999) conducted an analysis that suggests that $4.35 billion may be lost in e-commerce revenues due to customer ‘bailout’ when customers are unwilling to wait for information to download. The report notes that many customers may not be prepared to wait longer than eight seconds!

As explained in Chapter 7, effective fulfilment is also an essential part of responsiveness.


In an e-mail context, assurance can best be considered as the quality of response. In the survey reported by Chaffey and Edgar (2000), of 180 responses received, 91 per cent deliv­ered a personalized human response with 9 per cent delivering an automated response which did not address the individual enquiry; 40 per cent of responses answered or referred to all three questions with 10 per cent answering two questions, and 22 per cent one. Over­all, 38 per cent did not answer any of the specific questions posed!

A further assurance concern of e-commerce web sites is the privacy and security of cus­tomer information. A company that subscribes to the Internet Shopping is Safe – ISIS ( merchant accreditation or TRUSTe principles ( will pro­vide better assurance than one that does not. The following actions can be suggested to achieve assurance in an e-commerce site:

  1. Provide clear and effective privacy statements
  2. Follow privacy and consumer protection guidelines in all local markets
  3. Make security of customer data a priority
  4. Use independent certification bodies
  5. Emphasize the excellence of service quality in all communications.


Although it might be considered that empathy requires personal human contact, it can still be achieved, to an extent, through e-mail. Chaffey and Edgar (2000) report that of the responses received, 91 per cent delivered a personalized human response, with 29 per cent passing on the enquiry within their organization. Of these 53, 23 further responses were received within the 28-day period and 30 (or 57 per cent) of passed-on queries were not responded to further.

Provision of personalization facilities is also an indication of the empathy provided by the web site, but more research is needed as to customers’ perception of the value of web pages that are dynamically created to meet a customer’s information needs.

An alternative approach for considering how service quality can be delivered through e-commerce is to consider how the site provides customer service at the different stages of the buying decision shown in Figure 9.3. Thus quality service is not only dependent on how well the purchase itself is facilitated, but also on how easy it is for customers to select products and on after-sales service, including fulfilment quality. The Epson UK site ( illustrates how the site can be used to help in all stages of the buying process. Interactive tools are available to help users select a particular printer, diagnose and solve faults, and technical brochures can be downloaded. Feedback is solicited on how well these services meet cus­tomers’ needs.

These SERVQUAL elements have been applied to online banking by Jun and Cai (2001) in a detailed study. This supports the importance of the original SERVQUAL elements in an online setting. For example, it highlights the importance of a timely, accurate response to customer queries. It also uncovers a particular feature of online service – that customers expect to see a continuous improvement to site services, and suggests their satisfaction will be reduced if positive changes are not made.

In summary, it can be suggested that for managers wishing to apply a framework such as SERVQUAL in an e-commerce context there are three stages appropriate to managing the process.

  1. Understanding expectations. Customer expectations for the e-commerce environment in a particular market sector must be understood. The SERVQUAL framework can be used with market research and benchmarking of other sites, as described in Chapter 12, to understand requirements such as responsiveness and empathy. Scenarios can also be used to identify the customer expectations of using services on a site.
  2. Setting and communicating the service promise. Once expectations are understood, marketing communications can be used to inform the customers of the level of service. This can be achieved through customer service guarantees or promises. It is better to under-promise than over-promise. A book retailer that delivers the book in two days when three days were promised will earn the customer’s loyalty better than the retailer that promises one day, but delivers in two! The enlightened company may also explain what it will do if it does not meet its promises – will the customer be recompensed? The service promise must also be communicated internally and combined with training to ensure that the service is delivered.
  3. Delivering the service promise. Finally, commitments must be delivered through on-site service, support from employees and physical fulfilment. If not, online credibility is destroyed and a customer may never return.

As a conclusion to this section review Mini Case Study 9.8 which shows how one company delivers service quality on line.

Source: Dave Chaffey (2010), E-Business and E-Commerce Management: Strategy, Implementation and Practice, Prentice Hall (4th Edition).

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