There are always some expectations in the minds of customers when they buy a product or
service. However, when these expectations do not match with perceptions, service failure occurs
(Shapiro, Nieman and Gonder, 2006). Service failures can vary from industry to industry but
there are also some common failures identified in all the sectors of service industry
(Ishaque et al, 2016).The impact of service failure has far reaching negative consequences on a
service or product provider as customers amongst other costs become dissatisfied with the
service provider and shuns its services. Many researchers, academics and authors have written at
length pointing out the numerous causes of service failure. The reasons of the service failure
could be the unique characteristics of services and psychographic factors of individuals getting
involved in service delivery (Lewis and Spyrakopoulos 2001). Other researchers claimed that
service failures could also depend on customer behaviour in the delivery process of the services
(Armistead et al. 1995; Denham 1998; Johnston 1994)
A service failure can be defined as service performance or encounter that falls below a
customer’s expectations, thus, leading to dissatisfaction (Zeithaml et al., 2009). Hoffman and
Bateson (1997) defined service failures as service performances that fall below customer
expectations. According to (Krishna et al. 2011), service failure is unwanted, dissatisfying and an
unexpected situation for any customer in the service process. (Krishna et al. 2011) further assert
that there are two types of service failures: operational and behavioral. In case of operational
failure, customer may complain to the authority, switch to another organization, may go in for
negative publicity, may reduce the business or might not take any action altogether. These types
of customers’ behavior are affected by many factors like control of service providers on failure
situations, stability of service failure, magnitude of failure and past experiences of customers
(Krishna et al. 2011). Maxham (2001) postulates that service failures are any service related
mishaps (real or perceived) that transpire during a customer’s experience with a firm. All the
definitions given above revolve around the subject of unmet expectations in the process of
delivering a service. The key point in defining service failure is thus the existence of unmet
A service is defined as activities, benefits or satisfactions which are offered for sale or are
provided in connection with the sale of goods (American Marketers Association, 2014). A
service is any activity or benefit that one party can offer to another, which is essentially
intangible and does not result in the ownership of anything. Its production may or may not be
tied to a physical product (Kotler, Armstrong, Saunders and Wong, 2006)
There are a myriad of causes of service failure. There are two types of attributions that when it
comes to the subject of service failure. Weiner (1980) asserts that when the causes of service
failure have something to do with the customer, internal attribution is made. However, if the
service failure has been caused by a failure in the production of a service, this is termed as an
external attribution.
1. Bitner et al. grouped the service failures into four categories namely; service delivery
system failures, gap between needs and requests, unprompted/unsolicited employee
actions, and problematic customers.
a) Service delivery system failures
In the service industry, service failures generally encompass any problematic situation during
service while a service is delivered to a customer, causing significant damage to customer
satisfaction (Reichheld, 1996). Service failure is, typically, determined by elements such as the
nature of the service encounter, the cause of the problem, and the psychographics of the
individuals involved (Lewis and Spyrankopoulos 2001). What is at the core in terms of
discussing service failures is that the service failure is discussed from the customer’s perspective
because this is what a company needs to recover from, i.e. any dissatisfaction or problem that a
customer perceives in relation to a service or a service provider (Lewis and Spyrankopoulos
Service delivery system failure is caused by the error of service providers. This service delivery
emanates from the problems caused by the service provider thereby causing dissatisfaction as the
expectations of the customer will not be satisfied. It is the service provider that delivers or offers
a defective product. In some cases, for example, the service provision may be very slow or not
available at all. The table below illustrates the service delivery system failure using examples.
Table 1: Service provider Error
Service Delivery System
Service Provider Error
Product defects
Slow/ unavailable service
Facility problems
Unclear policy
Out of stock
Source: Hoffman K D; Kelley SW; Rotalsky H M (1995)Tracking service failures and employee
recovery efforts. J Serv Market pp. 60
b) Gap between needs and requests
This will be discussed under the Gap Model
c) Unprompted/Unsolicited employee actions
Wrong employee actions have a serious repucation in terms of service failure (Smith et al, 1982).
This is one major cause of poor service failure as the employees are the face of the organization,
if they interact wrongly, unprofessionally or dishonestly with clients, any interaction of this
nature with customers is bound to give birth to service failure. For example, if an employee is
rude or impolite to clients, this is clearly an indicator of service failure. Another example is when
an employee charges a customer wrongly or overcharges a client. This is another typical example
of service failure as overcharging amounts to an unprofessional conduct which falls under
service failure. Employees may at times not be properly trained or not trained at all to execute
their duties. This scenario makes employees to be incapacitated to adequately execute their
duties thereby resulting in poor service delivery or service failure (Shapiro, 1972). It will be the
absence of the relevant and necessary skills that would have given birth to such failure.
(Hoffman et al, 1995) presents this cause of failure in a tabular form given hereunder:
Table 2: Service Employee Error
Wrong employee actions
Service employee error
Unkind behavior
Wrong order
Lost order
Source: Hoffman K D; Kelley SW; Rotalsky H M (1995)Tracking service failures and employee
recovery efforts. J Serv Market pp. 60
d) Problematic Customers
There are 5 types of problematic customers (Aventis, 2020). These 5 types of groups are; the
demanding/bully/aggressive customer, the complainer, the confused indecisive customer, the
impatient customer and lastly, the know it all customer. The demanding/ bully/ aggressive
customer is quick to anger, overly aggressive, highly critical, rude, arrogant and often verbally
abusive. They think their needs and demands are superior to everybody else’s. They scream,
complain, abuse and may often get physical to get what they want (Aventis, 2020). All these
types of problematic customers create room for service failure in their own ways. Customers at
times may pose a threat to the good flow of service delivery (Smith et al, 1982). They may come
at times with unrealistic demands that a service provider may not be in a position to satisfy. The
fact that the demands, needs and or expectations of a customer have not been met means that
service failure has been created. However, under this scenario, it is the customer who will be at
fault as they would have brought unrealistic demands on the table. At times, there would be a
supervening impossibility that renders the service provider unable to deliver as promised but the
customer may insist that the service be delivered. These supervening impossibilities may come in
the form of floods, riots, war etc. The service may thus be unfeasible but the customer may
continue to be a thorn in the flesh as they will be demanding service delivery when
circumstances don’t permit. Hoffman et al (1995) illustrates this case in a tabular form as shown
Table 3: Customer Error
Wrong customer actions
Customer error
Mistake prior to use
Mistake in use
Source: Hoffman K D; Kelley SW; Rotalsky H M (1995)Tracking service failures and employee
recovery efforts. J Serv Market pp. 60
A customer may be careless in using a product or service and may damage the product (Smith et
al, 1982). Under this circumstance, the customer would thus want to shift the blame to the
service provider yet they are fully at fault due to their negligence or carelessness. The customer
may mistakenly use the product thus damaging its proper functioning and may again want to
shift the blame thus causing a breakdown in service delivery. These problematic customers
contribute in service failure as their expectations in using a product or service are short lived due
to some of the examples cited above.
2. Lewis and Spyrakopoulos (2001) classified service failures into five categories as:
organization procedures, mistakes, employee behavior, functional/technical failures, and
actions/omissions of the organization that are against the sense of fair trade.
a) Organisation procedures or process
According to (Sharma et al, 2016), employees know the service processes mechanism very well
which includes element of time and procedure and this creates a psychosis, however, the
customers become impatient because they feel that services are not being delivered on time or it
involves a good deal of technicalities and formalities. This creates a situation of communication
gap between employees and the customers which needs to be handled carefully. Employees
agree with the statement that weak service process leads to service failure on their part. It is
important to note that a weak service process impacts on employees efforts in customer service
(Hoffman et al, 1995; Sharma et al, 2016). Employees are facing this issue majorly in the form of
the following situations; complicated service delivery mechanism; time consuming service
delivery process; process insensitive towards actual needs of the customers ; lack of
empowerment of employee to take a decision in case of any critical situation. These issues lead
to service failure on employee’s part and overall impact customer service
b) Mistakes
Mistakes happen even when much attention to detail and work is being done. In other words,
mistakes are part of life, they happen even to the most cautious. Service failure may occur
because an employee did a mistake whilst serving a client. To err is human. For example, in the
hotel industry, a waiter may mistaken table 6 for table 9 and deliver the wrong dish to table 6
instead of table 9. In another case in point, the waiter may slip and fall whilst holding the dish
meant for a customer. This may cause a delay in serving the customer who ordered. Service
failure would indeed occur, but it would have been caused by a mistake. The mistakes that cause
service failure come in various forms or brackets. According to (Post, 2017), there are 3 mistake
areas that were identified that causes service failure. These areas are discussed underneath.
Over-automation: At times automation can cause costly mistakes that lead to service failure
(Post, 2017). Automated responses deviate from a personalized system where a human being
interacts with another. A wrong response that doesn’t understand human emotions may be given
by a machine thereby grossly disturbing a conversation that was flowing smoothly. For example,
some people use street language (slang, informal words) for communicating. A machine may not
decode the true meaning of the message, this leads to service failure as there is a communication
breakdown. Also, machines may be down , thereby creating service failure as customers may not
be getting responses or services when they want them.
Failing to listen: Assuming that a business knows what its customers wants instead of actively
listening to them is a big mistake (Post, 2017). A business should be in the business of doing
proper research, interacting and listening to its clients so as to know what exactly its clients want.
It is a costly mistake to be doing business basing on assumptions and not actual facts, needs and
Undervaluing customer service staff: (Post, 2017) opines that the employees that engage or
interact with customers should be rewarded highly so that all their interactions with customers
are done whilst they are motivated. An unmotivated employee is a recipe for service failure.
c) Functional/Technical failures
One of the most common forms of service failure emanates from technical failures (Sharma et al,
2016). A technical failure is an unwanted error of technology based systems. This technical
glitch in service delivery has the outcome of interrupting the normal function of a product or
service thus leading to service failure. For example, whilst DStv subscribers are watching their
favorite channel, due to a technical failure, signal can no longer be received by the viewers. This
is indeed a service failure as the viewers or subscribers would have paid to enjoy uninterrupted
Another facet of technical failures is the issue of slow system and network problems. When the
system is low and there are network problems, end users or consumers have a disruption in using
a service. Their expectations become unfulfilled as they are not able to easily use a service.
Econet data subscribers for example may experience service failure because the network is slow
or bad. Under such cases, service failure would have occurred and this all falls under the bracket
of technical failures.
Functional failure is when a component or system does not perform the
intended function expected of it by the designer (English Phrases Dictionary). According to
(Stapelberg, 2009), functional failure is the inability of an item to carry out the work that it is
designed to perform within specified limits of performance. There are many reasons behind
functional failure and these all have an impact on service failure. One reason is that a gadget may
completely fail to perform a function simply because it wasn’t made or designed up to standard.
It may be a reject or substandard product that found its way to the market. This means to say
that substandard products may cause service failure as they do not perform up to the required
standards of performance.
d) Actions/omissions of the organization that are against the sense of fair trade.
In some instances, organisations go against the usual trade practices or norms. These practices
amount to gross violations of fair trade and ultimately lead to service failure (Lewis and
Spyrakopoulos, 2001). A good example of such cases is when a grocery store sells subsidized
mealie meal at a price that is ridiculously above the gazzetted price simply because there is a
shortage. Customers flock to the store with the expectation of getting the mealie meal at the
gazzetted price but they are greeted with disappointments and dissatisfaction as the price will be
beyond their reach.
3. Lack of Infrastructure support
Infrastructure support is one of the key components in establishing a quality service delivery.
The absence of this key component results in poor service delivery (Sharma et al, 2016). In a
research that was conducted by (Hoffman et al, 1995; Sharma et al, 2016), the majority of
employees that were interviewed in the banking sector agreed with the statement that lack in
infrastructure support leads to service failure on their part. The lack of infrastructure support
impacts on employees’ efforts in customer service (Reichheld, 1996). Generally they become
helpless in the absence of infrastructure support to serve customers better and try to divert
customers to their seniors or in other bank branch (Sharma et al, 2016). A list of the examples of
how the lack of infrastructure support leads to service failure in the banking sector was complied.
Employees in the banking sector were facing this issue majorly in the following situations:
ATMs not working: The bank employees would not be able to serve the clients when these
machines are down. Service failure would have been caused by the machine down time.
Poor network infrastructure: The bank employees need the best network infrastructure in order to
execute their tasks efficiently. Clients that walk into a bank expect to be served expeditiously,
but if the network infrastructure does not warrant the possibility of a fast service, service failure
is created. Poor network infrastructure leads to a slow pace of doing tasks and this will make the
bank employees to take time to serve clients and this may lead to long queues in the bank.
Outdated Machines: technology is moving at a fast pace and the invention of sophisticated
machines has made other machines to be obsolete or outdated or not to be compatible with other
systems or applications. This makes it difficult for bank employees to execute their duties in the
most relevant fashion as they will be hindered by their outdated machines. Service failure would
thus be manifested as a result of outdated machines.
Insufficient sitting/ service providing arrangement: This led to service failure as the customers
expected to have proper sitting infrastructure where they would sit whilst waiting to be served.
Their expectations were not fulfilled.
Lack of water and facility arrangement: During the summer when it’s hot, it is rational to give
water to clients and clients expected to get water in the banking facilities but this was not the
case. They had an unmet expectation.
Parking problems: clients would expect to be given parking space but the banks have not offered
this facility to its clientele. This has contributed to service failure as the space reserved for clients
is never awarded to them.
These issues lead to service failure on employee’s part and overall impact customer service
(Sharma et al, 2016)
4. Preferential Treatment
Neira, Casielles and Iglesias (2010) introduced the concept of preferential treatment as a service
failure and examine its effect on dissatisfaction. They gathered data with the help of interviews
and used structural equation modeling to analyze the relationship between preferential treatment
and dissatisfaction. Customers sometimes may think that a service provider is giving priority to
other customers but not to them. Customers come with the expectation of being equally treated,
but when they see other customers being given priority, service failure is bound to occur. Their
expectations would have been violated as they think that they are not of real value to the
5. Poor Management Support
According to (Sharma et al, 2016) the majority of employees agreed with the statement that
management non-supportive measures lead to service failure on their part. Further, (Sharma et al,
2016) state that to analyse this, a Pearson correlation test was applied. Its result says that
management non- supportive actions impacts on employees’ efforts in customer service. When
employees don’t get the support they want from management, this creates service failure.
Employees are facing many issues like:
Handling multiple task and responsibility: When employees are given multiple tasks by the
management, they become non-specialists at work. This makes them not to be experts at specific
tasks thereby affecting their work standards and creating service failure. If employees also have a
lot of tasks and responsibilities, it is fatigue that will make them not to be effective and efficient
thus creating service failure (Reichheld, 1996). Management should thus ensure that employees
are given specific and manageable tasks as bombarding employees with too much work leads to
service failure.
Lack of empowerment: if employees are not empowered by the management, they face the
challenge of not making critical decisions to satisfy the customer. According to (Reichheld,
1996), customer feels satisfied when an employee is empowered and goes out of his way to
satisfy the needs and expectations of a customer.
Lack of training of new products and services: Information is power when it comes to the issue
of handling customers and providing them with the most relevant and up to date information. If
employees have not been given proper training by the management pertaining to the new product
and services, they will misinform clients or give them the wrong product or service (Sharma et
al, 2016). This scenario leads to service failure as a client would be given a wrong product or
service and their expectations left unsatisfied.
Lack of manpower: According to (Sharma et al, 2016), if management does not avail the
required manpower in order to satisfactorily offer a service or product, service failure is bound to
occur as there will be inadequate people to serve clients. This can create delays in service
offering and long queues become the order of the delay. These all sum up that a service has
6. Knowledge Gap
The knowledge gap is the difference between the customer’s expectations of the service and the
company’s provision of that service (Parasuraman, Zeithaml, and Berry, 1985). According to the
(Expert Program Management, 2018), essentially, this gap arises because management doesn’t
know exactly what customers expect. There are a number of reasons this could happen, including
lack of management and customer interaction and insufficient market research. Also, (Expert
Program Management, 2018) further postulate that the knowledge gap is further enhanced by the
failure to listen to customer complaints thus service failure is created.
7. The Delivery Gap
The delivery gap is the difference between service delivery policies and standards and the actual
delivery of the service (Expert Program Management, 2018). A lot of reasons can be attributed to
this cause of service failure in the form of a delivery gap. It could be because a service company
is failing to match the current demand to supply. In the world of finance, this is called
overtrading and overtrading by its very nature is a cause of service failure.
8. The Communication Gap
The communication gap is the gap between what gets promised to customers through advertising
and what gets delivered (Expert Program Management, 2018). A communication gap does cause
service failure in many cases. One of the most popular examples is when an organization
overpromises is clients. This will make customers to flock into a service provider with high
expectations yet what was advertised or promised is not the actual service clients are going to
get. Service failure would have been caused by overpromising and under-delivering.
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