Service with empathy : an exercise in customer loyalty
This thesis examines the concept of empathy and whether an empathic approach to service provision can help in the building of relational strategies and improve customer loyalty. The health and fitness sector is selected as the setting for the investigation, not only because this is an industry where high customer attrition rates are experienced by the service providers, but also because within it many of the characteristics that make an industry suitable for the practive of relationship marketing exist. The sector sits squarely within the service sector with frequent interaction between the supplier and the customer. The sector is also characterised by intense rivalry and competition between firms, making customer retention an important issue. A multi-method approach was adopted for the primary research. A questionnaire was designed based on the four dimensions of empathy, cognitive, emotive moral and behavioural (Moores et al 1992). A fifth dimension was also added to measure the perception of empathy through the tangible facilities that the clubs. The results of quantitative analysis (factor analysis) show little support for the five-dimensional structure of behavioural, emotive, cognitive and moral empathy, and tangibles. Instead, users' perceptions of empathy are better structured around the process of joining and using the gym. Factor scores were calculated using the regression method, and correlation analysis was used to investigate the relationship between each dimension of empathy and overall impression of empathy. The approachability and competence of staff was the best predictor of overall impression of empathy, followed by: explanation and communication of the product, induction, and finally design and relevance of the product. Further analysis showed that the most important aspects of empathy were staff approachability, attempts to ensure understanding of exercise programme, design and maintenance of facilities. The least important aspects of empathy were staff relating to users' motives, goals and anxieties. Qualitative interviews were also carried out to shed further light on some of the quantitative research findings. The study has confirmed the emerging view within the services literature that there is spill over between dimensions of service quality by showing that empathy is not clearly distinguishable from assurance, responsiveness and reliability. Further more, the findings have helped to produce a new multi-dimensional model for examining and measuring service quality within the health and fitness sector with enmpathy as the overarching dimension, and ongoing approachability and competence of staff, induction, communication, design and customisation of the product, and maintenance of facilities as the component dimensions. The final conclusion is that while closeness to home and work maybe the most import reasons for choosing or exiting a health and fitness club, perceived service provider empathy has a positive impact in building long term relationships and customer loyalty with club members. The scale for measuring empathy which was developed for this reserarch can be modified for use in other types of sports and leisure facilities.