WHEN the economy was strong, many firms had too many customers. Times were good. Revenues and profits were strong. Unlimited marketing money was available.

In the current downturn, companies must focus on keeping customers and providing great service. If you want to own the heart and mind of the customer, this is the time to focus on creating a customer experience your competition will never be able to copy.

Now is the time to aggressively train your entire staff on awesome customer service. This is important because employees' attitudes and behaviours significantly influence the quality of service. They present the "face and voice" of their organisations to customers. Good service creates loyal customers.

The 4Ps of marketing products

The 4Ps marketing mix - product, process, pricing and promotion - has been widely employed as a model for product marketing.

The company prepares an offer mix of the product and price, with an integrated promotion mix to reach the target consumers through the selected distribution channels.

The 4Ps of marketing have been the key areas where marketing managers allocate scarce corporate resources to achieve business objectives.

The 3Ps of marketing services

To distinguish between services and physical products, Booms and Bitner suggested the extension of the 4Ps framework to include three additional factors.

1. People

This includes everyone directly or indirectly involved in the consumption of a service, such as customers and employees.

For services which involve simultaneous production and consumption, service firms depend heavily on the ability of employees to deliver the service. Employees contribute to service quality by creating a favourable image for the firm, and by providing better service than its competitors.

Service providers such as nurses, counsellors and call centre personnel are involved in real-time production of the service. They are the "service". Much of what makes a service special is derived from the fact that it is a lived-through event.

Service firms must find ways to ensure that their employees' attitudes and behaviours are conducive to the delivery of service quality. This is especially important in service delivery because employees' performance tends to be variable, which can lead to variable quality or heterogeneity.

As the delivery of a service occurs during the interaction between employees and customers, attitudes and behaviours of the service providers can significantly affect customers' perceptions of the service.

This is important, because customers' perceptions of service quality and its value can influence customer satisfaction, and in turn, purchase intentions.

2. Physical evidence

The physical evidence of service includes all its tangible representations, such as brochures, letterheads, business cards, reports, signage, Internet presence and equipment.

For example, in the hotel industry, the design, furnishing, lighting, layout and decoration of the hotel as well as the appearance and attitudes of its employees will influence customer perceptions of the service quality and experiences.

Because of the simultaneous production and consumption of most services, the physical facility, that is, its servicescape can play an important role in the service experience.

For a theme park, restaurant, health club, hospital or school, its servicescape is critical in communicating impressions about its service and making the entire customer experience positive.

As services are intangible, customers are searching for any tangible cues to help them understand the nature of the service experience. Physical evidence serves as a visual metaphor of what the company stands for, and facilitates the activities of customers and employees.

3. Process

This involves the delivery and operating system of procedures, mechanisms and activities in which services are consumed.

Services are actions done for or with the customers and typically involve a sequence of steps and activities. The combination of these steps constitute a service process which is evaluated by the customers.

Managing the process factor is essential due to the perishability of services, meaning that services cannot be inventoried, stored for reuse or returned.

Hotel rooms not occupied and airline seats not purchased cannot be reclaimed. As services are actions that cannot be stored, it is a challenge for service providers to manage situations of high or low demand.

Since services are created as they are consumed, and because the customer is often involved in the process, there are more opportunities for customising the service to meet the needs of the customers.

There are two issues that service providers must address: first, the extent to which the characteristics of the service and its delivery system lend themselves to the scope of customisation; and, second, how much flexibility the contact employees are able to exercise in meeting the needs of the customers.

It all adds up

The 3Ps of service marketing are within the control of the firm and its employees. They influence the customer's initial decision to purchase a service, his satisfaction level and repurchase decisions.

Add the 4Ps, and companies are in a strong position to acquire and retain customers even in challenging selling environments.