DESPITE national efforts to boost service levels here, surveys invariably point to gaps in customer satisfaction.

What is the missing link to delivering service excellence to raise customer satisfaction? What influences a service employee to turn around a challenging service situation and delight an unhappy customer?

Are the challenging situations just isolated examples that have no meaning beyond their unique circumstances, or are there some common elements, which, if identified, could provide important information to service employees?

Let’s examine the important concept of self-efficacy, which may offer some clues to the gaps.

Self-efficacy is defined as an employee’s belief in his ability to perform job-related tasks. It is this conviction that affects his decision to even try to cope with situations that would otherwise be intimidating.

The importance of self-efficacy lies in its ability to affect motivation and increase service employee performance. Self-efficacy has a strong and positive relationship with employee performance measures such as achievement, learning and adaptability.

As their self-efficacy increases, employees exert more effort, take the initiative, learn more about their job, the organisation, and themselves when faced with task-related obstacles.

Low self-efficacy leads to avoidance behaviour of all except routine and basic tasks, thus resulting in low levels of performance.

Self-efficacy in organisational terms is defined as the extent to which employees feel confident about their job skills and abilities to organise and execute courses of action within a given context to achieve a designated level of performance.

Before employees select their choices and put in the effort, they will evaluate and integrate information about their perceived capabilities.

In an organisation, situational factors such as information from other people, the availability of specific resources and constraints, distractions and the work environment contribute to the employees’ assessment of their capability.

Any managerial technique that strengthens service employees’ belief in their self-efficacy will make them feel in control. Conversely, any managerial strategy that weakens their self-efficacy will lead to a feeling of powerlessness.

Organisations that encourage a high level of social interaction between colleagues produce customer service employees with a strong sense of self-efficacy.

Bureaucratic service firms characterised by an authoritarian management style, a lack of administrative support and low levels of interaction between colleagues, enforce employee behaviour through established rules and a rigid working environment.

This leads to a diminished sense of self-efficacy in service employees.

In addition, some situational factors determine self-efficacy levels:

* Watching others (modelling), the amount of available resources, for example, staff, time, support, teamwork, supervision;

* Interdependence of the task with other functions in the organisation, sequential performance requirements, feedback information; and

* Task environment, physical distractions, for example, noise, the service-scape, physical settings, potential danger present in the environment.

Self-efficacy plays an important role in shaping customers’ perceptions of their encounter with service employees.

When customers are served by employees who believe strongly in their own abilities to deliver, they are likely to receive higher quality service.