Executives typically think about productivity as something to be maximized. In service businesses, that means that companies often devote a lot of attention to designing automated processes that reduce their need for people — typically their most expensive resource. But in service businesses, increased productivity does not always lead to increased profitability.
The authors analyzed data from more than 700 U.S. companies in service industries in 2002 and 2007. Their analysis suggested that, for a given level of technology, there is an inverted U relationship between productivity and profitability in service companies. In other words, service companies become less profitable if they are either too productive or not productive enough. However, because technology advances over time, the optimal productivity level increases over time.
The authors found that several factors cause the optimal productivity level to be higher or lower. The optimal productivity level is not set in stone. As technology advances, the optimal productivity level increases. Online travel reservation systems offer an example. Advances in online technology enabled online travel service Expedia Inc. to increase its productivity by 15% from 2005 to 2010, with no damage to customer satisfaction.
The authors argue that productivity in a service business should be treated as a strategic decision variable that depends on the business and the technology in question. One key question is the relative importance of customer satisfaction to the business model. When circumstances encourage the provision of better service quality (comparatively high profit margin, high price, low market concentration and low wages), companies should emphasize customer satisfaction more; when the opposite factors are present (high market concentration, high wages, low margin and low price), they can stress service productivity.