Service quality has become a central driver of competitive advantage and value creation. However, due to information asymmetries, many clients find it difficult to assess the service providers’ quality ex ante. Nonetheless, this assessment is important to understand, as it affects service provider selection and, thereby, the service delivery. In this paper, we aim to reduce the opacity of service quality by interviewing 51 clients of professional services. Building on an in-depth analysis and a framework of signaling and screening theory, we develop a taxonomy of the dimensions on which professional service quality builds and of the signals clients use to assess quality in the ex ante phase. We also identify two types of signals, qualifying signals and signals of excellence, and develop a conceptual model of the screening process. We conclude the paper by discussing the theoretical and practical implications of our results.
Service quality has become a key driver of competitive advantage for a wide range of companies (Kant, Jaiswal, & Mishra, 2017; Ladhari, Souiden, & Ladhari, 2011). There are two main reasons for this phenomenon. First, GDP generated from service firms in modern economies often amounts to more than 70% (Gustafsson et al., 2016). Second, manufacturing firms increasingly engage in servitization, i.e., adding services to products, to expand their value proposition and potential revenue streams (Baines, Lightfoot, Benedettini, & Kay, 2009; Rabetino, Harmsen, Kohtamäki, & Sihvonen, 2018). In line with this development, service quality has become a central antecedent of value creation in many types of firms (Cronin Jr, Brady, & Hult, 2000; Iriarte, Hoveskog, Justel, Val, & Halila, 2018). A specific type of firm that has grown extensively in the last decades, both in terms of total turnover and the variety of service offered, is professional service firms (PSFs). The expansion of the professional service industry has led scholars to describe PSFs as important drivers of the growing knowledge economy (Brock, Powell, & Hinings, 2007; Gardner, Anand, & Morris, 2008). Professional services can be defined as relying “to a large extent on the interaction between knowledgeable clients and highly educated service providers who engage in some form of joint problem solving activity” (Løwendahl, 2005:18).