Products v Services

In quality circles we often talk of products and services, sometimes putting them in the same breath, as in “products/services” as though they are synonyms for the objective of a supply.  There’s a lot of overlap between the terms when it comes to delivering quality but there are also significant differences.

For services, quality is usually (though not always) realised almost immediately – one way of defining a service (to differentiate it from a product) is “consumption at the point of production and/or supply.”  That doesn’t mean there’s no opportunity for subsequent disappointment (e.g. food poisoning after a restaurant meal or a car breaking down the day after maintenance) but those cases should be exceptions.

There can be a lot of overlap.  Some arguments suggest that a product is tangible (a “thing” you can touch) whereas a service intangible.  OK – so where does that put our restaurant meal – are we buying food (tangible) or the satisfaction of hunger (intangible)?

Consider hiring a rental car – is that a provision of a product (use of a car for a period) or a service?  What about buying a new car?  When you go to a main dealer, which is more important:  the product or service?  The dealer will have had no control over the car’s build quality – the best he can do is a thorough pre-delivery check.  To me, it’s the service I receive from the sales team because I’ve usually decided what car I want to buy.  To some, it’s not so much a car they want as a personal transport service: yes, that means driving a car away from the showroom but the dealer will have recommended it based on their needs, and it will be coming back for servicing, maintenance and repairs.
There’s a case for saying that a product is something where its quality can reasonably be verified before delivery to the customer; if you can’t do that, it’s a service.  I think that’s the best definition I’ve found – but, of course, it doesn’t guarantee customer satisfaction because few verification processes will be perfect, nor can a supplier know 100% what the customer expects.
In the end, though, does it matter whether it’s a product or a service – we could use the combined term “deliverable” but, somehow, that doesn’t turn me on.

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