Standards & Technology
Consumer worries about complexity and inconsistency in services are fueling
a new standards debate.
Standards for Services: The Coming Thing?
The continuing quest for standardization has spawned an entirely new arena
of activity. This arena has little to do with computers-and everything to
do with information technology. The topic is the standardization of services.
This sounds rather benign, doesn't it? The ISO Bulletin reported on it at
length in its September edition. While it makes fascinating reading, this
report comes from the same people who brought you the ISO 9000 quality management
standards and quality registration schemes, as well as the emerging ISO
14000 environmental management standards. Even ISO 14000 pales by comparison
to the potential for standards in the service arenas.
Why service standards? Essentially, international standards developers are
quick to spot an emerging market. Because the service sector of the economy
is expanding more rapidly than the manufacturing sector, and because the
hard goods arena in Europe has been largely standardized, the logical arena
for new involvement is in the expanding (hence lucrative) services market.
However, the question is, How does one justify involvement in the services
Fortunately, the ISO Council Committee on Consumer Policy (Copolco) came
up with a novel idea. It has proven that consumers are often afraid of the
complexities of services. Says the ISO Bulletin, "The relationship
[between provider and consumer] was complex: the latter was wary because
it was difficult to assess for quality and for performance prior to service,
and he or she was often not even sure what the service entailed or what
he or she would get." It turns out, according to Copolco, that consumers
wanted to know what it was they were buying, and they wanted to be sure
of the quality and reliability of the service.
Now service is an extremely broad term; it can mean your relationship with
your bank, your dentist, your psychologist, your travel agent, your advertising
agency, and your telephone company, as well as anyone in the retail or hospitality
business. And, we may casually mention, the software business.
Helping the Consumer
Also of interest was the statement that service standards are "needed
and could be developed before the technology actually even exists."
As an example, the Stiftung Warentest (Consumers Testing Organization) of
Germany tested mobile phones and found that the phones themselves were generally
acceptable but that their quality of service was radically different. Speech
quality needed to be improved: Some phones sounded muffled, and many weren't
loud enough for use in a car. Further, features such as dialing and using
memory could have been designed to be "far more practical." This
begs the question, Practical to whom?
The German labs also found that the different prices, the different features,
and the different conditions of the service made it difficult for the consumer
to know which one to choose. It was obvious to Copolco-and to the general
European readership of the bulletin-that service standards were the answer
to this confusing morass presented by either high technology or the need
to make trade-offs and decisions.
Imagine what this means to the typical software developer. Fundamentally,
the developer will have to design software that satisfies a specific need
of which users themselves are often unaware.
The requirements raised by such standards boggle the imagination. But this
was not what Copolco was considering. Its concern was to help the consumer
faced with inconsistency. To illustrate its point, Copolco cites a study
showing that French moving companies that became certified increased their
business. As part of the proof, the new service and the standard were shown
to work together. The companies had to describe the requested service; quote
a price that covered the service requested; answer the phone quickly and
smartly; meet and keep schedules; and observe safety precautions. One wonders
what the French did before this standard emerged. Did French businesspersons
randomly call someone with a truck to move something to a new office somewhere
sometime? Did they really not check on price, schedule, quality, and the
Copolco came up with the idea of horizontal standards; that is, standards
that cut across all service industries. As an example, it cited the need
for a common complaint resolution standard-a common method of guaranteeing
users the right to be heard and to have essential needs satisfied. (As everyone
knows, the complaints that one makes to a dentist or a bank and complaints
about software have a lot in common.) Copolco also identified the concept
of a family of standards; that is, banking satisfaction depends on telecommunications,
and telecommunications depends on software. Therefore, families of standards
with complex interconnections might be necessary.
They're Not Kidding
Before you dismiss the idea of standards for services as the pipe dream
of a standards weenie (a technical term), consider that U.S. industry considered
ISO 9000 to be a fantasy when it was first proposed by the British in the
early 1980s. Today, few major firms are unaware of it and are not registered
or considering being registered. Even Microsoft has ISO 9002-registered
locations. Massive implementation of an onerous 9000-based software quality
scheme was stopped at the last minute by the efforts of Hewlett-Packard
and other IT companies.
Today, the ISO 9000 series of standards is the largest-selling standard
in the history of ISO, and a billion dollar industry has grown up around
ISO 9000 registration and certification. (When the San Jose Mercury News
has advertisements for ISO 9000 courses in it, you know that the standard
ISO 14000-the environmental management specifications-was written in less
than two years. This is ISO 9000 with teeth; the likelihood is high that
European governments will make these specifications into law. They are due
out by the end of 1996 and will have an impact on the way that work is done
in Europe and probably in the United States as well (even if the U.S. does
not embrace them), because products that are exported to Europe will probably
have to comply with these standards.
I wish that there were a happy ending to this column. However, I am at a
loss to prescribe a course of action. I do not believe that service standards
can be stopped within the standardization arena; the proponents are well-versed
in the protocol and activities of ISO. To try to stop them outside the standardization
arena would require the activities of a Department of Commerce trade representative,
but the DOC is probably going away, which leaves precious few options.
I guess that the only advice I can offer is to hold on and watch out, because
if service standards are written, the standardization arena could really
Carl Cargill is standards strategist at SunSoft in Mountain View, CA. He
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.