Intuitively, it is clear that changes in a service environment can reduce the quality of a service at least temporarily. But what is not clear is how deeply, and for how long, major changes affect operating performance – that is, until Texas A&M University business professors Gregory Heim and Michael Ketzenberg decided to answer those questions. They chose a dramatic example of redesign and decided to focus on experience-based service companies, in general, and an area that had not been previously studied in depth: golf courses.
“The argument for improving a course is to make it better, but we wanted to find out if people really thought that was true,” said Mays professor Gregory Heim. “Some people embrace change, while others don’t.”
Many service managers redesign their services periodically to keep their offerings fresh, competitive and desirable to customers. Prior research has shown that it could increase repeat business. What Heim and Ketzenberg wondered was how service firm managers and employees relearn to improve their performance after these major redesigns.
That was the extent of Heim’s golf knowledge at the start of this project. He sought out a colleague to fill the gaps. He did not have to search far to find someone to fit the bill. In fact, Ketzenberg was just down the hall. Ketzenberbg has two passions: research and golf, and he considers the opportunity to combine both a godsend. Heim says he focused on the data analysis, while Ketzenberg provided golfing expertise. “It was an ideal pairing for this project,” Heim says.
Heim says a major research challenge is obtaining real-world operating data from companies upon which to base the research. Most companies are reluctant to share their data. For this study, the authors were looking for data from multiple companies over multiple years. Golf courses posed less of a problem, since the data were publicly reported.
The data came in the form of “panel data” from The Dallas Morning News. The News tracks the top Texas golf courses annually through ratings and evaluations of top courses by golf professionals, as well as information on when the courses were designed and redesigned. Heim and Ketzenberg chose to study the data from 1989 to 2009. Their study provides managerial insight by demonstrating the extent of learning, illustrating how redesigns can negatively affect service outcomes, showing how relearning occurs and discussing tactics for success when redesigning services.
Major redesigns, intended to improve products and services, tend to throw the quality of service off track, the researchers found. The question was how long the service suffers, which they studied through learning effect patterns during routine operation periods as well as “window of opportunity” effects the local service crews felt after outside firms had completed the major redesigns.
“We wanted to see what we could learn about what happens when you destroy the course to redesign it; how age affects the long-term experience; and whether the quality of service gets better with time,” says Heim. “When you redesign it, there’s a period of time when the customers miss the familiar old course and they have to re-learn to navigate the course – the hazards, slope of the course, shape of the greens, and so forth. The argument for improving a course is to make it better, but we wanted to find out if people really thought that was true. Some people embrace change, while others don’t.”
The topic is a nontraditional one for the field of information and operations management, but both of them say it was fun to do. The lessons learned were to carefully consider changes, communicate about them with stakeholders and make the investment in training staff for the transition. “Discontinuous events that lead to dissatisfaction on the customer’s part are not going to pan out to be good investments,” Heim says.
Both Texas A&M researchers plan to continue golf-related research: Heim intends to update the golf data for new studies while Ketzenberg is working with Rogelio Oliva and a colleague from Europe, Mozart Menezes, on a paper titled “Optimal Scheduling of Golf Beverage Carts.” Ketzenberg explains, “We are trying to answer the often-heard golfer’s lament of why there is never a beverage cart around when you want one. Fun stuff.”
The paper “Learning and Relearning Effects with Innovative Service Designs: An Analysis of Top Golf Courses” by Heim and Ketzenberg was released in July 2011 in Journal of Operations Management.