THREE years ago USAA, an insurance company based in San Antonio, Texas, began using statistical measures to guage performance in its new-member service department.
That year, according to quality manager Jerry Gass, that department had its highest sales level and highest customer satisfaction ever, despite having fewer sales representatives.
Like USAA, other companies in the service sector are learning that quality and quantity go hand-in-hand.
Banks, hotels, and other companies are developing quantitative measures of how well employees are serving customers, and then trying to push the performance level to new highs - much as manufacturers work to track defects and then modify the production process to make errors less likely.
"You can't improve something unless you measure it first," says S. G. Johnson, chairman of the newly formed service-industries division of the American Society for Quality Control (ASQC), an 85,000-member organization based in Milwaukee.
But measuring the quality of a service is not as straightforward as for a product. Some companies, for example, track how long telephones ring before they are answered, or how long it takes for workers to handle calls. USAA expects 80 percent of calls to be answered within 20 seconds. But these benchmarks don't give a complete picture of how the customer was treated.
So USAA's program involves a "family of measures," which not only charts timeliness and productivity, but also includes customer surveys and quality audits. In the latter, managers listen in as employees serve customers by phone and give them a percentage ranking.
The push for quality is not new to the service sector. "Service companies have measured themselves and their competitors for decades," looking at factors such as the length of waiting-lines in stores, says Martin Stankard, a quality consultant in Westford, Mass.
However, "there are a lot of forces that are coming together right now" to make service companies pay more attention to quality, Mr. Johnson says. Among the factors he cites:
*-Customer demand. "People expect more today."
*-More publicity about the topic of quality.
*-Growing foreign competition. First, Japanese carmakers attacked Detroit; next may be United States hotel chains. …