The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary [1] provides 31 distinct meaning for the noun Service. Some of the definitions relevant to this research are:

“Work undertaken according to the instructions of an individual or organization”
“Provision of a facility to meet the needs or for the use of a person or thing”
“Assistance or benefit provided by someone by a person or thing”
“An act of helping or benefiting another … the action of serving, helping, or benefiting another”

One key element which can be seen in these definitions is that there are at least two parties involved in the service interaction – the supplier of the service and the user or consumer of the service – and that this relationship is asymmetrical. The user of the service obtains the benefit or the service meets the needs of the consumer. Also, there is a sense of instructions in carrying out the service.

Some of this concept is exhibited in the definitions used in the service literature, for example Missikoff, Navigli & Velardi [2]:

“Work done by one person or group that benefits another”

An alternate method of defining services is to differentiate it from goods – as in “goods and services”. This is the approach of IBM Research [3]:

“services … share a common trait – the primary product is not something tangible, but a service performed.”

However, as noted by [XX], I find it hard to consider it intangible when my heart surgeon has opened up your chest for a by-pass.

Other definitions promote the need to have resources and processes in order to be able to deliver the desired services, for example Räisänen [4]

“Services provide controlled access to supporting resources for provision to users”

This definition highlights the importance of controlling access, and important characteristics of service delivery, but it could be argued not actually part of the nature of services themselves.

Service-Dominant logic views service

as the application of specialised competencies (knowledge and skills) through deeds, processes and performances for the benefit of another entity or the entity itself.” [6]

as the application of operant resources – dynamic resources such as competences (skills and knowledge) that are capable of acting and producing effects in other resources – for the benefit of another party {emphisis in original}.

The first definition builds on the idea of resources, but includes benefit, and also the fact this an organisation also creates services for its own benefit.

Other attempt to manage the variable nature of services is to try to define service in terms of its characteristics. For example, Abe [7] sees services as being intangible; having ownership rights that are not transferable; being difficult to compare / assess before purchase; and having production and consumption that occur simultaneously. However, there is a feeling of describing an elephant in terms of its grey colour and stumpy legs rather than capturing the true “elephant nature”. Where are its trunk and tusks? Further, some of these characteristics can either be challenged (If I rent a car, I gain “ownership” or rights to control access and movement during the rental period.) or may not be specific to “Services” (Is print on demand a service different to ordering from a warehouse just because production and consumption are simultaneous?).

Perhaps the last word comes from manufacturers, who don’t see the distinction between service sector and their sector as much as others. A comment from Levitt [8] says it best:

“There is no such thing as a service industry. There are only industries whose service components are greater or less than those of other industries. Everyone is in service.”


Wikipedia — Principal-agent problem

1. Oxford University Press 2002, Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles, Fifth edn, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
2. Missikoff, M., Navigli, R. & Velardi, P. 2002, 'Integrated approach to Web ontology learning and engineering', Computer, vol. 35, no. 11, pp. 60-63.
3. IBM Research 2004, 'Services science: A new academic discipline?' viewed 14 Jun 2008 (
4. Räisänen, V. 2006, Service Modelling: Principles and Applications, John Wiley & Sons, Chichester, England.
5. Vargo, S.L. & Lusch, R.F. 2004, 'Evolving to a new dominant logic for marketing', Journal of Marketing, vol. 68, no. 1, pp. 1-17.
6. Lusch, R.F., Vargo, S.L. & O’Brien, M. 2007, 'Competing through service: Insights from service-dominant logic', Journal of Retailing, vol. 83, no. 1, pp. 5-18.
7. Abe, T. 2006, 'The development of service science', Japanese Economy, vol. 33, no. 3, pp. 55-74.
8. Levitt, T. 1972, 'Production-line approach to service', Harvard Business Review, pp. 41-52
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