What Defines a Professional in the Service Industry?

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Aniket Deolikar
Consultant, India

What Defines a Professional in the Service Industry?

You are known by your occupation and some occupations give you a claim to the "professional" status. Musicians, business executives, teachers, social workers describe their occupation as professions. But are all the people in these occupations that claim to be professions considered as professionals by society? The society gives the professional label to only some of the occupations, doctors are professionals while an auto mechanic is not. But it's not as black and white as it seems a gray area exists. Ashish Nanda tries to address who can be considered as a professional in the service industry.
Professionals are considered as a subcategory of service providers. So, what do professionals differ from other service providers? This can be answered by understanding what the aspects of service provision are and how various categories of service provisions differ from each other.

Professional service provision includes 3 activities which are: diagnosis, inference, and treatment.
  1. Diagnosis: Diagnosis is the part which categorizes the object being studied, it can be finding out the need of the client or maybe finding out which service will suit him the best. For example, A doctor examining a patient and writing down the symptoms such as fever is diagnosis.
  2. Inference: Once the diagnosis is done the next process is inference, in this an analysis of the problem at hand is done and the actual cause of the problem is found out to perform the next process. For example, a doctor can infer from high fever and a blood test that the patient has malaria; a mechanic can tell from the abnormal temperature of the engine that there is some problem with the coolant system.
  3. Treatment: The last part is the treatment where a solution to a problem is prescribed and actions are taken accordingly. For example, A doctor might prescribe tablets to the patient; A mechanic might suggest replacing the coolant system as the damages are beyond repair.

Types of service providers

A service provider can be described using on 2 dimensions: Inference Skill and Service Value. Inference skill measures the complexity of the process of inference used and the service value is the level of importance of the service for the client. Thus 4 categories of service providers can be distinguished, based on the level of inference skills and the service value. These are given in the matrix below

  • Algorithmic Service Providers: These service providers have both low inference skill and low perceived service value. They use algorithm-based inference for providing the service. These services are useful to the clients, but are not highly valued. Restaurant waiters, help-desk executives, call center personnel, etc. are included in the algorithmic service providers. There is a pre-defined course of action for every request asked by the client. An algorithm inference process relates every diagnosis to a specific treatment. For example, a restaurant waiter takes orders from a pre-defined menu and also there is a sequence in which he/she will provide the service such as take orders for starters then the main course and finally the desserts unless specified differently by the customer.
  • Heuristic Service Providers: These service providers have low inference skills but provide a high service value. These include firefighters, police officers, etc. These people rely on routines to draw inferences from very limited information. Routines are like thumb rules which specify the actions required to respond to specific diagnosis as these services require to respond quickly. As the speed of response here is of utmost importance, the optimum response might not get chosen. So, these routines support the delivery of services that are robust even if not optimal. For example, if a fire is there then the firefighters follow a specific procedure to solve the problem as fast as they can.
  • Technicians: This category of service providers has high inference skill but a low service value. These include auto mechanics, lab workers, electricians, barbers, etc. These services require a skillset, but clients don't value these services very highly. Technicians learn specific skills required for the job and use them differently according to the requirements of the clients. For example, a beautician might need to customize his/her service according to the needs of the clients to bring out the best output.
  • Professionals: This category has high inference skill and a high perceived service value. These are referred to as professionals. They include doctors, lawyers, consultants, engineers, management consultants, professors, architects, etc. These service providers must master the inference skills to provide services that are considered very valuable by society. The inference process used by the professionals is judgment. This service doesn't require skills that are mastered by learning by doing but they still have one shot at the solution. For example, a doctor while performing heart surgery has a single chance at the surgery; consultants must suggest the best possible solution to the clients, etc. Professionals have to apply the vast knowledge they possess to implement the best possible solution to the problem at hand. That's why professionals typically have a broad, interrelated, and abstract knowledge base which they use in the inference process to provide the best possible treatment.
Source: Ashish Nanda, "Who is a Professional?", Harvard Business Review, Dec 2003


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