In Sweden, the forest industry is of significant importance to the country’s economy. In 2019, it employed 70,000 workers and exported products to a value of nearly 15 billion euros [1
]. To supply the forest industry with raw materials, about 90 million cubic meters of wood is harvested domestically each year from the country’s 23.6 million hectares (ha) of productive forestlands [2
]. A few forest companies have their own forests that, to a varying extent, supply their mills with roundwood. However, a significant share of the timber supply comes from family forest owners (FFOs), who, in recent years, have been responsible for 59% of the annual harvesting volume [2
]. This group consists of approximately 320,000 individuals, who, in total, own 48% of Sweden’s woodlands [4
The yearly harvesting volume has been rather stable for the last years, and it is reasonable to expect a high timber demand for the foreseeable future. The development of the bio-economy and the interest in switching to renewable resources will boost demand when new products are developed from wood materials [5
]. However, there are indications that the timber buyers will have an increasingly challenging task to procure the volumes needed from FFOs. One reason is that FFOs seem to have become more active in the choice of timber buyer, which increases the competition between timber buyers on the market. Historically, tradition and local networks have guided Swedish FFOs’ selection of a timber buyer; in the 1990s, it was still uncommon that they requested offers from different buyers before a timber sale [6
]. When a change of timber buyer took place, it was often due to severe dissatisfaction with the previous deal. However, more recent market analysis by Staal Wästerlund and Kronholm [7
] showed that 50% of the studied forest owners had previously sold timber to other timber buyers than the one with whom they made their most recent timber transaction. Furthermore, nearly a fifth of the forest owners had requested price offers from several buyers before closing the deal.
Another aspect affecting the pre-conditions for timber procurement is that the FFOs’ socio-demographic characteristics, ownership values, and management objectives have become more diverse. This increased diversity implies that for many FFOs, timber production and regular income from forestry is no longer the only or even the main objective that guides their forest management and harvesting decisions [6
]. For example, Favada et al. [19
] have shown that forest owners who put a high value on recreation or are indifferent to the management of their forests harvest less volume than self-employed and multi-objective owners do. Furthermore, Kuuluvainen et al. [20
] have shown that female owners harvest less frequently and in total smaller volumes than male owners do, although the volume per single harvest was higher for females. Several other studies have also identified differences between male and female FFOs’ management activities and attitudes, such as lower forest management activity and a stronger focus on non-economic values [12
]. Since 38% of the Swedish FFOs are females [4
], their management decisions may have a significant effect on the long-term availability of domestic timber. Finally, although Karppinen et al. [18
] found that the demographic changes among forest owners, so far, have had a limited effect on the total timber volume in Finland, they identified that the number of FFOs that are active in the timber market had decreased.
At present, only a minor share of harvesting work (~10%) is performed by the FFOs themselves [26
]. Instead, most of them buy this service from the timber buying company, which, in turn, often hires contractors to carry out the forest work. In most timber transactions, there is thus a two-way customer–supplier relationship between the FFO and the timber buyer. In this paper, FFOs will be studied in their role as customers. The FFOs’ role as service customers can be expected to become more frequent as younger generations of owners will be more urban and have less knowledge and experience of practical forestry work [27
]. The supply of services targeted towards FFOs is also increasing as forest companies develop new types of services in order to meet the increasingly diverse needs among FFOs [28
]. For example, some organizations have developed training packages with the aim to stimulate FFOs to manage their forests actively, which, from the company perspective, is important for future timber supply [30
]. By offering services other than harvesting, they also strive to build a stronger commitment between the organization and the FFOs (e.g., through more frequent interaction between timber deals). However, this requires that the provided services are perceived to be of good quality since the FFOs’ level of satisfaction will affect their commitment and loyalty to the service provider [31
]. Therefore, service quality is a key issue for any company in its recruitment and retention of customers and for its long-term profitability [33
To our knowledge, few researchers have, so far, investigated FFOs’ expectations and perceptions of service quality in timber transactions. There is, thus, limited knowledge about the quality standards by which FFOs evaluate the services they buy and what requirements companies need to fulfill in order to have satisfied customers. Increasing this field of knowledge would contribute to the industry’s service development processes by helping managers to focus company resources on those aspects of service design and delivery that matter the most for customers. Furthermore, this could also aid the forest companies in changing their mindsets from a goods-dominant logic into a service-dominant logic, which according to Mattila et al. [29
], has been difficult for traditional forest companies. Therefore, the objectives of this study are to clarify FFOs’ service quality expectations in timber transactions, show how well forest companies meet these expectations, and identify factors that may influence FFOs’ quality assessments.
The study takes its stance on service quality from the conceptual model developed by Parasuraman et al. [35
], which defines service quality as the gap between the consumer’s expectations of a service and the perception of the service delivered by the service provider. In other words, a positive gap occurs when expectations are exceeded, and, contrarily, a negative gap occurs if expectations are not met. Thereby, the size and direction of this gap will indicate the perceived quality of the service.
Service quality is related to the concept of satisfaction as both factors build on the expectancy/disconfirmation paradigm [34
]. A difference between the two concepts is, according to Parasuraman et al. [36
] (p. 16), that “perceived service quality is a global judgment or attitude relating to superiority of the service, whereas satisfaction is related to a specific transaction
”. This notion also has implications for how expectations have been conceptualized in the two streams of research. In consumer satisfaction literature, expectations are viewed as the consumer’s predictions of what a service provider will offer during the transaction [36
]. In service quality literature, expectations are instead considered to be normative and represent standards that service providers constantly must strive to deliver [34
]. In this sense, they are also more stable.
The expectations consumers hold are affected by personal elements such as their past experiences, word-of-mouth communications (e.g., friends recommending the service), and personal needs, as well as external communication from the service provider (e.g., advertisements, homepages, newspaper articles). How the consumer perceives the service received is also affected by the firm’s communication effort as well as the actual delivery process, including contacts before and after the time of consumption [35
]. As noted by Grönroos [37
], service consumption is, thus, the consumption of processes, whereas consumption of goods is the consumption of outcomes. In turn, how well the service delivery works from the consumer perspective depends on the firms’ understanding of the customers’ expectations and their ability to design their services to meet these expectations [35
In their empirical investigations, Parasuraman et al. [35
] found that the criteria used by consumers to evaluate service quality were within five dimensions: tangibles, reliability, responsiveness, assurance, and empathy. Tangibles include physical objects such as company buildings, staff uniforms, brochures, tools, and equipment. Reliability concerns the company’s ability to perform the service as promised. Responsiveness deals with the company’s ability and willingness to help the customer and, for example, respond to e-mail or phone calls without delays. Assurance concerns the behavior of personnel and the company’s ability to provide the customer with a feeling of safety in the relationship. Finally, empathy includes the company’s understanding of the customer’s personal needs and the company’s willingness to take these into consideration.
This study investigated FFOs’ expectations and the perceived performance of timber buyers’ service quality using an adapted version of the SERVQUAL instrument, which measures service quality as the gap between expectations and perceived performance. Kärhä and Oinas [31
] have used a similar method to measure FFOs’ satisfaction with timber buyers, which also shows the close relationship between the two concepts [34
]. However, in contrast to Kärhä and Oinas [31
], this study did not investigate factors directly related to the logging operations (e.g., stump heights and forest damages) since only features included in the SERVQUAL framework were considered. However, the outcomes of the logging operations are also likely to affect FFOs’ perceptions of these quality dimensions.
The results show that FFOs, in general, have high expectations of their service providers and that, in many cases, it is challenging for the forest companies to meet or even exceed them in their service delivery. Only in four of the studied quality features were the share of forest owners with fulfilled expectations ≥70%, and, in three of those, the expectations were lower than on many other features. Interestingly, the FFOs’ expectations were highest on intangible features related to the dimensions of assurance, responsiveness, and reliability. In particular, they had high expectations of the timber buyers solving their problems, having proper knowledge, being helpful, and providing a feeling of security during the transaction. In contrast, tangible features such as equipment and materials were considered less important. For FFOs, the result of the harvesting work is usually the most important aspect [41
], which indicates that it is more important for forest companies to have machines that are suitable for the specific task rather than always having the most modern ones. It should also be taken into account that many FFOs might not even see the equipment used by the forest company if they do not have the possibility to visit the forest while the forest operations are in progress. However, it is important to note that the question referred to equipment in general and not only forest machines.
Based on the results of this study, forest companies should consider how they can improve their communication with FFOs since the precision of communication was the feature with the lowest service quality score, followed by information materials. Furthermore, although FFOs had relatively low expectations of these two features, many of them did not get their expectations fulfilled. That FFOs perceive communication to be poor is not a new phenomenon. Two decades ago, Kärhä and Tammiruusu [42
] identified that slow information flows and limited contact between FFOs and timber buyers led to dissatisfaction. Indeed, Kärhä et al. [43
] have recently shown that FFOs still request more information and better feedback. This concerns, for example, the results of the logging operations, the silvicultural conditions of the remaining stand, and future harvesting possibilities. Furthermore, the type of information that is demanded differs between groups, which calls for a more customer-oriented approach. However, as shown in this present study, customer focus was also a service quality feature in which forest companies’ service performance was perceived to be relatively poor. Like Kärhä et al. [43
] point out, forest companies could possibly improve their performance in this area by developing new information services in relation to timber transactions that, to a greater extent, take into account the different needs of various groups of FFOs. It is somewhat surprising that the development of technological support services to FFOs has not gone further. In the future, the demand for more information may also continue to grow as younger generations have been found to have a greater desire and need for information since they often are less familiar with forestry compared to previous owners [30
]. To aid this development, future research could focus on how to utilize the large amount of data produced by modern logging machines in the development of new types of information services to FFOs.
Only a few differences were found between FFOs, depending on their characteristics, but one that is interesting to pay attention to is that female owners perceive timber buyers’ responsiveness to be of lower quality than males do, especially in what concerns communication, which ranked far below their expectations, especially concerning the preciseness of communication, which was far below their expectations. Thus, timber buyers may need to reconsider their approach towards female FFOs, and they should take into consideration that female FFOs, in general, conduct timber deals less frequently than males [20
]. Furthermore, this is a group that often has less experience in practical forestry and also feels more insecure in their role as foresters [21
], which may affect their service needs.
A recurring finding on all service quality dimensions was that FFOs who had experienced problems in connection to their timber deals perceived the quality of service to be lower than those who did not have any problems. Common problems experienced by FFOs in relation to timber transactions are forest damage caused by the logging operations and lower revenues due to unfavorable bucking of the harvested trees [7
]. The FFOs who experienced problems also had significantly more contact time with the timber buyer, which is logical, considering that the problems need to be discussed and solved between the timber buyer and the FFO. This also explains why there were significant negative correlations between the number of times of contact and the perceptions of service quality. Avoiding mistakes is thus important for timber buyers as it leads to more work and dissatisfied timber suppliers. Besides economic reasons, dissatisfaction is the most common reason for FFOs to change timber buyers [6
]. However, since problems always will occur in this type of business, it is important to have good procedures to handle them. In this study, 25% of the respondents had experienced problems, but how representative this figure is for the entire Swedish timber market is still unknown. In other words, whether or not FFOs with problems have been more inclined to participate in this survey is an open question. However, no differences were identified between respondents and non-respondents in terms of ownership attributes that could indicate that this was the case. Since Kindstrand [45
] has noted that the views on forestry may differ between FFOs and professional foresters, it would also be interesting to know to what extent the timber buyers share the FFOs’ perception of these situations as problems or failures.
The results also show that forest companies are not considered to be putting enough focus on the FFOs’ interests since this was one of the quality features with the largest gap between expected quality and perceived service performance. The changing characteristics of FFOs also imply that the services need to be adapted to meet the needs of different types of owners. However, the forest companies have been found to be rather slow in their adaptation to this new market environment where more and more FFOs have diverse ownership objectives and are not merely focused on timber production [28
A limitation of this study is that some of the service quality dimensions were only measured on a couple of features, and, therefore, it will not give a complete understanding of service quality in timber transactions. Furthermore, to include only two features in the tangibles dimension decreased the reliability of this dimension, indicated by a lower Cronbach’s alpha compared to the other dimensions that all included three items each. More studies are thus needed. This is partly to study additional quality features, but qualitative studies could also provide a deeper understanding of FFOs’ expectations and perceptions of the features. For example, since the present study did not investigate the relative importance of each service quality dimension, future studies could ask FFOs to rank or weigh the service quality dimension, which could help forest companies to avoid spending more money than necessary on developing features with low influence on their overall satisfaction. Another approach to determine relative importance, suggested by Parasuraman et al. [36
], would be to ask the respondents to give an overall service quality perception score and then regress this to the dimension scores. Unfortunately, such a question was not included in the questionnaire used in this study.
It is important to note that the opinions expressed in this study may not be representative of all FFOs in Sweden but primarily for those who were active in the timber market when the study was conducted. The mean age of the FFOs who participated in the study was in line with the national average for all owners, but females were underrepresented compared to FFOs in general [4
]. This could potentially be explained by male owners’ higher activity in the timber market [20
], which makes it more likely to find them in the national register for timber harvesting notifications. If the same database is used for future studies, a stratified sample could be made in order to avoid this sort of misrepresentation. Another approach would be to take the sample from a national register containing all owners, but then a large proportion of the sample may not have conducted a timber deal close in time to the survey. Finally, compared to some other recent surveys of Swedish FFOs that have had a response rate of 50–60% [12
], the response rate of the present study was somewhat lower (43%). A second reminder to non-respondents could have increased the participation rate to some extent, but that was not considered feasible due to the limited time and money available for this study. Although male owners were slightly keener to answer than female owners were, the risk for any major effects on the results is considered small since the overrepresentation was only four percentage points when comparing the proportion of males in the sample with the share of male respondents.