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Why You Should Stop Focusing on Your Quality Standards

Nod your head if you think, as a business owner standing at the helm of your entrepreneurial ship, that your opinions on quality are the most important opinions of all.

Did you nod? If you did, you're wrong.

Every business has quality standards. Many see those standards as a way to differentiate their products or services. The problem is those standards often bear little relationship to actual customer needs and expectations.

The auto repair shop where we used to have our cars serviced is a great example.

Once service is complete they clean vehicle interiors, not because they make a mess but because they think it sets their business apart. They take it so seriously the owner even calls the next day to make sure his guys did a great job vacuuming, cleaning windows and seats, etc. It's a nice touch, but one I really didn't care about -- especially since they never came close to hitting their repair time estimates ("two hours" usually meant four hours) and "guaranteed satisfaction" sometimes meant I would indeed be satisfied... after I took a vehicle back a second time.

To the owner quality obviously meant a clean car. To me, quality meant the car got fixed the first time and within a reasonable approximation of the estimated time frame. No amount of cleanliness overcomes a poor repair job or an interminable wait in the lobby. I will happily give up a cleaner car for reliable service -- and, in fact, I did.

Think that's an unusual example? Look around; many businesses put their quality emphasis in the wrong place because the owners decided what "quality" means without consulting the only audience who matters -- their customers. If you want to grow your business, your customers must define quality -- not you.

Here's how to make sure your quality standards match the expectations and needs of your customers:

  1. Analyze your best customers. Why do they keep coming back? Why are they loyal? Long-term customers are customers whose needs are consistently met. If you don't know why they're so loyal, ask. Call and say, "We want to serve you even better. What do we do really well... and what can we do even better?" They'll tell you. And if you find out what your best customers care about most is the relationship you've built with them, no problem. That means the quality of the relationship will be important to other customers too. Your best customers often provide a blueprint for creating more great customers.
  2. Determine why you lost customers. Customers come and go, and when they go it's for a reason, since switching often costs time and money. What needs did you fail to meet? Just don't say it's just a price issue; price is often not the primary driver behind purchase decisions. If it was, we'd all live in studio apartments, eat our meals at home, and drive a Ford Fiesta. When you lose customers you didn't meet their standards for quality in product, service, or relationship. Figure out where you missed the mark.
  3. Reverse engineer your competition. The top companies in any field meet the quality standards of their customers -- and don't waste resources on standards that are unimportant. If you're just starting out, your competition indicates what customers care about most.
  4. Then decide what you can afford to do. No offense to Philip Crosby, but quality is not free. Quality always comes at a cost. What do your customers need that you can afford to provide? You may not be the finest dining experience in your town... but you could be the best value or have the best service. You may not be able to afford expensive packaging, but you may be able to always meet delivery schedules. You may not be able to provide a live chat function on your website, but you may be able to answer every email within twenty minutes.
  5. And don't go too far. Improved quality typically involves diminishing returns. A little variation is usually not a problem. If you ship orders within 24 hours and customers are happy, don't push to create same-day shipping capability just because you think that's "better." The money you spend will be wasted on something customers don't care about.
No business can choose to do everything -- just make sure that whatever you do is based on your customer's needs. Your feelings on quality, while interesting, are irrelevant.

Let your customers define quality; they'll be happy to.

Photo courtesy flickr user stevendepolo, CC 2.0