Friday, April 28, 2006

Quality Apathy

I’ve written extensively in the last year about the state of quality today. I’ve recounted my customer service horror stories from Wal-Mart, Target, AT&T and others. Not surprisingly, I’ve received many letters and had numerous postings to my blog that question my motives. Readers complain that I’m too hard on a particular company or I don’t understand a certain industry or tell me that I shouldn’t let one isolated incident frame my perception of an organization. Although I acknowledge that I am not an expert on many things, I am expert on how I expect my quality requirements to be met. I may not always know how to define poor service or bad quality, but I sure know it when I experience it.

The letters defending the poor service that I received are indicative of a general quality apathy in this country (and most of the Western world). Consumers are either afraid to speak up when they receive poor service, defeated in their attempts to counter it or don’t have an alternative. Unfortunately, this same apathy is shared by organizational leadership. Therefore, we expect poor quality and we are given it.

This apathy is pushing us toward a tipping point that may strip us of our ability to effectively compete with the rest of the world. Thomas Friedman points out in his excellent book, The World Is Flat, that technology, innovation, capital and free enterprise systems around the world are converging to make doing business in India as easy as it is in Indianapolis. (By the way, if you haven’t already read The World Is Flat, buy it now. It should be required reading for anyone who works for a living.) We’re losing not just manufacturing jobs to places like China and Mexico, but we’re also beginning to lose the high-paying white collar jobs that are the engine of economic growth. Jobs like tax preparation, software engineering, project managers, and administrative assistants can now be done in India for a fraction of the cost of doing them in the United States.

If you read my column regularly, you probably know that I am a staunch advocate of free trade. I believe that free and open trade will benefit our country in the long run. However, we’ve got to start paying attention to what’s going on in the rest of the world. There is no quality apathy in China. The government and the people are passionately committed to it. They know that a commitment to quality is vital to success of their economy.

Unfortunately, I’ve received many letters from readers who believe that China is one big slave labor camp. This is nonsense. I agree that the Chinese people do not have the same liberties and basic human rights that we do. However, the Chinese are desperate to catch up with the rest of the world, and they are doing it. The transformation of China is nothing short of miraculous. And China is just one example. India, South Korea, Malaysia, and others are following the same model.

Our country has always thrived in the face adversity. Competition will make us stronger, if we meet it head on. Some people believe that trade barriers are the only answer to save our industrial base. I believe that trade barriers only prolong the evitable and make the consumer suffer with high prices and poor quality. The only solution is to improve the quality of the products and services we deliver.

For corporate America the time has come to wake up and smell the coffee, perhaps literally. Take Starbucks, for example. What could be more mundane that selling a cup of coffee? Starbucks has raised it to an art form. It delivers a consistently good product with terrific service in a welcome environment. And, guess what? Starbucks is thriving in China. A U.S. company doing terrific business in China for the same reason it does well at home.

We’ve got to reverse the quality apathy, and it has to start at the top. Senior management has to be passionate about designing, building, delivering, and servicing products that people are excited about. Apple Computer’s Steve Jobs is a perfect example. Apple dominates the portable music player market because it built a really cool product that works exceptionally well and is easy to use. Jobs’ latest coup, a Macintosh that runs both the Mac OS and Windows, is another stroke of genius.

General Motors and Ford have got to start designing and building vehicles that people actually prefer to Hondas and Toyotas. Chrysler has had some success with its PT Cruiser and the 300M, but it, too, has a long way to go. It’s absolutely inexcusable that nearly 30 years after we rediscovered the works of W. Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran that Detroit is still losing market share and building vehicles that can’t compete with the Japanese, South Koreans, Germans and (soon) the Chinese. It’s time for Detroit to stop obsessing over the latest quarter’s financial results and to start focusing on quality.

What do you think? Is quality apathy rampant? How is the flattening world affecting your business?

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Playing Monopoly

Remember when you were a kid and playing Monopoly was a fun way to pass the time? I recently had the opportunity to play monopoly and it wasn’t fun at all. That’s because I wasn’t playing the Parker Brothers version. I was playing the AT&T brand of monopoly.

In case you haven’t noticed, Ma Bell has come back to life. Like the creepy creatures from B-grade horror movies, AT&T has risen from the ashes. And just like the reincarnated zombies from those movies, the reanimated AT&T is a little off kilter.

Let me explain. When I was publisher of Quality Digest, I had a business phone line with DSL installed in my home. When I did this, I disconnected my home DSL service because I didn’t need two DSL lines. Now that I have officially left Quality Digest’s employment, it’s time for me to sever the ties (and the free DSL).

About the time I decided to do all of this, SBC, formerly just one of the so-called Baby Bells, which used to be known as Southwestern Bell, acquired the old AT&T and took the AT&T name. It also recently announced its acquisition of Southern Bell, which will make it the largest telecommunications firm in the world. By the way, in addition to owning most of the old AT&T system, the new AT&T will also own all of Cingular when it completes its acquisition of Southern Bell.

When I decided to disconnect my home phone line and reinstall DSL on my home line, I logged on to AT&T’s Web site to sign up for its $12.99 per month DSL special. I began the process by typing in my home phone number. I was surprised by the result: “We’re sorry but AT&T high-speed Internet service is not available in your area.” Now, this was surprising because I was sitting in my home office using my home business DSL line.

This is just some confusion due to the merger of SBC and AT&T, I thought. I’ll just give them a call. When, after navigating through seemingly endless levels of voice mail hell, I actually managed to talk to a woman who thanked me for calling SBC (I guess she hadn’t heard about the merger). I explained my situation to her. She told me that the Web site was correct and that DSL service was not available in my area.

“But I have DSL in my home now on my business line, and I had at home on my regular home line prior to that. I use it every day; how can it not be available?”

“I’m sorry, sir, but it’s not available in your area,” she explained.

“Uh, I just told you that I already have in my home. It has to be available.”

“No, it isn’t available.”

“Can you tell me why?” I asked.

“No. I am just showing no availability in your area. I will transfer you to the DSL department; maybe they can find the cause of the problem.”

Then she cut me off. Argh. Back through the 17 levels of voice mail hell again. And again I get the same answer, “DSL service is not available in your area.”

I whine. I plead. I protest. I am put on hold for five minutes.

“I found out why you can’t have DSL service in your home, sir,” the AT&T representative explains. “We are required to provide DSL lines to our competitors, and we have run out of lines to give out in your area.”

“But, if I am cancelling service on one line, that will free up a line to add to my home line, right?”

“No. If you cancel your DSL service through your business line, we will not able to give you DSL service again.”

“OK. Can you tell who your competitors are so I can contact them?”


Argh! I give up.

The AT&T monopoly may be back, but 2006 is a much different world than when Ma Bell was broken up the first time. This is a very different competitive environment with much different customer expectations. There are also a lot more options today. For example, I can find out who those AT&T competitors are with a simple Google search.

I can now get phone service from my cable provider and from Internet service providers, such as EarthLink. I can also get Internet service from a radio signal beamed to my home. I can talk to business associates in places such as Australia and China using voice over Internet technology, such as Skype for free. In other words, AT&T is acting like a monopoly but it really isn’t. Its customers now have the power to pull the plug on this reanimated beast. Sheer size won’t help it maintain customers. It must provide quality products and services. Sure $12.99 a month for DSL is one heck of deal (if you can get it), but acquiring and keeping customers requires excellent customer service, high-quality products and services, and innovative, customer-focused employees. Based on what I’ve seen of the new AT&T, they’ve got a long way to go.

What are your thoughts on monopolies and the new business model of today?