Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Customer Should Have Known Better

In last month’s column I ran a quiz with some fairly typical everyday quality scenarios. I presented 10 situations and asked if the experience was a “quality” one. I received some interesting feedback.

A number of readers disagreed with my answers to the quiz, believing that it was unfair of me to expect a different outcome because I hadn’t communicated my requirements to the supplier or that I had unrealistic expectations. Several people told me that I had misinterpreted Phil Crosby’s definition of quality: conformance to requirements. One reader told me that I really should have used “conformance to stated requirements” as my definition.

This kind of thinking—what I call “the customer should have known better” thinking or CSHKB—is responsible for a great deal of customer dissatisfaction these days. It’s not my responsibility to communicate my requirements; it is the supplier’s responsibility to determine them. In most cases (especially in the 10 scenarios I presented), it’s not difficult to determine basic customer requirements. For example, in my quiz I stated that I had to wait 15 minutes for an elevator each time I wanted to go to my room in a four star hotel I stayed at in New York City. I think most people would agree that a 15-minute wait for an elevator in a hotel is far too long. It doesn’t matter if the hotel is in New York City or Mayberry.

CSHKB thinking is responsible for a whole host of quality problems in a range of industries. The airline industry has been beset with huge losses during the last decade. However, in my quiz when I said that I expected my luggage to arrive at my destination at the same time I did regardless of the price of the ticket, one reader told me that for the price ($198), I was lucky that my luggage didn’t end up in Kazakhstan. Talk about low expectations! I hope this guy isn’t responsible for any bridges that I’ll be driving over anytime soon. It’s this kind of thinking that has driven nearly every major airline into bankruptcy in the last 10 years. It may be cliché to mention Southwest Airlines, but it somehow manages to get people to their destinations—with their luggage—for pretty low prices. They understand their customers’ requirements and meet or exceed them. They also manage to consistently make a profit.

The issues I presented in my quiz aren’t so much conformance-to-requirements problems as they are a total disregard for the customer. An organization that cares about its customers (and therefore its own survival) takes the time to determine what the customers’ requirements are and then makes sure they are met, every time. It doesn’t matter if the organization is producing $1 toy guns or $45,000 SUVs.

One reader says I am naïve to expect much from a $1 toy gun. Let’s examine that more closely. I was dissatisfied with the toy because it broke within a few days of purchasing it. The failure was not as a result of my son being too rough with the toy. The trigger simply fell off. Because I was dissatisfied, I won’t buy one of those toys again. I imagine that most people who experience the same problem won’t buy the toy again. If enough people have the problem, the toy manufacturer goes out of business. The same is true with automobiles. If enough people have enough problems with the cars they buy, the automaker will be in trouble.

In most cases determining customers’ requirements is simply a matter of asking them. Countless books, articles and seminars exist to show you how. In other cases, requirements can be gleaned from research or other data.

Sometimes quality professionals focus so much on customer specifications that they forget customer requirements, in all their forms. Crosby’s definition of quality as conformance to requirements goes beyond stated customer requirements or specifications; it applies to the implied or unstated requirements as well.

When I purchase a plane ticket, I don’t send my requirements to the airline. I assume that part of the deal will be that my luggage will arrive at my destination the same time that I do. As a consumer, I also understand that different vendors will provide me with different service levels. For example, when I buy a ticket on American Airlines, I understand that I will have an assigned seat and will have a decent shot at upgrading because of my frequent flier status. When I choose to travel on Southwest Airlines, I understand that I need to check in online as early as possible and get to the airport early to avoid getting stuck in a middle seat. But in either case, I expect both airlines to depart on time and get me and my luggage safely to my destination.

CSHKB thinking is deadly to business. It’s the organization’s responsibility to determine its customers’ requirements in all their forms.