A note on quality in a customer driven organisation

A note on quality in a customer driven organisation

Sam Choon Yin (10/2004)


There are many ways to define quality. One category depends on whether one refers to the manufacturing or services sectors. The former could define quality as attainment of the lowest defective rate possible. The services sector on the other hand may measure quality in terms of the number of customer complaints received and the duration taken to answer customer queries. In both cases, the ultimate objective is to maximize profit via customer satisfaction.

The meaning of quality also differs depending on the environment one is in. In restaurants for example, good quality may be associated with the quality of the food served, the ambience, price and services provided by service provides. In schools, quality may be defined with reference to the quality of teaching, standards of reference materials, school’s reputation and teachers’ qualifications.

In a general sense, quality has been defined as fitness to use (Joseph Juran), conformance to specifications (Philip Crosby), stability of the systems (Edwards Deming) and minimum loss to the society (Genichi Taguchi), to name just a few.

Besides being a broad concept, quality is a dynamic concept. With the only thing being constant is change organisations around the world are constantly (1) upgrading themselves to perform better than others, and (2) innovating to produce better quality goods and services. It would be a mistake for an organisation to remain static and satisfied with the status quo. Instead, it is imperative that the organisations continuously improve to remain competitive and win business orders (or at least qualify as one of the potential suppliers). In Japanese, such an initiative is referred to as ‘kaizen’.

As a result of the above quality is also a relative concept. Basically, any measurements on quality must be benchmarked against something else, be it the industry’s average performance, the competitors’ performance the company itself over time.

Who defines quality? Obviously, the producers could define quality. They define, measure and control quality to see to what extent the targets have been achieved. The producers also set operational policies to move toward attaining the goals. It is useful however to recognise that ultimately only the customers can tell whether the product offered is of high quality or otherwise. Essentially, an organisation earns revenue and profits because customers purchase from it, repeat his/her orders and refer the firm’s products to his/her friends and relatives. In this respect, it is important that the firm in general and workforce in particular be customer driven. This should be the case not only among the managers, but everyone who is involved both inside and outside of the organisation. So, the question is how an organisation can transform into a customer drive organisation. We offer three approaches.

  First, the notion of meeting or exceeding customer expectation must be part of the firm culture which is followed and practiced by a majority in the organisation. Functional areas must work together and interact with one another to bring the best results in meeting the business goals (the latter should be consistent with the corporate objective). Workers must be trained to behave diligently and ethically with the customer interest in their mind at all times. But quality involves attitude. Human behaviour essentially matters. A firm may be using the latest technology but a service provider who has a bad day at home may vent his/her frustration toward his/her customers the next day leading to loss of sales and firm reputation. The firm must recognise this and produce viable solutions to resolve this issue (for example, by reminding staff about the importance of being ‘professional’ at all times in their work).

Second, there must be strong involvement and support from the management. Managers must lead in the initiative, and constantly remind their subordinates to put the customers first. Motivational and quality focused messages must be conveyed to the workforce in any opportunity that is available, be it in a Family Day gathering or the Dinner and Dance function. More importantly perhaps is that the managers must practice what they preach. Otherwise, their statements and messages would lose their power, and they may fail to influence staff to behave in a certain manner required to transform the organisation into a customer-driven one. In fact, bad leaders lead to high staff turnover, thus forcing the firm to incur additional costs in training new workforce. Support from the managers is essential, because subordinates look up to their superiors for moral guidance, rather than following their own moral compass.

Third, the organisation must recognise that there is a trade off between productivity and quality. Attempts to raise productivity may low quality because of the negative impact it possibly has in maximising consumer interest. For example, managers, under pressure to raise short-term profit, may retrench more workers than necessary to boost productivity. Because there are more tasks to handle on the hands of those remain, quality may be compromised. The service providers for instance may be less willing to go the extra mile for their customers. So, to be customer drive, strategies aimed toward maximising productivity must be clearly planned for. Care must be taken to make sure that quality is not compromised as a result of the initiative (to raise productivity). To achieve this, it is useful for companies to manage customers intelligently. There must be, for example, solid communication between the service providers and customers. The objective is for the former to better understand customer needs and consequently raise the probability of the firm to meet or exceed consumer expectations. The attempt may also raise labour productivity because more customers could be served per unit time and the need to redo the work is reduced.