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Customers care about quality? Really?

My father has spent many years in the trenches of continuous improvement, quality management, BS this, EN that, ISO the next thing. And after careful consideration, he’s come to the conclusion that it’s a load of hairy old bollocks. Although he probably wouldn’t use those exact words.

As my dad explains it, the doctrine of quality management and customer focus says that if firms don’t look after their customers, they’ll go out of business. That sounds perfectly reasonable, he says, until you actually look at the products and services people use. Quality doesn’t come into it. Quite the reverse, in fact: some of the most successful firms seem to treat their customers with contempt.

Examples? IKEA’s stores are deliberately designed to confuse you, its returns policy is evil, and the aisles are always packed with punters. Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary makes no secret of his contempt for his customers – he’s said he’d prefer it if they stood during flights, so he could get more people into a plane – and you just know he’d fire them out of cannons if he thought he could get away with it. It’s one of the world’s most successful airlines.

It happens in publishing too. The Daily Mail is the UK’s most popular newspaper among middle-class women. It spends most of its time telling those women that they’re hideous hags and that everything they’ve ever done will give the kids cancer. It’s one of the few success stories in print publishing – as is OK magazine, whose cover routinely lies about its contents. To take just two offences, “David Van Day: Scrooge Alone At Christmas” was about his plans to spend the holidays with his daughters in Barbados, while January’s Cheryl Cole story – “Being pregnant won’t split the band… baby boy predicted” – was based on nothing but an interview with a so-called psychic.

I know what you’re thinking. We’re smarter than that. We care about quality. Nobody’s going to palm off a half-arsed product on us. And I say, Twitter.

Twitter is a great idea and a terrible service. The servers fall over if somebody sneezes. The interface is horrible, and features are non-existent – in fact, it’s so bad that an entire industry of desktop and mobile phone clients has sprung up in an attempt to make Twitter usable. January’s celebrity account hacks suggest that security isn’t up to much. It doesn’t (at the time of writing, at least) have the faintest idea of how it’s going to generate revenues. And yet the VCs keep funding it, and people continue to flock to it.

And that’s because what matters isn’t quality; it’s whether the product or service is good enough to overlook its shortcomings. Sometimes good enough means the price is right. Sometimes good enough means that a service is entertaining or useful despite its flaws. Sometimes good enough is because you aren’t buying OK for quality journalism. But it’s rarely, if ever, about BS this, EN that, ISO the next thing.

8 replies on “Customers care about quality? Really?”

I think it comes down to price alot of the time. I happily shop at IKEA – I get exactly what I want/expect for a lower price. I simply don’t have £900 to spend on a wardrobe, but I don’t expect the IKEA product to last forever. As long as it does it’s purpose for a while, I’ll be happy.

As for the Daily Fail/OK – some bugger is reading them. God knows why.

I’d think of “BS this, EN that, ISO” etc to come into things like cars, computers – all things that could kill you, if they felt like it.

Although, I think the Daily Mail do a lot of BS…

Hmm.

> what matters isn’t quality; it’s whether the product or service is good enough to overlook its shortcomings.

See, assuming that we don’t live in a perfect world, I’d say that “quality” means “good enough to overlook its shortcomings”. And I’d point out that a product or service can have many different qualities, such as the price being right or the service being entertaining or useful despite its flaws.

Where standards come in handy (or would, if they weren’t so easily fixed, which is their real problem) is in ensuring consistency. So, say you discover that you can delete your customers’ emails without replying and still make loads of money. As long as you ensure that all your staff always delete all customer emails and you document this fact, you can get ISO9001 accreditation. Course, no-one does that, ’cause it would involve putting the policy in writing where the public can find out about it. But my point is that what it means (ideally) when a company gets one of these standards is that all customers receive the same quality of product or service — even if that quality is something you or I might think is a bit shit. If you’re running a company and you’ve identified that quality as being what your customers are willing to pay for, then that’s a good thing. For instance, I bet Ikea have an international standard for maximum queuing times that their stores aren’t allowed to exceed, and I bet it’s about a year.

With all due respect to your dad, whom I’m sure is one of the good guys, standards are a convenient cover for bad management and poor leadership. It doesn’t matter that our board is corrupt, the management are clueless, there’s no strategic plan, and the staff spend all day surfing the web – we’ve got a plaque on the wall from Investors in People, ISO1234 accreditation, and we were named “Best Mid-Sized Local Business” in the annual awards gala which we nominated ourselves for. We’re local leaders! Hence if I see a wall full of plaques and accreditations, I don’t think “wow, great company”. I think “ah, BS artists.”

I immediately noticed the UK obsession with standards and accreditation when I moved here. You really just don’t have that in the states, and no one’s worse off for it. Quality over there has a a small q and the end result is improved customer service, not an accreditation.

Squander Two has inadvertently echoed a point my dad makes: quality systems aren’t about being good; they’re about being consistent. So you can be BS5750, IIP, whatever, and be *absolutely shite* – but you’re consistently shite, so you win a prize. And some nice grants.

@squander two:
> Where standards come in handy (or would, if they weren’t so easily fixed, which is their real problem)

Yeah, I’d agree with that. It’s like teaching the exam in education – as long as you get the exam outcomes, who cares whether anybody’s getting any benefit?

> But my point is that what it means (ideally) when a company gets one of these standards is that all customers receive the same quality of product or service — even if that quality is something you or I might think is a bit shit.

What I think is interesting about it is that the whole quality ethos (as preached, at least) is one of continuous improvement, and yet – from where I’m sitting at least – the companies I’ve mentioned don’t follow that. I don’t know a single person with anything good to say about Ryanair, for example, and if anything they’re getting nastier to their customers year by year. Easyjet are similar: the price is actually going up, but (IMO) the quality is deteriorating even further.

I think to an extent Microsoft and Apple typify the issue. Microsoft is a lovely company, with lots of lovely, caring people, and they really care about their customers – they keep them involved from early stages of product development, they bend over backwards to try and support the most obscure hardware and the most ancient software, and they try to please everybody. And the result is arguably a dog’s dinner and an image as an evil empire – and 90+ percent of the global market for OSes and office suites.

Apple, on the other hand, goes “You want cut and paste and MMS on a phone? Fuck you! We’re not doing it!” and everybody loves them. Now of course Apple make high quality products, but there’s more to it than that I think.

I’ll come back to this when I’m more awake :)

> You really just don’t have that in the states, and no one’s worse off for it. Quality over there has a a small q and the end result is improved customer service, not an accreditation.

Well, this isn’t completely true (I recently worked for a firm who were getting whatever accreditation it was specifically to please their American client), but, to the extent it is, it’s because you tend to have higher salaries in the US.

You know the way you have heaps of trouble with a load of idiots at some bloody call centre and then one day you get through to one person who audibly rolls their eyes about their idiot colleagues and sorts out all your problems in two minutes? The idea behind standards accreditation is that you find that handful of good employees that your customers wish they could get through to every time, find out what they do, and then get all your crap employees to do the same. What this misses is that the reason some of your employees are stars is that they’re inteliigent skilled people, not that they’re following brilliant procedures, and the reason the rest of your employees are crap is not that they don’t have the right procedures to follow but that they’re just fundamentally crap. The way to fix this problem is to attract a higher proportion of good staff to your company, and this can be done with money.

> Easyjet are similar: the price is actually going up, but (IMO) the quality is deteriorating even further.

Easyjet have improved dramatically. Single biggest thing they were getting wrong was their turnaround times: far too short. So their morning flights were on time, but then they’d miss a slot, then miss another slot, and the last flights of the day were almost all very badly late. I used to use them every weekend, and I’d sit in Glasgow Airport listening to yet another announcement that an Easyjet flight was delayed every five minutes for the whole evening. They really have fixed this.

> Microsoft is a lovely company, with lots of lovely, caring people, and they really care about their customers – they keep them involved from early stages of product development, they bend over backwards to try and support the most obscure hardware and the most ancient software, and they try to please everybody.

You should read this:

I first heard about this from one of the developers of the hit game SimCity, who told me that there was a critical bug in his application: it used memory right after freeing it, a major no-no that happened to work OK on DOS but would not work under Windows where memory that is freed is likely to be snatched up by another running application right away. The testers on the Windows team were going through various popular applications, testing them to make sure they worked OK, but SimCity kept crashing. They reported this to the Windows developers, who disassembled SimCity, stepped through it in a debugger, found the bug, and added special code that checked if SimCity was running, and if it did, ran the memory allocator in a special mode in which you could still use memory after freeing it.

This was not an unusual case. The Windows testing team is huge and one of their most important responsibilities is guaranteeing that everyone can safely upgrade their operating system, no matter what applications they have installed, and those applications will continue to run, even if those applications do bad things or use undocumented functions or rely on buggy behavior that happens to be buggy in Windows n but is no longer buggy in Windows n+1. In fact if you poke around in the AppCompatibility section of your registry you’ll see a whole list of applications that Windows treats specially, emulating various old bugs and quirky behaviors so they’ll continue to work. Raymond Chen writes, “I get particularly furious when people accuse Microsoft of maliciously breaking applications during OS upgrades. If any application failed to run on Windows 95, I took it as a personal failure. I spent many sleepless nights fixing bugs in third-party programs just so they could keep running on Windows 95.”

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