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.