What does Quality mean?
We introduced the topic two weeks ago, in the first article of this column (if you missed it, you can find it here).
Quality can be understood in several ways. For example, product compliance with technical specifications, or suitability for use or satisfaction of expectations.
There are different levels of quality, and it is certainly not an absolute concept, but a relative one, because it depends on the expectations of the buyer, their needs and requirements.
You have to direct your focus, therefore, towards a non-essential "detail": it is certainly not the product's producers, zealously protective of their creations and assumptions, who judge whether a product is in fact quality and has value.
Only those who use it and explore its functions will be able to truly judge its quality according to, once again, their needs, expectations and requirements.
Now, guess what is the first principle of ISO 9001as well as Total Quality Management 🤓!
It is, of course, "Customer Focus".
The mystery of the satisfied customer
Let’s first analyse the figure of the "customer".
They buy for one simple reason: to satisfy a need.
Needs are therefore central, and we need to go into greater depth on their nature to understand the whole framework.
Needs can be of three types: implicit, explicit and latent. The satisfaction or otherwise of all three leads to a range of consequences.
Satisfying an implicit need is something that the customer takes for granted at the time of purchase, not even mentioning it to us, and it does not generate any kind of positive evaluation. Obviously, this must be satisfied. This is expected.
If you buy a car, you don't ask for 4 tyres, right? And if you buy a book, you expect it to be error-free and well laid out. When this happens, you are not happy, it is simply expected: you don't even have to specify it at the time of purchase.
Can you imagine what that would look like? "Excuse me, do you have any books without mistakes?" No 😅
But what happens if it is not satisfied? It's a disaster: your disaster. The best-case scenario is that you will never see that customer again.
Now let's look at explicit needs.
They are explicitly requested by the customer. They are the set of specific characteristics that the customer needs.
If we go back to the case of the car, they are represented by the colour, add-ons and the engine.
On the company side, they can be detected through fact-finding surveys of the user personas (the typical end-user with whom you interface), based on the method of receiving the order, or the software that directs the customer to the right choice for their needs before buying.
In this case, satisfaction is directly proportional to the satisfaction of expectations. The more explicit needs we are able to intercept, the better the customer's appreciation of the product will be.
Finally, we have the latent needs, the real pot of gold of every exponential business. And as with any fairy tale there is always an aura of magic that permeates the atmosphere.
These needs are not perceived by the client, who consequently will not be able to express them. So how do you identify them? Luck, intuition? Maybe genius.
The positive side is that if you don't satisfy them, the customer won't throw it in your face, nor even notice...
However, precisely because they are not clearly identified even by the market, if you can satisfy them, you will find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The customer becomes your top seller and sponsor: they will praise your product and your service to everyone.
Customer focus according to ISO 9001
For the reasons explained above, the ISO 9001 standard sets out, in the first instance, the principle of customer focus, with the intent of pushing the organisation to increase its ability to listen to and satisfy its customers, orienting its activities in line with this goal.
The principle, as such, is not explained.
I'll do it: stay with me.
The main objective of management in the company is to satisfy the needs of customers, exceeding their expectations, to make a profit. If left unsatisfied, sooner or later, the customer will purchase elsewhere and hand over the cash value for products and services that are different, and that they consider superior.
Profitable and lasting success is achieved ONLY when an organisation is able to systematically generate and enhance the loyalty of its customers.
The ability to listen closely to your customer allows you to develop interactions and relationships with the latter, creating the opportunity to produce greater value for them.
In short, the words "customer focus" must become the mantra of the company, at all levels!
A good obsession.
Action to take
Let's get down to practical aspects, as words are not enough.
What can you do?
First of all, it is essential to recognise direct and indirect customers as those who receive value from the organisation: they are not just people who spend money buying from us.
Your top priority must be to listen to them and understand their current and future needs and expectations, contacting them with surveys, questionnaires, market research, calling them in the company, going to observe them in the field, making fake sales, focus groups and observing them on social networks.
Once you understand more about your clientele, you'll need to align your goals. "What are the goals?", you ask. 😜 We'll get to that soon, for now just know that you need to try to get them back on course and connect them to your customers' needs and expectations.
You have to communicate the needs of the customer at all levels in the organisation: if everyone knows which way to go, it is easier to conduct the orchestra. Furthermore, in this way all the individual activities carried out by your organisation will be focused on meeting customer expectations.
You have to measure and monitor the customer satisfaction level. Remember that "if something cannot be measured, it cannot be improved" (cit.). It is essential to understand if and how you have achieved customer satisfaction, as this is key to understanding mistakes, dangers and opportunities. It will be easier to sketch out and take appropriate action to correct your aim or ride the wave.
Finally, remember that needs are not just abstract concepts and that customers are still people. Actively managing your relationship with them helps you to pursue lasting success.
You no doubt agree with me so far. After all, you have been, are and will be a customer of others, right?
Material and tips
The items I have just outlined are also the key parts of our mindset. As consultants, we spend whole days studying how the companies we deal with can improve their customer focus.
In this regard there are two books that we recommend almost every day, and which we will never tire of rereading:
"Blue Ocean Strategy" by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne;
"Blue Ocean Shift: Beyond Competing. Proven Steps to Inspire Confidence and Seize New Growth" by the same authors.
There are also many tools that can be used to analyse customers and product responsiveness.
Let me give you an example. The graph below (taken from "Blue Ocean Strategy") represents the analysis of the value offered by three types of fitness businesses aimed at a female audience. Signposts connected by broken lines explain whether the value of the indicated characteristic is high or low.
Summarising the data obtained on your type of customer in graphs like this stimulates many reflections useful for improving the product and service offered.
This can lead to designing new strategies, correcting existing ones or completely renewing your business to intercept hidden and open market positions.
However, customers must be able to consult them appropriately.
You will need to learn to ask yourself the right questions and seek out the right answers.
Reflecting on each phase of the purchasing process, with the right questions, can lead to unexpected answers and the identification of opportunities and dangers that cannot be underestimated. Purchase, delivery, use, integration, maintenance and disposal of the product are phases to be studied under the right lens.
Useful questions can be like this: Is the place of purchase pleasant and accessible? (purchase) How effective are the features and functionality of the product? (usage) How much does maintenance cost? (maintenance)
I suggest that you insert your answers into schemas that allow you to have a global overview and to investigate possible margins for improvement.
Take action now
The most dispassionate advice that could be given is therefore this:
Study your customer, ask yourself the right questions and write everything down!
You and your team will begin to think laterally and find cause and effect combinations that will provide you with the cornerstones of customer care.
DIY ISO and the seven principles of quality
In the next issue we will talk about Leadership, the second principle of quality management. To stay up to date subscribe to our newsletter.
If you want to read the first post in the column, you can find it here:
See you soon!