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Is Quality a Key Part of Your Small Business?

By Eric Giltner, Senior Area Manager, SBA North Dakota District Office

Quality is a word that is used over and over in the marketing pitches used by businesses. We have all heard phrases such as “Bringing You Quality Service for Over 35 years,” or “Quality Comes First at Company XYZ.”

Do business owners really know what quality is all about? If you were to ask twenty business owners to define quality, you would get twenty very different answers, with some common themes mixed in between those opinions. Some will focus on zero defects. Focusing on zero defects is a noble ambition, but it is an internal action and does not take into account the customers’ needs. Others will describe the use of the most expensive or finest materials. Does this mean a low-cost product or service has little or no quality?

So, from a small business standpoint, what is the best definition of quality? Simply this: Quality is meeting customer expectations and meeting them on time.

Consider three different types of eating utensils: a plastic set for picnics, stainless steel for everyday use and sterling silver for fine dining. These utensils have very different price points and, in the case of plastic, a very limited lifespan. The plastic set is perfect for the picnic; it is light and can be disposed of after use. The stainless set is durable and can be withstand multiple trips to the dishwasher. The sterling set is elegant and requires a higher level of care than stainless. Yet all three, when used as intended, possess a level of quality and meet client expectations.

If business owners are concerned about quality, then they should consider four key elements comprising their business models that have an impact on whether or not a client’s expectations are met.

1) Personal Interactions: The interaction between an employee and a patron is a key factor regarding whether a patron’s needs are met. Often, new employee training focuses on the technical aspects of the job, such as how to use equipment or fill out reports. Technical skills need to be reinforced with “people skills,” especially in those positions where the consumer – employee interactions are an integral part of providing a product or service. In a response to several complaints, a mid-western city in the U.S. surveyed all of its employees who provide services to an individual seeking to open a new business. Twenty positions were identified as providing some sort of service to a new business, yet not one of those positions had any performance element involving customer service. The lesson: provide the proper level of training and build customer service measures into job descriptions, because a business is only as good as its poorest performing employee.

2) Points of Contact: To purchase a product or a service, a buyer has to access the business in multiple ways.Consider all of the physical and visual aspects of your business and how those may affect, positively or negatively, a customer interaction. As a business owner, do you walk in the front door often, eyes wide open, to see what your patrons see? Most business owners enter through a rear door and may not realize glass on the front door is dirty and creates an unpleasant welcome. What about your website? Is it informative, interactive and easy to navigate?Or do purchasers migrate towards your competitors, who make doing business online and in person easier? When shoppers call by phone, are they greeted with a friendly voice or a nightmarish automated phone system? “Press one for sales, press two for customer service…press 72 out of frustration.”

3) Policies and Procedures: Every business model is created using policies and procedures enabling employees to provide products or services to consumers or for consumers to directly access those products or services directly. This is necessary to provide consistency and to ensure profitability. However, it is important to objectively determine if buyers’ needs are not met because of a policy. For example, setting business hours is a form of policy. A store selling uniforms for healthcare workers that is only open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. may not be convenient for large numbers of nurses, for instance, who work first shift. Expanding hours to meet a variety of clients’ work schedules would be a much better option. So, periodically review policies and procedures to ensure that those policies are not making it difficult to meet shoppers’ needs and expectations.

4) Product and/or Service Mix: There are two issues to consider about your products and services. First, purchasers’ needs evolve over time, and your offering needs to keep pace. Also, societal values do eventually weave their way into the products and services we buy. For example, many buyers would prefer to purchase goods and services that are “eco-friendly.” As a result, there are many products made of recycled materials or produced “organically” in the marketplace today. The second issue is to always describe your offering by the problem you solve for your customers, as opposed to the specific product features. Many years ago, the president of the largest seller of slide-rules dismissed the emergence of electronic calculators as a fad that would be too expensive to supplant the slide-rule from the market. Had this president thought of his offering as a “hand-held calculator,” perhaps the company would have been able to join the movement to develop electronic calculators and remain a major player in the market. Most people now do not even know what a slide rule is. Another example: cameras using film being supplanted by digital cameras, then cameras being included as part of the product features on smart phones.

All four of these elements should be continually assessed to determine if your business is meeting clients’ expectations. Also, the second key component of meeting customer expectations has to do with meeting or exceeding expectations on time. Design your business model so that you can provide timely solutions to the problems faced by your patrons. The most beautiful and delicious wedding cake has no value if delivered on the day after the wedding!