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Quality Transformation With David Schwinn

FDA Compliance

Under-Promise, Over-Deliver

It costs more to get a new customer than to keep one

Published: Tuesday, April 19, 2011 - 06:00

“Under-promise, over-deliver” is a phrase taught to me many years ago by my friend and colleague, PQ Systems’ owner Michael J. Cleary. It may have always been true. It may always be true. It is certainly true today.

I am in the middle of a sabbatical that requires me to buy and learn to use new high-definition video and arrange interviews, transportation, and lodging all over the world. Although the sabbatical is a lot of fun, it is really intense because I have a limited amount of time to get the interviews done, reviewed, and documented into products that make some sense.

Once I decided to videotape the interviews, my friend Terry, whose media savvy I deeply respect, convinced me to record the interviews in high definition instead of using my little Handycam. Because I was entering into unknown territory and had a relatively short time to acquire and learn to use the equipment, I looked for the most reliable (by word of mouth) supplier I could find. I was careful to check, document, and double check all our agreements. Timing was tight, but everything was coming along until, less than two weeks before I was to leave, the supplier contacted me and said he could not get me all the equipment I needed. I have not taken the time to figure out what happened, but this company had given me a promise that it failed to meet. I scrambled around and got what I needed, barely in time for the trip.

At the same time, I started to work with a travel agency used by several colleges and universities in my area to plan our relatively complex, around-the-world trip. Because I was aware of the complexity, I asked what experience the agency had with this type of travel. “We’ve done it before,” they said. “No problem.” As we spent time trying to work out the details of the trip, I noticed that the agency seemed to become less and less responsive. The day that the tickets needed to be booked, I called and discovered that the agent I had been working with was gone, and no one else had any way to help. Again, we scrambled to find another way, which meant starting our trip two weeks late and cutting it short. This is another example of a company not meeting its promise, or at least its customer’s expectations.

I hope I will attempt to figure out what happened in both these situations, but for now I’m still scrambling to make my sabbatical a reality. I’m also remembering W. Edwards Deming frequently saying that managers are trying to put themselves out of business. That certainly seems true in the case of these two companies. Paul R. Timm’s Customer Service (Prentice Hall, 2010) recently reminded me of the statistics we all know:
• It costs five to six times as much to get a new customer than it does to keep one
• Word of mouth has the predominant role in the spread of products and services
• Studies have shown that, on average 50–100 people will be told about bad service

It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure that a firm is better off meeting—or better yet—exceeding its customers’ expectations than falling short of them. And it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know that the firm usually sets the customers’ expectations. Under-promising and over-delivering makes sense. How do we accomplish it?

The first thing that comes to mind is training. We have all had the benefit of on-the-job training. The boss or peer says this is what you should do. You then start and learn how to do the job by asking questions after you do it wrong—often to the chagrin of the customer. Good on-the-job training is possible. As part of my recent personal journey, however, I was reminded that you can do more. With my new travel agency, AirTreks, the agent who worked with me provided frequent special assistance and advice because she had already made the trips I was asking about. Start with good training and then go beyond.

Avoid the use of conditions, goals, and objectives that cause front-line employees to shortchange customer service. We have heard of or been part of service systems that encourage front-line folks to maximize the number of customers served, without regard to the quality of the service provided. When I was at Ford, before “quality is job one” had been initiated, our field service reps were encouraged to spend as little money as possible to satisfy a customer complaint. That, of course, resulted in long negotiations that did nothing to enhance the customer’s view of Ford Motor Co.

Under-promising and over-delivering, of course, takes more effort than this suggests, but just good training and encouragement in all our customer-supplier relations can go a long way toward high quality and keeping our companies in business. It seems to me that most Six Sigma efforts could benefit from a look at customer service… throughout the organization.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and questions. I’m at support@pqsystems.com.

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About The Author

Quality Transformation With David Schwinn’s picture

Quality Transformation With David Schwinn

David Schwinn, an associate of PQ Systems, is a full-time professor of management at Lansing Community College and a part-time consultant in the college’s Small Business and Technology Development Center. He is also a consultant in systems and organizational development with InGenius and INTERACT Associates.

Schwinn worked at Ford’s corporate quality office and worked with W. Edwards Deming beginning in the early 1980s until Deming’s death.  Schwinn is a professional engineer with an MBA from Wright State University. You can reach him at support@pqsystems.com.