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Akhilesh Gulati

Quality Insider

Got Customer Requirements?

To clinch a deal, some businesses will promise anything, even if it’s beyond their capabilities

Published: Thursday, July 7, 2011 - 15:36

Wanting to be known for his hospitality in the neighborhood, a restaurant owner advertised take-out Thanksgiving turkey dinners, ready to go. With the holiday coming up, Joe planned to have friends over for dinner and decided to take advantage of the offer. When he called in his order, he was assured he’d get the turkey in time to pull it out of the oven and that it would be perfectly cooked.

However on Thanksgiving Day, when Joe went to the restaurant to pick up his order, the owner apologized, explaining that they had had some challenges. They were having a new cook come in shortly, and it would be just a bit more time. A few hours later, Joe returned to pick up his order. This time, instead of handing over a cooked turkey dinner, the restaurant owner had some questions as to the dinner’s requirements: what type stuffing, what side dish, what kind of gravy. Joe’s guests were due to arrive in less than an hour; in the end they had to settle for turkey salami.

As compensation for his inconvenience, the restaurant owner offered to send a free, if late, turkey dinner to Joe’s house. Six months later, the turkey dinner was finally delivered. Unfortunately, it turned out to be chicken and got sent to the wrong address.

Does this story sound improbable? Does it make you wonder how anyone could operate a business this way? And how could customers be willing to accept such service?

Take a moment to reflect on whether this has ever happened to you, either as a supplier or a customer. This sort of overreaching seems to become more prevalent when the economy is slow and everyone is scrambling to get some business, especially when they feel they have to promise high but can only deliver low. In their enthusiasm to get customers, businesses are willing to promise anything, even if it is beyond their capabilities. Perhaps their intent is to get the order and then figure out the requirements as they go along. Why bother a customer with tons of questions? Not to mention that these businesses probably don’t know what questions to ask, since whatever they've agreed to isn’t quite their competency. Or maybe by asking too many questions, these companies are worried that they may be indicating, without actually saying as much, that they really don’t know what they’re doing. 

Gathering customer requirements is critical in any business. Remember the SIPOC (supply, input, process, output, customer) basic business-process model. There must always be an accurate rendering of what the customer wants vs. what the supplier delivers. What must be avoided at all costs is a whisper-down-the-lane confusion from market research, product development, engineering, production, and sales, where the product ends up totally different from what the customer originally wanted.

Let’s go back to the turkey dinner story. Replace the turkey with a customized consumer product (e.g., a software application or wedding gown). A salesperson takes the order along with the associated requirements to the best of his knowledge, not necessarily knowing the capabilities of his company’s delivery team (e.g., timeline for software development or availability of a dress designer). Too late, the management team discovers that the delivery team can’t develop the product the customer asked for. The deadline has already passed, but the management team, determined to keep the business, “manages” the customer relationship. A new delivery team, with different competencies, is thrown together, and the process begins again. There are new questions and it is determined that this set of delivery folks do not have the capabilities, either. They start studying the issue. There are more questions and, finally, a prototype (e.g., web page or gown). Unfortunately, one or more of the customized features falls far short of what was explained at the start of the project.

Do we understand the importance of gathering customer requirements? Regardless of the economy’s condition, understanding customer requirements is one of the first essential activities of any production process because it determines whether our capabilities are up to the task—before accepting an order. Although we keep trying different ways to engage customers, we need to stick to the core values of quickly and seamlessly understanding and meeting their requirements. Not all potential customers are a fit.

We can use sophisticated tools or rely on old-fashioned, inefficient means. We can focus on enhancing productivity and invest strategically. But if we do not understand and meet customer requirements, focusing on other initiatives such as increasing workforce productivity or fueling faster innovation will not give us any competitive advantage or sustain growth for the long term.

As we go after business renewal with a vengeance, we need to ask, “Got customer requirements?”


About The Author

Akhilesh Gulati’s picture

Akhilesh Gulati

Akhilesh Gulati has 25 years of experience in operational excellence, process redesign, lean, Six Sigma, strategic planning, and TRIZ (structured innovation) training and consulting in a variety of industries. Gulati is the Principal consultant at PIVOT Management Consultants and the CEO of the analytics firm Pivot Adapt Inc. in S. California. Akhilesh holds an MS from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and MBA from UCLA, is a Six Sigma Master Black Belt and a Balanced Scorecard Professional.