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Jeff Dewar

Quality Insider

Helping Customers Define What They Want

How to translate the vagueness of a wish into a specification

Published: Monday, January 28, 2013 - 09:46

“Dad, I'll need a car soon,” came from the lips of my 15-year-old son. A straight-A student, on his way to attaining Eagle Scout rank, and dedicated to the cross-country team, he deserved a hearing. He had been working around the neighborhood doing yard work but had his eyes on the bigger target of a job at the local grocery store fetching shopping carts and cleaning up spills. The pay was better, and it sounded like a fun job.

We sat down to talk it over, and I told him, "Actually, son, you want a car."

“Dad, no, I'll need a car to get to work; they'll hire me soon as I’m 16. They told me.”

“Son, let’s use the right words. You want a car. You need transportation. You require a better bicycle.”

And the banter was on.

So goes our discussions with customers. It’s the eternal debate as to what they really require. What would satisfy them, delight them, dazzle them? How do we understand what, to them, are the most essential expectations? A 1970’s episode of the BBC series, The Two Ronnies, depicts this conundrum beautifully. This six-minute video clip hilariously illustrates what happens every day in a customer/supplier relationship (and shows a very “unlean” general store operation).

The challenge is that customers typically don’t think in terms of specific requirements; rather, they think about what they want in terms of generalities. All too often, customers really don’t know what they want, but they “know it when they see it.”

For example, when I worked with an avionics provider of in-flight entertainment systems, its airline customers would typically express their training requirements something like this: “We want flight attendant training that accurately reflects the operation of the system, teaches skills needed to operate the system, and instills confidence in the system. We don’t want to bear the cost of sending them to classroom training.”

That is far different than a customer requirement of: “We want a flight attendant computer-based training course, delivered via the web, not to exceed 30 minutes. There must be a test at the end of the course with test results reported to a central database. The course must cover every single operational screen and button used in the system, and provide five scenario-based practice exercises. Also, we expect a minimum pass-level of 80 percent.”

The first example is an expression of customer wants, i.e., stating the obvious and expressed to one degree or another in generalities. The critical task is to translate these wants into requirements, and then assemble them into a specification, without making too many assumptions along the way.

Sitting in the first-class cabin

Let’s take a simple example of the service in the first class cabin of an international airline. Imagine you’ve assembled a small focus group of business travelers, and you are discussing the output of “refreshments served.” The table below walks through the process.

1. Determine output to discuss Refreshments served
2. Determine customer quality desires Quick service
3. Determine Quality measurement criteria Length of time to serve passengers after takeoff
4. Define possible standards 5 minutes
5. Define possible customer requirement Refreshments served 5 minutes after takeoff
6. Discuss ideas for tracking • Crews measures themselves
• Provide passengers with stopwatches
• QA inspector monitors service


1. Determine output to discuss 
Choose an output to discuss. In reality you would typically discuss a dozen or more output topics at one sitting.

2. Determine customer quality desires
When you ask customers about your outputs (i.e., what you deliver to them), some of their typical words will be those found in the table below. Four types of outputs are shown: accomplishments, information, behaviors, and goods. An effective term for this collection of words is “quality desires.”

Accomplishments Information Behaviors Goods

Nice appearance



Easy to use

The problem is these words, or quality desires, do not tell us enough to build a customer requirement, but this is how customers think of quality. Therefore, our task is to pry and tease quality desires out of them.

In our example, you ask the customers how they would like their refreshments served. You receive rapid answers of “quickly, fast, promptly.” Again, the answers aren’t specific, but it is how customers think of performance quality.

3. Determine quality measurement criteria
Ask customers how the quality of refreshment service could be measured, and their answers may include, “the length of time to serve after takeoff.” The measurement question is critical, because the way customers express methods of measurement carries with it subtleties of how they think of the output. If they would have said, “length of time to serve after reaching cruising altitude,” it means that their internal clock of ticking impatience does not start until 30,000 feet.

4. Define possible standards
Now play the “what if” game. You ask what a good standard would be, and the focus group responds, “Two minutes! We’re paying first-class fares!” You respond, “OK, we might be able to do that, but would you be willing to pay $200 more for us to develop that technology?” When they decide that five minutes is acceptable without a fare hike, test this possible standard some more by asking, “What about 10 minutes?” When they vigorously object, you know you’ve tested both sides of the standard.

The key here is to narrow the parameters of their expectations. This part of the discussion can be pretty hilarious for everyone, because you’re really getting to the heart of what customers will tolerate. At the same time, look at this as an opportunity to exceed their expectations: Don’t set your sights on five minutes; rather, think about delivering the service in three or four minutes, setting up an opportunity to dazzle them.

5. Define possible customer requirement
Combine the output with a standard, and you’ve created a new or updated requirement.

6. Discuss ideas for tracking
Asking customers for ideas to track your performance of a requirement can be fascinating. Our focus group came up with the idea of providing the passenger stopwatches and a slip of paper to document the crews’ performance. When they tried it, it worked!

What we have just done is take the vagueness out of the way customers think about quality by expressing it in a quantifiable way, while also getting them to tell us the secret answer to, “We’ll know it when we see it.”

A final note: My son did get his car on his 16th birthday—from money he had earned and saved (along with a generous contribution from Uncle Doug, who matched funds). And his new job paid for his gas money.


About The Author

Jeff Dewar’s picture

Jeff Dewar

Jeff Dewar is CEO of Millennium 360 Inc., Quality Digest’s parent company. During his career he has presented quality-related topics to thousands of people on six continents, all but Antarctica.


"All but Antarctica"

Yes, I know a number of people who would - or should? it depends on their wants, or needs - better live there, so they wouldn't have to help their customers to define what they want. But, Mr. Dewar, are WE aware of what WE want, in the first place? Do we really want to help customers define what THEY want, or do we want to make they want what WE want, instead? Propaganda, whose today's name is Advertising Technique, is not so far away. If customers should look at themeselves in a mirror, we, telling them to do so, should do the same - before: an example is worth a thousand words. Thank you.