Pursuing Quality, Customers, and Business

“A product or service possesses quality if it helps somebody and enjoys a good sustainable market. Trade depends on quality.”

“Everyone expected the good times to continue and to wax better and better…In contrast to expectations, we find, on looking back, that we have been on an economic decline for decades…”

“We can elevate our our economy with specialized services and products. This change will require knowledge. In other words, our problem is education…”

“Customers expect what you and your competitors tell them to expect. And the customer is a fast learner… No customer asked for electric lights. No customer asked for photography. No customer asked for a telephone. No customer asked for an automobile.”

“Zero defects is not sufficient…(Products and services) must show constant improvement…Innovation is essential…It is necessary to innovate, to predict the needs of customers and give them more. The innovator will take the market.” “A good question for anybody in business to ask is ‘What business are we in?’ .. We must keep asking ‘What product or service would help our customers more?’ “

The Business-Customer Relationship

These are all taken from essays and presentations by W. Edward Deming; they appear collected in his 1994 book, The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education . Taken together, in the way I have them appearing here, they provide a good summary of the book while telling an essential story.

Here’s how I put these together:

When I’m a customer, I can clearly express my preferences from among product and service choices, but I don’t innovate, invent, or make. When producers and service providers bother to inquire and listen, what they’d learn about are my needs, interests, pain-points, disturbances. They’d then realize that their role is to invent, build, improve (through innovation) and provide the solutions. When I’m the entrepreneur, I have to make and provide those things and services which best solve the customers’ pain-points. I can be successful in the market place if I can tell customers that my innovation responds to their need, and if I can continually innovate so that I have constantly better solutions as well fewer and fewer errors.

That’s the core of the business-customer relationship: the customer informs the producer/provider, and the producer/provider creates, improves, and supplies the right response to that information. The customer and the producer are partners; their informed, educated exchange results in inventions and solutions that continually improve. When that partnership breaks down for any reason—the producer stops asking and listening, the customer can’t find ways to provide information, the innovation stops (because of business’ arrogance or loss of concern, or because—and this was big for Deming—business leaders lacked the knowledge and education to sustain continual innovation), the value diminishes in relation to price—then the economy as a whole suffers and businesses fail.

What Business Am I In?

And that goes to the question, “What business am I in?” We tend to respond to this with the most obvious answer. We state what product or service we offer. “I’m in the automobile carburetor business” is an example Deming uses. That might have been a correct answer as far as it goes, but it turned out to be inadequate because the carburetor got replaced by better technologies and devices. Had the business owner realized instead that his business was all about creating and building fuel supply systems for engines, that business might have gone on to produce fuel injectors; and eventually, electronic devices. The customer didn’t invent this; the customer’s need was for a continually improved mechanism for getting some energy supply to an engine, and to accomplish this with fewer mechanical problems and at a lower and lower cost.

Case Study: ExecutiveValet Airport Parking, Suffield, Connecticut

The business any of us is in is similar along this dimension: we’re all in the business of creating, building and improving a response to a need. And we improve the likelihood of our business success when we are mindful about all the details that go into building and managing our response. In the past week’s 21st Century Business Round Table, the one in Holyoke, I got to talk with Steve Lepow, business development manager for ExecutiveValet Airport Parking in Connecticut about this. ExecutiveValet provides highly precise, customer-centric, valet parking services for those using Bradley Airport. The business has grown from handling a few hundred cars a day to handling well over a thousand a day; its facility is large and comfortable, it’s processes efficient and attentive to customer needs, and it’s been able to successfully run full-tilt even during the past two year’s worst storms.

I wanted to know how this business addressed quality concerns, innovation, and customer service. We learned that a well-designed and well-run parking service is a great deal more than a large parking lot with curb-side pickup and delivery at the airport. Details abound: designing the lots so that winter plowing never ties up the lot, installing the equipment and lines to add in electric car charging stations as they become more popular, having a comfortable place to drop off one’s car, having the cars ready in advance for each in-coming flight, and on an on. The result is exactly what I’ve just been writing about: a system in which all the things the customer needs but never thought to ask for are created and provided. The customer is not only satisfied but increasingly satisfied, as the company continually explores what it can do to be better.

This leads to having more customers, to having repeat customers, and to gaining big bites of market share. Would you have guessed that an airport parking service would be at the cutting edge of innovation and quality production? I left the conversation with a lot to think about in my own work; between Deming and Mr. Lepow, there’s a lot to learn here about mindful entrepreneurship!

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