The exact string “high quality consulting services” renders over 100 000 hits on Google (without the quotes you get over 30 million). Having been in this business for some time, I always get a bit annoyed by such phrases. My platitude indicators are flashing red. What is meant by “high” I wonder. And by “quality” for that matter. And why is nobody ever offering “medium quality” or “low quality” services or products?
The word “quality” comes from the latin ”qualitas” which means “from what”. One common definition of the word is “The totality of features and characteristics of a product or service that bear on its ability to satisfy stated or implied needs.” (ISO 8402:1986). “Features” and “characteristics” are according to Dictionary.com synonyms so just “features” would probably suffice. But “stated and implied needs” is rather good. It says that we should not only address the explicitly stated needs but also those that we need to read between the lines or guess. “Bear on”, again according to Dictionary.com means to affect, relate to, or have connection with; be relevant to. Quality is therefore according to this definition the total amount of product or service features that are relevant to its ability to satisfy (customer) needs.
|Quality according to Kano|
Peter Drucker says “Quality in a product or service is not what the supplier puts in. It is what the customer gets out and is willing to pay for.” This definition shifts the perspective from the product or service to the customer. The Japanese professor Noriaki Kano refines this by suggesting that not all features are equal when it comes to creating customer satisfaction.
Necessary features are those without which the product would be totally worthless. An example of a necessary feature of a car is propulsion. The graph to the right illustrates that you can never win a customer with only necessary features since all the competing products have them too. You can at best get a customer that is indifferent to your product or service.
Expected features are those that the customer typically puts on his or her shopping list. For a car that could be a navigator or a collision avoidance system. Yesterday’s expected features tend to become today’s necessary features. With enough expected features customers may prefer your product or service instead of that of your competitor.
Attractive features are features that makes the customer say “wow” in Tom Peters’ terminology. They are per definition unexpected. As illustrated in the graph, attractive features add substantially to customer satisfaction. It is hard to come up with examples of attractive features as they cease to be attractive as soon as the customer has got used to them. I said “wow” when I installed Ubuntu 9.04 on my laptop and the 3G dongle worked out of the box without configurations or installations. (With version 9.10 there was a regression of this functionality that made me rather annoyed. Attractive features soon become necessary features and may then backfire.) Still, attractive features are a very efficient way to increase customer satisfaction (when they work).
That all makes sense but we’re not done yet. In the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance the main character Phaedrus came up with the following definition of quality: “Quality is the response of an organism to its environment”. (Then he went mad.) Inspired by this rather philosophical definition I believe we can refine the definitions of Kano, Drucker and others to the following:
“Quality is what makes our customers do something positive for us, in response to our products and services.”
This means that quality is whatever makes the customer recommend our products for his or her peers and come back and buy some more. Quality doesn’t need to be in the product itself. It can be in the “One-click shopping” of Amazon.com that makes it (too) easy to buy books. It may emerge when we see to it that one of our customers writes a paper involving our products and presents it at a conference. Or it may be a friendly voice on the telephone.
This may not be the ultimate definition but I have the audacity to believe it’s better than most of the alternatives.
Links and references
 Robert M Pirzig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance