Challenges in Defining Quality Attributes

Description

Any effort to fully understand customer needs and desires is imperfect. Including all customers in the discovery process can be impractical, and customers are often not able to communicate the full extent of attributes that will comprise service evaluation. Furthermore, customers’ needs change over time. Because of these challenges, service suppliers must conduct ongoing efforts to understand to the fullest extent possible what customers want and what factors will be used to evaluate service.

Application

  • Often, organizations believe they understand their customers, but in reality they do not.  As a consultant to service providers, Ron Zemke often conducted workshops in hotels and conference centers. 1)Albrecht, Karl, and Ron Zemke, Service America! Doing Business in the New Economy (Homewood, Illinois: Dow Jones-Irwin, 1985). He would challenge the catering manager to tell him what customers expected when it came to coffee breaks. He almost always received answers such as “rich, aromatic coffee; shining, attractive urns; beautiful place settings with table linens; a nice variety of accompaniments such as finger foods.” Then, just before calling for a coffee break during the workshop, Zemke would ask the customers what they needed and wanted.  The answers always included “a nearby bathroom, a telephone or a location with privacy and good cell phone coverage, a place to converse with fellow workshop participants informally, an opportunity to stretch my legs, and, oh yes, it would be nice to have a cup of coffee.”Albrecht, Karl, and Ron Zemke, Service America! Doing Business in the New Economy (Homewood, Illinois: Dow Jones-Irwin, 1985).
  • Customers make buying decisions based on their perception of the relative market value of products and services:2)Gale, Bradley, Managing Customer Value: Creating Quality and Service That Customers Can See. (New York: The Free Press, 1994.

Perception: An organization may have the best service or the best widget, but if customers do not perceive that superiority, it does not figure into their buying decision.

Relative: Any offering is compared with what others offer.

Market: A group of competitor offerings will be relevant to the customer making the buying decision.

Value: Customers examine the benefit-to cost ratio of what they believe they will receive (“benefits”) and what they believe it will cost (not just in purchase price, but in inconvenience, time, effort, cost of use, etc.).

  • To understand customers, an organization must therefore understand what they perceive (often best judged by what they actually do rather than merely what they say), what they expect to be the benefits of using a product or service, what they perceive to be the costs of obtaining and using the product or service, what competitors are offering, who competitors are for each type and level of product and service provided, and how customers and potential customers see the benefits and costs of competitors’ offerings.
  • Customer expectations are not easy to discover. A basic framework of customer expectations is described by the Kano model, developed by Noriaki Kano in the 1980s.3)Kano, Noriaki, Nobuhiku Seraku, Fumio Takahashi, and Shinichi Tsuji, “Attractive Quality and Must-be Quality” (in Japanese). Journal of the Japanese Society for Quality Control 14, no. 2 (1984): 39–48  It posits that for any product or service there are basic (“must-be”) attributes, “one-dimensional” (or “linear”) attributes, and “attractive” attributes which contribute to satisfaction or dissatisfaction, and there are “indifferent” attributes that do not have much impact:

The absence of must-be attributes will lead to dissatisfaction, but their presence does not contribute to high satisfaction. Must-be attributes are taken for granted,  such as electrical power being supplied at the flip of a switch.)

The more a product or service has of any one-dimensional attribute, the better. More of the attribute leads to higher customer satisfaction; less leads to lower satisfaction. A sub-category is “reverse” attributes, where more  leads to lower satisfaction and less leads to higher satisfaction (such as a higher price).

Attractive attributes will lead to increased satisfaction when present, but their absence will go unnoticed. They are sometimes called “delighters.”

Indifferent attributes do not lead either to satisfaction or to dissatisfaction. They don’t have enough impact to matter very much in the customer’s purchasing decision.

It is difficult for customers to identify or communicate latent desires for products and services – what the Kano model calls “attractive” attributes. Kano describes a type of questionnaire that can be used to prompt customers to differentiate among the types of attributes, including attractive ones. For more details, see “marketing research” in this body of knowledge.

  • A primary requirement of customers is “no unpleasant surprises.”4)Goodman, John. Strategic Customer Service (New York: Amacom, 2009). Customers want service delivered via whatever channel is most convenient,whether that is online, by telephone, or face to face. They want the service performed without problems. If a problem is encountered, then key drivers of service satisfaction change. (Refer to “service recovery” in the service delivery section of the body of knowledge for more detail.) Thus, in addition to knowing customers’ expectations and needs, organizations must also know their “recovery needs and expectations.”

 

References   [ + ]

1. Albrecht, Karl, and Ron Zemke, Service America! Doing Business in the New Economy (Homewood, Illinois: Dow Jones-Irwin, 1985).
2. Gale, Bradley, Managing Customer Value: Creating Quality and Service That Customers Can See. (New York: The Free Press, 1994.
3. Kano, Noriaki, Nobuhiku Seraku, Fumio Takahashi, and Shinichi Tsuji, “Attractive Quality and Must-be Quality” (in Japanese). Journal of the Japanese Society for Quality Control 14, no. 2 (1984): 39–48
4. Goodman, John. Strategic Customer Service (New York: Amacom, 2009).