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A primer for improvement for a new generation of busy leaders

Quality Quiz: With a video!

Data in everyday life

Six Sigma and more

Bytes and pieces

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A primer for improvement

for a new generation of busy leaders

With a variety of approaches to process improvement, including programs and regimens that have come and gone without a trace, a new generation of business owners, educators, and healthcare providers is ready to get to the heart of improvement and to understand the basics about quality of products and services. Unlike earlier generations, they do not have time to take extensive courses or attend multiple conferences in their quest for this understanding. So let’s boil down the essentials of quality improvement, beginning with the customer’s experience.

We’ve all been victims of poor customer service. Recorded telephone responses, including the interminable “Press 1 for sales...” to “Press 2 for service” announcements, or the softly uttered assurance that “Your call is important to us…” that precedes a 15-minute wait on hold, or the unanswered letter to customer service—all have become routine in our business lives. Everyone has a horror story when it comes to customer service, it seems, although the old “Complaint” window has long ago vanished from our experience, aside from its appearance in cartoons.

The quality of a customer’s experience with an organization begins to be evaluated at the first interface between customer and provider, but the provider often does not even realize that an interface has taken place. It is common knowledge that 95% of customers who have had a negative experience will never complain about it. Further, it is easy to view the disgruntled customer as just that…someone who will complain about anything. As the American Society for Quality points out, “unless your company offers a unique product or service, your major competitive advantage is high quality service. Quality service results in repeat and additional purchases from existing customers.” And further, “The Harvard Business Review reports that customers who experience poor service quality often stop doing business with the offending companies without warning or complaint. On average, 40 percent of customers with poor experiences do not return.”

Of course, the reality is that the quality of an organization and the success of its endeavor are dependent on the responses of its customers. It is common understanding that when a customer has a positive experience, he or she may tell one person about that experience; if the interaction has been negative, it will be related to at least seven people. All the advertising in the world cannot compensate for an unpleasant or negative experience of a customer. Failing to respond to a suggestion or complaint from a customer will be fodder for countless conversations about your company. And remember—it’s less expensive to hold on to an existing customer than to develop new customers.

Preventing customer dissatisfaction goes well beyond assuring a pleasant voice on the voicemail recorder. It involves a genuine commitment to improvement, a conscious look at a number of factors in an organization that ultimately lead to the interface with the customer. These factors include:

a. an understanding of who the customer is;
b. knowledge of the system that serves the customer;
c. responsive leadership that understands variation in the system;
d. use of data in making decisions.

This list embodies what is often referred to as “quality,” because it reflects an interest in improvement at every level of an organization—and a concerted organization-wide commitment to monitoring processes to assure that improvement.

You may remember when you were learning to drive. You had to think in small steps: press in the clutch, insert the key and start the engine, look in the rear-view mirror, put the car in gear, slowly (or jerkily, if you were new at this) move forward. It all seemed somewhat artificial and halting, and you may have thought you’d never get the hang of it. But look at the process now; you undertake the same steps, but you no longer need a list or flow chart or a memory jogger to follow them. Driving has become second nature to you, and you are barely conscious of the improvement you’ve made since those days when you initiated a new process into your regimen.

Process improvement—bringing continuous improvement to any process and enhancing its quality—is the same way. You may find yourself studying manuals or using reminders about the steps to improvement as you begin a quality journey, but it will all become second nature to you eventually. You will sense opportunities for improvement; you will become facile with data; and you will see your processes improve over time.

A white paper developed by PQ Systems outlines approaches to each of the four aspects of improvement that ultimately lead to customer satisfaction listed above. To learn more about assuring customer satisfaction, you can download this free white paper, Four steps to improving customer service, from the PQ Systems website.

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