Responding to Customer Needs

Written by Gary Robinson  Executive General Manager Operations at Quickstep

When the fundamentals of Quality Assurance are taught, it is quite often normal to consider Product Quality and Service Quality separately, where Product Quality applies to manufacturing industries and Service Quality applies to service industries. This separation can cause manufacturing industries to miss a key opportunity to enhance their overall quality image with the customer. Of course, nothing will make up for having a poor quality product, but when things to go wrong with product quality (and they will), a business that has applied the principles of service quality will be able to significantly reduce the negative impact this can have on their reputation with the customer. A key principle of service quality is providing the people responsible for service delivery (they are manufacturing the product in front of the customer) with a measure of autonomy and agility that enables them to quickly respond to quality issues. As a small, agile business with short approval hierarchies, Quickstep is ideally positioned to provide exceptional service quality to our customers and use this as a key point of differentiation compared to our larger, better resourced but less agile competitors.

Service quality is typically defined as the difference between perceived performance and customer expectations. Critically, both of these can only really be measured by the customer. However the good news is that, just like outrunning a lion, we only need to be better than our competitors to be very successful. Also, with service quality, response time can have equal or more weighting than the actions that are taken. Think about when you assess service quality; the ability of the person serving you (making the product or fielding the complaint) to make a decision on the spot to fix something, holds a lot more weight than if the same person needs to refer your issue back to head office or their manager and provide you with a response tomorrow. The delayed response will result in a much lower assessment of service quality, despite an equivalent real outcome.

The other key to service quality that I learnt from a very wise general manager early in my career, is to always stop for a moment during a quality crisis and ask yourself “what would the customer want”. While the answer to this is not always fully achievable, it will avoid your business putting a large amount of effort into a solution that is heavily focused on minimising the impact on your business (this is the natural tendency) but leaves your customer largely, or completely, unsatisfied.

So for Quickstep, speed and agility in responding to quality issues and new or changing customer requirements, is a very efficient way of improving the quality perception of us and making us stand out as higher quality than our competitors despite the inevitable bumps in the road that occur during any business relationship. The message here is that we do not want any product quality issues, but if they do occur, Quickstep can use our inherent agility to provide excellent service quality that will delight our customers and is not easily replicated by our larger, but less agile competitors in a similar situation.

While at Quickstep, I have been attempting to apply these guidelines to all our customer related interactions; respond with agility, ask what would the customer want, work out how close we can get to that, advise the customer, implement, and keep them informed. Last year, when a quality issue in the flap assemblies we supply for the C130 threatened to impact Lockheed’s deliveries to their customer, Quickstep used this operating paradigm to design our response. We developed a plan based on what we believed the customer would expect, quickly assembled a team to provide on-site support at our customer’s site, developed repair strategies in parallel, and then worked directly with Lockheed to gain final customer approval for the repair. At the completion of the repair work and recovery of the delivery schedule, we had strengthened our position with Lockheed as a trusted partner who recognised their requirements and understood our responsibilities as a supplier. In a similar manner we used our inherent agility and customer focus to respond to an urgent request from Boeing for a previously un-supplied component for the AV8B aircraft. The unique properties of the material required the adaptation of an existing manufacturing facility to provide a safe workplace and complete new tooling was built and certified. Agile decision making at all levels of the business and a focus on what the customer needed, enabled Quickstep to stand out from other suppliers.

In conclusion, applying the principles of service quality in response to product quality issues and/or customer requests in a business-to-business environment has contributed, along with real improvements in product quality, to a strengthening of Quickstep’s position as a high quality supplier.