Quality Is More than Making a Good Product
by Hirotaka Takeuchi and John Quelch
FROM THE JULY 1983 ISSUE
Corporate managers and costomers have in recent years adopted divergent views of product quality. Several recent surveys indicate how wide the quality perception gap is:
Three out of five chief executives of the country’s largest 1,300 businesses said in a 1981 survey that quality is improving; only 13% said it is declining. Yet 49% of 7,000 consumers surveyed in a separate 1981 study said that the quality of U.S. products had declined in the past five years. In addition, 59% expected quality to stay down or decline further in the next five years
Half the executives of major American appliance manufacturers said in a 1981 survey that the reliability of their goods had improved in the past recent years.
Executives of U.S. auto manufacturers cite internal records that show quality to be improving each year. “Ford quality improved by 27% in our 1981 models over 1980 models,” said a Ford executive. But surveys show that consumers realeice the quality of U.S. cars to be declining in comparison with imported cars, particularly those from Japan.
Mindful of this gap, many U.S. companies have turned to promotional tactics to improve their quality image. Such efforts are evident in two trends. The first is the greater emphasis advertisements place on the word quality and on such themes as reliability, durability, and workmanship. Ford, for instance, advertises that “quality is job one,” and Levi Strauss proffers the notion that “quality never goes out of style.” And many ads now claim that products are “the best”
or “better than” competitors’.
The second trend is the move to quality assurance and extended service programs. Chrysler offers a five-year, 50,000 mile warranty; Whirlpool Corporation promises that parts for all models will be available for 15 years; Hewlett-Packard gives customers a 99% uptime service guarantee on its
computers; and Mercedes-Benz makes technicians available for roadside assistance after normal dealer service hours.
While these attempts to change customer perceptions are a step in the right direction, a company’s or a product’s quality image obviously cannot be improved overnight. It takes time to cultivate customer confidence, and promotional tactics alone will not do the job. In fact, they can backfire if
the claims and promises do not hold up and customers perceive them as gimmicks. To ensure delivery of advertising claims, companies must build quality into their products or services. From a production perspective, this means a companywide commitment to eliminate errors at every stage of the product development process—product design, process design, and manufacturing. It also means working closely with suppliers to eliminate defects from all incoming
Equally important yet often overlooked are the marketing aspects of quality-improvement programs. Companies must be sure they are offering the benefits customers seek. Quality should be primarily customer-driven, not technology-driven, production-driven, or competitor-driven.
In developing product quality programs, companies often fail to take into account two basic sets of questions. First, how do customers define quality, and why are they suddenly demanding higherquality than in the past? Second, how important is high quality in customer service, and how can it
be ensured after the sale?
As mundane as these questions may sound, the answers provide essential information on how tobuild an effective customer-driven quality program. We should not forget that customers, after all, serve as the ultimate judge of quality in the marketplace.
The Production-Service Connection Product performance and customer service are closely linked in any quality program; the greater the attention to product quality in production, the fewer the demands on the customer service operation to correct subsequent problems. Office equipment manufacturers, for example, are
designing products to have fewer manual and more automatic controls. Not only are the products easier to operate and less susceptible to misuse but they also require little maintenance and have internal troubleshooting systems to aid in problem identification. The up-front investment in quality minimizes the need for customer service. Besides its usual functions, customer service can act as an early warning system to detect product quality problems. Customer surveys measuring product performance can also help spot quality control or design difficulties. And of course detecting defects early spares later embarrassment and