I recently bought a new set of towels for my master bath. Like a good project and engineering manager, I first researched the differences between Egyptian and Turkish cotton as well as other common features and attributes of towels. Because I was choosing a very dark color, I read blogs on colorfast towels and I considered the life of my previous towels in making a decision.
You see, I wanted a set of quality towels. But what is quality? My definition of quality has to do with colorfastness and long life as well as softness. In my research, I learned that many people also care about how fast a wet towel will dry and how much it will shrink after multiple laundering cycles. Each customer defines quality differently!
Of course, as product, project, and engineering managers, we have to deliver quality products and services to a vast array of customers. We do have to define quality in measurable terms so we can design and develop products and the processes to manufacture these goods. A towel may have to be designed with a trade-off between softness and ability to dry quickly after use. Which feature do you select to sell your towel as a “quality” product?
Two Elements of Quality
Quality is always defined in the eyes of the customer. Groups of customers typically seek similar features. One group of customers wants really soft towels. Another wants the towels to dry quickly. And yet another group of customers desires the colors to not fade over time.
We can group customers into “target markets” to better understand their needs. We can then match customer needs to our product development and manufacturing capabilities. New products will deliver features and attributes desired in at least one target market at an acceptable price point. By matching customer needs and design capabilities, firms can normally ensure a profitable endeavor.
Yet, how is quality measured by these target customers? Quality is defined by two elements: customer satisfaction and customer expectations.
Customer satisfaction is a quantitative definition of quality. A firm can measure and validate customer satisfaction through market research methods and tools. For example, a survey of customers who recently purchased towels may determine their level of satisfaction with the color choices, pricing, and softness. If the company is falling short in any of these areas, they can evaluate whether a new product development (NPD) project is in order to bridge the gap in customer satisfaction. Alternatively, the company may need to re-consider its target market by going up-market (exclusive color choices, higher price point, softer towel) or by going down-market (white towels, lower prices, reduced softness).
What’s missing from a backward looking tool, like surveys, is that even though a customer may be satisfied with the purchase of a product, it may not meet his/her expectations. Customer expectations are a subjective element of quality and much harder to measure. Yet meeting customer expectations is what differentiates a company that is successful in product development from its competitors.
Customer expectations are a qualitative measure of how well a product or service meets a customer’s needs. Often quality is defined in terms of reliability or life cycle so that longer term use of the product is required in order for a consumer to assess its quality. For instance, colorfastness of a towel is measured in terms of months and years, not weeks. Shrinkage would be measure after a hundred washings, not a dozen.
Product, project, and engineering managers must use forward-looking variables to assess qualitative customer expectations. However, most consumers cannot express these variables in measurable terms. There are a couple of market research techniques that are useful to gather this information. First, interviewing key groups of customers can shed light on the qualitative aspects of a design. Studies show that interviewing just 20 or 30 potential customers can be sufficient to represent the entire pool of consumers. Interviews will reveal the top features required from development to meet customer expectations (e.g. colorfastness, dries quickly, does not shrink).
Another technique to use to draw out customer expectations is a ranking tool. Ask your customers to compare two features at a time and choose which is the most important between them. You can use cards to facilitate the process and label them, for example (1) softness, (2) price, (3) colorfastness, (4) color choice, (5) dries quickly, and (6) little shrinkage.
Potential customers will compare just two cards (features) at a time, ranking softness above colorfastness, then choosing price over softness, for example. Again, a relatively small sample size will expose a set of desired features ranked by customer importance. Designing and developing a product based on these customer expectations will help to meet the consumer’s definition of quality.
Customers Define Quality
It is true that each customer will define quality differently based on his/her experiences, needs, and wants. Product, project, and engineering managers can design and develop product solutions based on two elements of quality: customer satisfaction and customer expectations.
Customer satisfaction is a quantitative, short-term backward-looking measure of quality. Yet, customers must be satisfied at a minimum level in order for a product to be successful in the marketplace. In contrast, customer expectations are qualitative and forward-looking. It is more difficult to ascertain what customers in a product but it is the very root of success. Products and services must deliver customer expectations in order to fully reach a target market and to be labelled as a “quality” provider.
To learn more about developing products and services for quality, we offer new product skills development with industry best practices in innovate coupled with certification training in New Product Development Professional (NPDP) workshops. You can demonstrate continuous learning through an affordable self-study course or in a customized face-to-face training session. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 281-280-8717 for information on new product development training or professional management coaching. At Simple-PDH, we want to make it simple for you to study, learn, and earn and maintain your professional certifications.
And for inquiring minds – Egyptian cotton has longer fibers than Turkish cotton making the towel feel softer but it will take longer to dry.
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