Are Economic Factors Changing The Concept of Quality in Small Business Environment?

What exactly does “Quality” mean for small businesses? Has the economic downturn over the past 6 years changed the definition of quality relative to small business’s delivery of products and services? Is quality, the major driver in delivering and selling to businesses? Are consumers now willing to compromise on quality, to save money? How much will small businesses and individuals tolerate in diminished services or product quality and decide less quality is more important if they can save money?

I recently met with an acquaintance that operates a small commercial oriented service business. He was lamenting that 10 years ago he launched into a program whereby he structured his company to deliver the highest quality service to his industrial customers. His quality goals were defined based upon what the customers told him were their highest priorities for good product and service qualities. Those attributes were (in order of preferences): timely responses to their requests, error free production/finished product, on-time delivery of the product/service, and fair pricing for their quality demands. It is important to note that fair pricing was not defined as being the cheapest.

Today, he is finding those customers that said, ” we buy only quality products and services” are now doing business with vendors offering rock bottom pricing. To get rock bottom pricing quality has suffered; flaws are tolerated. Some small companies are now working with vendors that are moonlighting to pick up a little extra cash and may lack experience working with the latest software technology, equipment, and materials. So, what has happened in the small business sector, relative to the pride a vendor once took in high quality personalized service with a commensurate return? They seem to have vanished; at least for the time being.

Conversely, some large manufacturers found a component of quality to mean, components delivered on-time/just-in-time saves them money and equates into sales. Does this example also apply to small businesses across the board, well, maybe not? But there are disconnects; just look at the GM issue of late, where quality was not worth the expense (at the time). This aside, it does seem quality is no longer the coin of the realm with small commercial service businesses. They may look at quality as a product component that is hard to justify on a revenue basis. Some managers might think they can fine tune the service or product quality in house and not pay the vendor for a high level of quality.

Businesses catering to the end user of products and services still demand quality. But, most of them offer product and services that are focused on high touch and personal attention to details industries. This quality is not inexpensive to deliver.

Could all the changes in small business methods, with pressure on costs, be forcing a new definition of how small business develops their pricing for various levels of quality? I guess if the service or product isn’t life threatening it could slip on the” need for quality” scale. Offer quality but at a premium; let the customer decide what price quality is worth.

I think discussions about quality from a small business perspective need to be targeted; defining exactly what elements of quality are worthwhile? As standalone considerations, such things as-glitz, glamour, individualized services, and attention to detail may not add anything to perceived quality. For example, the precision delivered in a service product maybe isn’t appreciated or needed. Therefore, maybe this is just one example where companies are trading with vendors based on cost and less on quality. Some companies are picking apart the elements of quality being offered to them and settling for a lot less of quality.

It is hard to really understand all the issues involved in small businesses purchasing services and products with the primary consideration being quality. Now the question is: Why does there seem to be a shift in small businesses buying services that are primarily price driven? Quantitative data seems to indicate there is a shift from the holy grail of quality. And, we do recognize, there are still a plethora of companies offering services and product purely based on quality. For example, there are some hotels and car companies having a nice customer niche based on quality; those markets being consumer and extremely large. Everyone could probably agree that any service and product could have such quality if their market would be broad enough to support such quality.

Gucci had a corporate mantra that said: Quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten. Of course that was their market and it is still large. Maybe the 1% is enough to support that kind of quality.

For small businesses today, owners must balance costs, revenue demands, marketplace, competition and sophistication of the marketplace. If adding elements of quality to the product line do not generate enough revenue to cover incremental cost, then redefine quality. Quality is in the eye of the beholder. I would imagine a farrier (installer of horseshoes) isn’t concerned about the packaging, website, product guarantees, or hand polished horseshoes. He just wants horseshoes at a competitive (lowest) price and from a supplier that keeps them on hand.

Some thoughts on quality:

  • Quality has a myriad of definitions and quality definitions are industry specific and customer dependent. Maybe quality in an industry is simply having a human answer the phone… thinking of the DMV.
  • The customer will always dictate quality levels.
  • Don’t expect the quality to be free; there are no free lunches. Quality does impact margins.

I can remember in the early dot com boom, as a vendor and customer, quality was measured by such things as how expensive were the give-a-ways, how costly were entertainment bills, running online ads no matter the end results and justifying expensive tracking programs and site designs for no substantiate reason. So glitz, glamour, service, and value of the end results were components of what we thought was quality. Is that your definition of quality today? Quality in today’s business environment is being re-evaluated relative to costs and revenue impact.

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