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Berkonomics

A personal story about quality control

So, I tell personal stories to show that we all should look for lessons learned by others.  Here’s one that is “on me.”

As my enterprise computer software company which produced innovative lodging systems for hotels and resorts grew quickly, we found ourselves straining to keep up with the hiring and training of good customer support representatives, a critical part of the equation then and still so today in the 24-hour environment of hotel front desk operations.

The need for instant support.

If a front desk clerk called support at 11.00 PM in the evening, it usually meant that there were guests lined up waiting to check in, anxious to pass beyond this necessary but inconvenient bottleneck between a tiring plane ride and a comfortable bed.  The result would be very frustrated clerks facing angry guests if the wait was too long.  It was simply not acceptable to be backed up in customer service, forcing either a ten-minute wait or a call back from support.

Rapid growth=hiring inexperienced customer service reps.

It took several months to hire and train enough new service reps to keep up with the rapid growth of our company.  But the problem was solved, and response times returned to “immediate” for at least this class of customer call.  There was no wait, and the quality of response was rated as “excellent” by callers later surveyed.

But “There’s the rub” (the snag) wrote Shakespeare in Hamlet.

[Email readers, continue here…]    It took two long years for the company to fully recover its lost reputation after the actual problem was fixed to the satisfaction of all.  Aided by salespeople from competitors and long memories from unhappy customers, the myth of continued quality problems in customer support bounced around the industry for those years, until finally good press, great experiences and an effective marketing campaign together overwhelmed bad memories to put this issue to bed.

What if the problems had been more complex?

If the problems had been in product stability and customer service together at the same moment, there might not have been enough time and resources to recover.  There are plenty of young companies that died trying to recover from such a combination.

Your reputation hinges upon delivering a quality product at the moment of release and maintaining product quality throughout its life.  The smaller the company, the more is at stake.  There are fewer resources and much less of a reserve of goodwill among the customer base to absorb a problem release – or in the example above, inability to fill the void in customer service created by rapid growth.

  • Harley Kaufman

    Great story. I remember competing against you in those days. Wasn’t fun. Your article moved me to have our Michigan staff (who serve our important first circle of national reps but, more importantly the larger circle of about 1,800 Police, Sheriff’s and Fire Departments create a “Thumbs Report”. Our art department will design a simple document listing all the important info about a transaction and be able to circle the “Thumbs Up” or “Thumbs Down” icon. The report then should move up the chain to senior management quickly. If necessary, an outgoing phone call should ensue. Thumbs both ways because we shouldn’t make the mistake of only memorializing the negative situations that involve the Home Office. Thanx for listening!

  • Philip Bromiley

    Your piece on quality control reminded me of a conversation I had with a colleague who claims (I haven’t reviewed the data) that lean start up really doesn’t on average in good outcomes. I think his explanation is that it is often very hard to learn exactly what went wrong so a system that depends on reliable learning from failures or problems often doesn’t result in useful learning. Exactly why the customers who didn’t buy didn’t buy can be hard to identify.

    To the extent that lean start up relies on not-quite-finished products, wouldn’t it risk the kind of reputation damage you discussed in your quality control post?

    Note also, that I’m not sure everyone recognizes that quality control is not just about the quality of product but rather extends to the entire customer experience.

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