Product quality’s the price of entry

The following column, which appears each issue, looks at new and emerging trends in direct marketing. Alternating columnists are Barbara Canning Brown, a leading figure in the Canadian direct marketing industry, and David Foley, a specialist in database marketing programs.Strategy also...

The following column, which appears each issue, looks at new and emerging trends in direct marketing. Alternating columnists are Barbara Canning Brown, a leading figure in the Canadian direct marketing industry, and David Foley, a specialist in database marketing programs.

Strategy also invites other news items or column submissions for this section. Enquiries should be directed to Mark Smyka, editor, (416) 408-2300.

(Part 1 of 2)

There is an old business adage that I used to see pinned up on office walls: ‘Quality, Price, Service – Pick Two.’

Any business that still displays this (or, worse yet, believes in it) these days is surely an empty one with nothing left but the walls and the old maxims curled up and yellowing.

In the 1990s, product quality is quite simply the price of entry and price is, very often, negotiable, meaning you can hunt around till you find the price you are willing to pay (or be a bully.)

As for service, if you have not learned any lessons from everything that has been said and written on the subject in the last several years, then you had better get busy because you could be facing an empty office, too, some day soon.

Why? Because quality of service is no longer a strong point of differentiation versus your competition either.

Now, you might find this hard to believe, as I sometimes do when I go into some retail stores and cannot find anybody to take my money.

Funny how the windows of places like that seem to be getting papered over lately. Or, when I call up a business for information and get dizzy on the voice mail merry-go-round.

Quality practices

In fact, according to research from the American Quality Foundation, a New York City think-tank, less than 50% of quality practices add any tangible benefit, such as higher margins or faster turnaround times. What is more, 30% of practices add no value at all. So, what’s next?

In a word – innovation. Now, there is a challenge.

Joshua Hammond, president of the American Quality Foundation, believes innovation springs from a number of broad practices associated with outstanding companies.

Among the most important of these practices is working to retain and recruit customers by building and maintaining relationships of trust. Enter direct marketing.

Now, you might be thinking, here comes that relationship marketing stuff. You are right.

For example, why, when you have just spent an absolute fortune on a much-deserved 10 days in the Caribbean, do you not get a note, a call, a questionnaire or a carrier pigeon inquiring whether you were happy, had a good time, will ever come back again or have any ideas on how the holiday experience might be improved ?

Difficult? No. Expensive? Not very, compared with a high-priced holiday. But, boy wouldn’t you feel differently about that travel company and, probably, use them again next time?

Or, how about this one. You own a luxury car. It has been making funny noises, so you take it to the dealership for service because that is what you are supposed to do. Right?

You leave it there at great inconvenience for a couple of days. You get it back. It is still making noises. Two days later, on the weekend or in the evening, you get a polite, feminine phone call.

(Of course, the luxury car company does not do service on weekends or evenings. That would be too convenient.)

‘Luxury car company calling. How was your service?’ Grateful for the attention, you welcome the opportunity to provide feedback. ‘Lousy,” you reply, and go on at length. So, what happens next?

Same cycle

You go through exactly the same cycle – several times. Why do you get the feeling that there is a small army of sweet-voiced females calling people up just for fun, asking them about their car service? Is this some new form of dating service?

Here’s another one. You had a different car you used to take to the dealership for service. They were faithful about following up by phone after the servicing (just like the luxury car company) and, bonus, they always sent regular reminders about when service was due.

Only problem is, three years have gone by, you sold the car two years ago and they are still sending the reminder notices.

Unfortunately, all three of these stories are true.

In the case of the holiday, I guess innovation has yet to enter the holiday market.

In the second instance, the notion of following up to check on service quality is innovative by many standards, but hardly meaningful when the message evaporates into the ether.

And, in the last case, the approach is reasonably innovative.

There is a resident database there somewhere (like you are supposed to have) full of valuable information, churning out letters at a regular and timely rate. Points for having the database. No points for the currency or value thereof.

Thoughts for today: innovation, customer relationship building, use of direct marketing techniques. Moral for today: use it, but do not abuse it. You will lose it. Your customer, that is.

(Next month, a more positive note)

Barbara Canning Brown, a 20-year veteran of the direct marketing industry, is a direct marketing consultant specializing in catalogues. She was named Direct Marketer of the Year in 1990.