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Denise Robitaille

Quality Insider

Who Are Your Customers?

A one-size fits-all survey won’t tell you

Published: Monday, November 5, 2012 - 11:52

In order to assess how well you have served your customers, you must first understand their needs and expectations. It’s impossible to gather meaningful data if you aren’t asking the right questions.

Before you can begin to ask the questions, you must first identify who your customers are. Different customers will have varied needs and expectations. Who are your customers? What do they care most about? Some customers are more focused on fast delivery. Others need iron-clad traceability.

Beyond the varied and disparate requirements is the dynamic of change. Requirements and markets evolve over time. Have your customers changed over time? Are you selling into the same markets as 15 years ago? Has your market share grown or declined? Is there more competition? Do you have different tiers and categories of customers?

The variety of customers your organization has is directly relevant to the manner in which you communicate with them, the questions you ask, and the tools you will use to assess their needs and measure their level of satisfaction. Consider the following scenarios.

1. Company A has two chief product lines. The first line is a limited selection of generic off-the-shelf commodities. Its second line, however, represents highly complex products that are designed and manufactured to the customers’ specifications. Every project is new; every product is different.

The marketing people know that the customers buying the generic products want something they can pick up the day they place the order. As long as the product suits the purpose, they’re happy. They want fast delivery, low cost, and simple functionality.

The other customers, those ordering product made to their specifications, want to be intimately involved in the design process and solicit the engineers’ suggestions. These customers expect the product to be made under highly controlled conditions and to be shipped with certifications and third-party test results.

The needs and expectations of these two diverse groups should result in considerably different interactions. In the first case, the packing slip may include reference to a website the customers can visit to take a brief online survey. For the second group, there may be focus groups, periodic reviews at various stages in the project, and an elaborate post-project recap. Additionally, there may be need for post-delivery activities, which means you'll probably have an ongoing relationship with the customers . This may not be the case with the first group of customers.

2. Company B manufactures a product that is sold through distribution. This means it has two sets of customers with markedly different expectations. The distributors want quality products that are delivered on time. They also want to deal with a manufacturer that will train its sales staff on its products, afford them access to the manufacturer’s engineers for technical support, and provide ample quantities of up-to-date brochures. If the distributors are selling a large quantity of the manufacturer’s product, they may expect a liberal restocking program and preferred status for referrals.

The end users have different expectations of the manufacturer. Their chief concerns are probably the functionality and durability of the product. Cost is often an important factor. They may also care about the aesthetics of the product, its biodegradability, country of origin for component parts, and the human rights record for the company that made the goods.

The questions you ask each group will differ. A one-size-fits-all survey will not avail you the input that you need to more precisely answer the overall question: “How are we doing?”

In the medical arena, the two-customer model is similar, but the scenario is slightly different. The pharmaceutical and medical devices industries count as their customers both the physicians (and medical facilities) who buy their products, and the patients who are the ultimate users. Although they both care about functionality and safety, the doctors have additional concerns about the process of implantation, while the patients may worry about comfort and quality of life.

 In the forensic community, customers may be enforcement agencies, district attorneys, or counsel for the defense. While they all want accurate test results, timeliness may be of greater importance to a police department, which might, for example, be required to release a suspect if forensic tests are not completed within a statutorily mandated period of time.

3. Company C has traditionally sold into a market that is either disappearing or has become less profitable to do business with. The decision was made to migrate its marketing strategies into other fields where the product might be similar but the expectations are significantly higher. Company C may continue to sell to both groups of customers. It may decide to expend more resources on getting feedback from its newer clients and deal with the older ones only in a responding manner—for example, when it receives a complaint.

4. Company D sells to large international corporations. One has 22 facilities in seven countries. Some purchases are made by corporate headquarters, while other purchases are the responsibility of each individual site. The influence Company D has on the procurement staff varies with each site or group of commodities. Corporate may have one impression of the company’s level of performance that is entirely different from the local branch that Company D normally does business with.

Knowing your customers means comprehending their needs and expectations. It may include the need for a more in-depth understanding of their markets. The needs and expectations may relate to other things besides product conformity. They can relate to security, delivery, responsiveness, technical support, certifications, traceability, invoicing accuracy, turnaround time for quotations, and a variety of other factors. Customers’ needs may also be driven by regulatory mandates or requirements flowed down from their customers.

Your customers will be large and small enterprises. For the large customers there may be a need to solicit feedback from more than one individual—one each from purchasing, engineering, and quality. For smaller companies, there is usually one person who is the point of contact.

Additionally, in one organization there may be three different entities that have different requirements and expectations of your organization. Engineers want access to technical support; purchasing wants good pricing—and no headaches; the plant manager wants consistent, reliable, on-time delivery of the right components. Accounting wants an accurate invoice. Before beginning the process of developing one or more methods of soliciting customer feedback, it’s important to know:
• What your customers purchase from you
• What other requirements besides conforming products matter to them
• What market(s) they represent
• How large their organization is

This will help you to set up appropriate methods of gathering and analyzing performance data, which should increase your understanding of what you must do in order to remain a sustainable and significant player in your industry.

For a more in-depth look at how to assess your customers, see my book, Listening to the Customer (Paton Professional, 2012).


About The Author

Denise Robitaille’s picture

Denise Robitaille

Denise Robitaille is the author of thirteen books, including: ISO 9001:2015 Handbook for Small and Medium-Sized Businesses.

She is chair of PC302, the project committee responsible for the revision to ISO 19011, an active member of USTAG to ISO/TC 176 and technical expert on the working group that developed the current version of ISO 9004:2018. She has participated internationally in standards development for over 15 years. She is a globally recognized speaker and trainer. Denise is a Fellow of the American Society for Quality and an Exemplar Global certified lead assessor and an ASQ certified quality auditor.

As principal of Robitaille Associates, she has helped many companies achieve ISO 9001 registration and to improve their quality management systems. She has conducted training courses for thousands of individuals on such topics as auditing, corrective action, document control, root cause analysis, and implementing ISO 9001. Among Denise’s books are: 9 Keys to Successful Audits, The (Almost) Painless ISO 9001:2015 Transition and The Corrective Action Handbook. She is a frequent contributor to several quality periodicals.


Who is Who?

Well said, Mrs. Robitaille: unfortunately, sales-people are any company's Olympus demi-gods, as top management identifies them with turn-over, hence money-making. All too often, sales-people subscribe customers' orders before having determined their feasibility, most often in terms of on-time-delivery; then, all sorts of phantasies come out to justify late deliveries. And this happens even in companies holding acrredited registration, from ISO 9001 to ISO/TS 16949 to ISO 13485, and so on: this is because registrars's auditors don't drill deep enough in the top management commitment requirements or in the sales-people approach. The records presented are all very nice, but that's the tip of the iceberg; on the other hand, how can evidence of top management's and sales-people's feeling and thinking be collected? Auditors surely smell the rat, but how can they provide sound evidence to their principals? Maybe some kind of sales ethical code standard would help, but it be would be hard work: who are Registrars' customers? Thank you.

Questions to ask your customers

You make good points but don't come up with a process.

Your customers will engage you only because they have a problem to solve.  

This process this is called SPIN then DIFOTIS on $. It's the bones upon which real quality systems are built.

Question your customer to...

1. Describe the Situation..

2. Describe the Poblem..

3. Describe the Implications (what happens if the problem isn't solved = risk assessment)..

4. Cover off how you can meet their Needs....then

5.  Make the sale....agree what they want, when they want it and price.  

6.  Then set up a quality your system to Deliver in Full Om Time In Spec and on budget (DIFOTIS on $)..

7.  Finally, set up a customer review cycle to go through 1-7 on an ongoing basis. 

Hope this helps


Just the beginning

Appreciate your comments. This article only deals with the foundation - understanding what you need to begin. Your points cover some of the actions going forward.

Good Point

"It’s impossible to gather meaningful data if you aren’t asking the right questions" 

Excellent comment and quality to digest!