So often we see statements like ‘We offer a quality service / product / experience (fill in the blank here)’ in marketing material, whether on the internet, in books, journals, brochures, or on social media (to name a few). But just what does ‘quality’ mean?

It doesn’t matter who you talk to – everyone has a slightly different understanding of what ‘quality’ means to them. For example:

  • Quality is an experience of the customer.
  • Service quality perception comes from your service process design and the customer contact impressions.
  • A degree of excellence.
  • Conformance to requirements.
  • Reliability comes from achieving quality standards.
  • Quality is fulfilling the customers’ purpose in a way that matters to them.
  • Quality simply means delivering to the customer what they expected.
  • Quality means doing it right when no-one is looking.

These are just some of the ways people interpret ‘quality’. Yet, none of these are the only way to look at something like ‘quality’.

With a number of different interpretations in mind, have you considered asking all of the people  that work for your business or organisation what ‘quality’ means to them? When I say ‘all’, I mean all of the people that work for the business or organisation, from the cleaners through to the receptionist who answers the phone, frontline staff working with customers, middle or senior managers and the CEO or business owner. So often, defining terms like ‘quality’ is frequently left to a few people to address, such as the person who writes the policies and procedures or a team or working committee that have the task of developing responses on a particular topic. However, leaving these interpretations to a few people can lead to confusion for other people.

Many years ago, I was asked by staff working for a facility to develop a Friendship Policy for staff. The more I thought about this request, the more perplexed I became. A quick dictionary search  (this was pre-Google or other online search engines) indicated that ‘friendship’ could mean a whole array of things:

  • The emotions or conduct of friends; the state of being
  • A relationship between
  • A state of mutual trust and support between allied

Going back a step, reviewing the meaning of the term ‘friend’ also showed a number of ways to look at this as well. For example:

  • A person with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically one exclusive of sexual or family relations. Can include an acquaintance or a stranger one comes across; close relatives; a person who supports a cause, organization, or country by giving financial or other help; a person who is not an enemy or opponent; an ally; a familiar or helpful
  • A member of the Religious Society of Friends; a

I was also a bit concerned about ‘mutual affection’ and ‘relationship’ – just what did these mean for the staff? I knew they were a religious society so that seemed clear. However, based on  the numbers of ways ‘friend’ or ‘friendship’ could be interpreted, I decided to talk to the CEO about this. At the time, he was the person who would be signing off on the policy so it made sense to talk to him about this. I explained the purpose of my appointment and proceeded to ask him what his understanding of these terms meant. He said that it was simple: ‘friendship’ meant all of the 400 people he had written down in his Little Black Book and who he could call on if he wanted something. He asked me for my understanding of this term, and I said I had different levels of friends, from very close ones that I could count on one hand through to a wide circle of people I regarded as being in the ‘friendship’ category. The CEO looked at me and said that my interpretation was the weirdest thing he had ever heard (I didn’t write that policy!)

What I learned from that experience is that basic terms we take for granted can be interpreted in a lot of different ways, and sometimes in quite different ways to our own interpretations. Our own understandings and interpretations frequently come from personal experience and our own history, as well as from our associations with people we respect. This will mean, of course, that other people will have their own experiences that inform the ways they interpret basic terms. If we simply assume that other people view the world – and terms like ‘friendship’ and ‘quality’ – the same way we do, then we could end up with a lot of confusion and people acting on their own interpretations, believing that they are right, or believing that your interpretations are ‘weird’, like the CEO thought of mine all those years ago.

With this in mind, let’s look at some questions:

  • What does ‘quality’ mean to you?
  • What can happen to your business if assumptions are made about basic terms like this?
  • Are there opportunities to strengthen the foundation of your business or organisation by ensuring your people have a consistent understanding of what these sorts of terms mean?

Let me know your thoughts!