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Shrirang Gokhale
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skg2743@gmail.com

My career as a product designer was very interesting. We designed products from scratch and put them in local market. I had a close working with manufacturing and marketing. Since it was an entertainment consumer product, the success of design was immediately measurable through increase in profit. Apart from technology and brand image, customer focus happened to be a main contributor, this learning I wish to share.

To stay in business you must grow. Growth of a business, especially for consumer semi-luxury product, comes from continues updation of their product range. I observed many phases like a monopoly, product range revision (both depth and width), competition, cost pressures and fights for features. In this journey, customer participation became more and more important.

Your business may be manufacturing : You can have consumer or industrial product. Mostly for latter you are on OEM supplier, and have one or very few customers. There is an intermediate agency like dealer or distributor who is your step one customer. For non-manufacturing business like software, lawyer, architect, you are in service industry, yet you have sensitive customer. In large organizations, one department can be a customer of other department, that is called internal customer. Hence for this discussion, all types of customers have a relevance.

Almost all people in business and management are aware that customer is very vital. They know quotations like "Customer is King", "Customer focus", "Customer is always right" but they do not have actions directed to customer. They are not serious. I wish to quote a story of a "show off" of customer orientation and reality. Some of you might know it but it is very apt for the topic so I repeat it. A top executive of a company stays in a renowned hotel on a
business trip. The hotel was posh but he is uneasy as he finds few mosquitos in his room that disturbs his sleep. Dissatisfied, he writes a letter on return to hotel management as a serious grievance. To his surprise, he gets an immediate reply from hotel management. The director of hotel apologized for what happened and assured him an urgent action taken and spoke of customer care. In the envelope, along with the letter, an backside, a post it note also got attached by mistake. The small note was addressed to his secretary, Julie, it said, "Julie, usual apology letter please". That means this so called quick action was just a show and customer was fooled and note respected.

Quality and care make a foundation to satisfy customers. It is always true that repeat customers and word of mouth are the most effective ways than other marketing communications. Brand gets built in that fashion. Purpose of business is to create customer who creates more customers.

Today's market is buyer's market. You cannot easily fool a customer. So to satisfy a customer, first and foremost is your product quality. Of course there is no end to quality improvement, but you should evaluate if your product has 'value for money' from buyer's point. Customer satisfaction is old phrase now, it should be customer delight. He must get delighted by using your product for long time. When buying, he will get surprised if you have some "Wow !" features which he is not expecting, but on long use, it is however product quality. Here the term implecit quality needs to be known. When a consumer buys a product, will have properties which will automatically be there which he need not speak out.

Like : product will not corrode, he will not get a electric shock in handling the product; it will work for few years etc. In a competative environment he looks for what is exclusive in your product.

Quality is built by design. Customer requirements is a very tricky thing. If you ask customer an open ended question, he will give a big list. He wants everything, but at less price. So it is better to give him your prepared questonaire, which is focused. In preparing such questionarie you have to compare your own products with competition. An interesting outcome was from our survey for new products. We conducted a survey asking questions about what is rating for sound quality, power output, aesthetics, sensitivity etc. At the end there was one open line saying pl. write anything else you want. At that time radio recorder market was just booming. To our surprise large number of people wrote. We want cassette door opening should not bang but open softly.'' So, there was a gap between what we were thinking as customer needs and what preference customer had. To consolidate wild thoughts of customers, smart way is to ask him to give importance rating to each of his need.

Measurement of good quality is your product specifications matching to customer needs. As a control, your rejection rate on your production process is one indication. Second indicator is tracking failure rate of products in market. That is called field call rate. Both should show a downward trend. There is another type of failure which is zero hour failure. That is at retail shop itself as customer is opening package and first time operates your product, it fails. Zero hour failures are quite damaging. There can be a debate on this failure, some people say that if you have a system that you immediately replace a defective product, customer is happy. My experience is, in long run, that does not work. Good brands never do it. You cannot have high field failure product compensated by a machinery of fast replacement.

Study of how customer uses your product is worth noting. In a review we found, that 98% of people were not using 'headphone socket' in Audio System, so we deleted it. Abuse is use by customer which you have not expected. There were reports from Bangalore once that our car audio is failing, it gives lot of hum. Visit to site we found car radios were not used in car but in house with a market availabel 12V battery eliminator circuits. That induced hum. However, it gave a clue that customer was looking for a cheaper cassette-amplifier solution, and then power-house was born.

How you measure customer satisfaction ? At brand level you give a questionaire and ask for 0-10 evaluation on various questions. You can do it at dealer level also. Not absolute figure but a trend through years has to be watched. Once in a seminar, I asked a question to 25 participants, who said their organization is customer oriented, to list one major action. Most relies were vague like quality, service, cost. One participant said "we have very good trained telephoen operator''. Do you know why I liked this reply most ?

Many a times other things that actual product contribute for customer satisfaction. Valet parking for restaurants, cash on delivery option and return policy for e-shops, home delivery by food joints, satche availability for cosmetics are some examples.

Thus, for business progress, honest customer focus always helps. It takes months to get a customer but a second to lose him.


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