How Do You “Sell” Quality?

In his March 2012 question to the ASQ Influential Voices, CEO Paul Borawski presents a question that he deals with regularly – and that industry has been challenged with for several decades:

“How do I convince senior executives (often CEOs) and public officials that quality is important and an essential strategy for–pick your ending–performance excellence, competitiveness, growth, sustainability, survival, efficiency, effectiveness?”

In other words, how can you “sell” the value of quality to an organization and its top executives?

My response: You can’t. Quality is a core value that must be appreciated for it to be cultivated.

This point was made very clear to me in Malta. I had the opportunity to visit the country, a tiny island south of Sicily in the Mediterranean, early this year. (Isn’t that a great picture I took up above??) Speed and efficiency are not some of this country’s values… you can expect to wait for a bus forever, if you’re that patient, and there are a glut of Australian imports trying to sell you boat tours whenever you walk down the street – even when they’ve seen you every day, multiple times a day, and you’ve made it clear to them you’re not a tourist and you don’t want to hop on a sightseeing boat.

However, product quality and value in Malta – especially among the small, independent retailers – are highly esteemed. You aren’t going to get a bad cappuccino, even though you’ll only pay a Euro or two for it (even in a gas station or convenience store). You’re unlikely to get a lunch that’s made from highly overprocessed, bulk ingredients, or that tastes anything less than blissful and homemade. And no one would expect any less… because their reputations are on the line, and they are proud of their products, and proud of the personal excellence that those products represent.

So a better question is… not how do you sell quality… but how do you stimulate the appreciation of quality? Note that this is far more a question of how to impact society on a broad scale than one of how do we implement this in our companies.

(Here’s another way of saying it: How do you get the average Wal-Mart shopper to appreciate quality instead of just rolled-back prices? How do you get people to accept paying more for higher quality products and services, rather than being psychologically recalibrated to think those lower quality things are actually reasonable quality? How do you get people to purchase for longevity in a global era of planned obsolescence and rapidly changing tastes? I’m not sure. I think this may be a particularly nefarious cultural dilemma, grown in America but with the staunch support of Chinese manufacturers, with the potential to culture us all into “pink slime” politics. And we may have to distance ourselves from the notion that profit and growth are what we’re after in order to break this cycle.)

If an appreciation for quality is not ingrained into you by your culture from an early age, perhaps it can still be learned. The first idea I had here was that if art appreciation can be taught in schools, maybe we can do the same for quality. But I’m not an expert in art, nor in appreciation (beyond what I myself appreciate), nor how to teach appreciation.

How can we promote and stimulate the appreciation of higher quality throughout our society?


  • Great post Nicole!

    In a highly capitalized society such as the US, we are “taught” through the media and politics and even social media to focus on price, price, price – and as a result commodities are traded on that basis. It’s part of why the mom-and-pop high quality service experiences are going out of business. And we contribute to our own decline by “using” the brick and mortar business to test drive products that we ultimately purchase at the lowest price online. And we wonder why service has declined? It’s because service (and service quality) is part of a bygone (sadly) era.

    Even in service industries and consulting we see this trend. For example, my field of specialization, Function Point Counting, is being low-balled by a few consulting firms who tout that the skills needed to do the work is akin to rocket science (it is NOT!) but then these same companies low ball their service offerings (and deliver garbage – unbeknownst to the consumers!) to hoard the business. Consumers taught to expect “Groupon-like” pricing don’t see that paying the right price for the service will ultimately save in the long run (do it right the first time and you don’t need to pay others to fix it!)

    The solution (IMHO) is to step back, educate the masses on the value of quality and then let them choose. If we continue along the lines of mass production, capitalization, low price (rather than best value) – we might as well join the ranks of China and India where quality is low and we have to replace things more often.

    Thanks for illuminating a challenging topic!

  • Reblogged this on Musings About Software Development and commented:
    An interesting take on Quality – can you believe in 2012 we are still fighting the battle (even more with the BRIC countries taking over!) of selling quality products.

    Read on and comment!

  • Quality is in the eyes of the customer. They value the products and services that you deliver, and they will pay what it is worth. So Quality starts with understanding your customer, their needs, and what their customers expect of them! Valueing Quality, creating a culture that sustains and develops Quality is crucial.

  • sudarshan Martha

    Got some answers for Question of Mine which use to arise in my mind after every Interview When I used to apply for the position of Quality Manager….

    There are some organisation where I gave an Interview and I used to feel like I am an Idiot now I can say I am not and idiot its you who dont know the importance of Quality and its Culture in your organisation….

  • Nicole,

    One of your better insights. I do believe this appreciation is a learned / socialized skill. Also agree with Ben that there is a dependency on customer needs; to Carol’s point, urgency and available budget often trump good decision making.

    When you ask a CEO if quality is important, It is extremely unlikely you’ll ever get a no response. In fact, most business and government leaders will tell you quality is critical to their success. When you ask the same leaders to tell you what quality means to their company and customers, they’ll struggle. And if you ask them to fund internal improvements to quality in the organization, they’ll tell you they can’t afford to spend money on something so intangible, and to come back when you have a business case with an irrefutable ROI of less than a year (so the realized gain can be shown in the results for the current reporting period). This is the audience (and in this context) we need to teach the appreciation of quality and the wisdom of investing in quality over the long term.


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