Customer Roles in Quality Management

“Quality Management evolves in time while forcing the customer to evolve as well. Or is it the other way around? Do companies change their perspective on managing quality because customers are getting smarter? How many roles can a customer assume and what are the effects of these roles in Quality Management?”

The evolution of Quality Management (QM) starts with the industrial revolution where craftsmanship fell from its place and replaced by industrial practices. In literature it is argued that a customer has five roles: resource, co-producer, buyer, user and product. Of course, not all of these roles were attributed to the customers at the beginning. As Quality Management evolves the customers’ contributions to quality are expanded. During the days of craftsman manufacturing, the role of the customer was simple. The products were made or – at least adjusted – for each individual customer, charging the customer to act just only as a buyer. This buyer role hasn’t changed in Inspection stage of managing quality where uniformity in mass production was one of the most important focuses of QM for uniformity meant profitability in that stage, casting a shadow on customer satisfaction. Customer oriented service/manufacturing started to gain importance at further stages of QM as new approaches are embedded in quality measurement. The increasing variety of options that a customer may choose from also affected quality managers to consider the importance of customers. As the customers’ needs and expectations increase, QM shifted from only focusing on product conformity to practicing means and tools to achieve overall service quality. At this point, the customer is no longer just buyer but also acts as a resource and a co-producer that starts to orient firms by providing inputs regarding the factors that affect production. The outcomes of the service may be observed in the latter customer roles. The buyer role and the user role are the most fundamental roles. But the more the need to understand the customer is the more the customer acts as a product. Quality management strategies are designed and performed in order to make a transformation in customer.

Five roles of the customer:

At the beginning of the article, it is mentioned that customers may assume five different roles. I will try to exemplify these roles by talking about the influence of customers in financial institutions. Concerning financial institutions such as banks, the contribution of customers to the organizations is undeniable.

· Customer as a resource: In human service settings, the customers are the primary physical resources for the organization. Therefore it is crucial for banks to successfully manage customer resources. Investigating and studying customers’ behaviors, needs and expectations are vital information that has to be adjusted throughout the processes in order to survive in competitive quality.

· Customer as a co-producer: The customers’ role as a co-producer is particularly important in service arena. Applications such as internet banking, telephone banking, ATMs enable the customers to engage in co-production and enhance customers’ abilities as co-producers.

· Customer as a buyer: Financial issues may sometimes be too complicated for certain customers. By giving and sharing adequate information and building a trustworthy, familiar relationships with customers could help banks to turn potential buyers into actual buyers.

· Customer as a user: Customers possess the power to measure the gap between expectations and experience which enables them to determine customer satisfaction. Again the level of communication, shared information, meeting customer expectations play a primary role in the quality of service given to the customer as a user. Even the user-friendliness of ATM machines and internet banking affects the customers concerning the quality of service.

· Customer as a product: Considering customers as products, transformation or change has to be initiated through either purchase of a product/service or use of a product/service. Giving an example of financial institutions, let us assume that a client with a high investment in a bank would be an outcome as a product for the services provided by the bank (e.g. portfolio management, investment analysis) would lead to personal gain or loss most probably affected by the choices of the client who is influenced by the employee. So the employee’s personal characteristics such as confidence and flexibility would play an important role in the customers’ satisfaction.

Now, it all links back to Quality Management!

Up until this point you should have understood that customers will not accept everything that product and/or service providers shove into their throats. Customers, well most of them, are not stupid. Indeed they are getting smarter and more demanding. As a result, companies must manage their quality by managing their customers well. On a higher level, Quality Management could be explained through a model which is called “The Cornerstone Model”.

Figure: Quality Cornerstone Model (Bergman and Klefsjö, 2010)

Central in quality management, and hence in the figure, is customer focus. Customer focus further overlaps, and supports the other parts in the model.

All of the five customer roles could be interpreted using the cornerstone model. For instance, customer’s role as a resource would be embedded in Base Decisions on Facts cornerstone. The inputs they provide could help managers and employees manage their processes according to customers’ needs and expectation. Moreover, the inputs provided by customers as resources and as co-producers may help organizations to focus on processes as well as to improve continuously. The influence of customers as outputs (buyer, user, and product) could also be observed in the cornerstones. The positive transformation that a customer goes through because of a product/service could make the employees to be more committed to further improvements on quality. These roles are worth emphasizing because they shape the concept of a customer within an organization whether it is in manufacturing or service sector and reinforce the organizations to pursue continuous improvement in overall service quality in order to satisfy all of the five roles of the customer.

For more information about Customer Roles and Quality Management, browse through the articles below:

Customer Contributions to Quality: A Different View of the Customer-Oriented Firm. Cynthia A. Lengnick-Hall. The Academy of Management Review, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Jul., 1996), pp. 791-824.

Bergman, B. and Klefsjö, B. (2010). Quality: From Customer Needs to Customer Satisfaction. 3 Ed. Poland: Studentlitteratur.

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