Budget Quality Assurance

To make mistakes may be human, but it doesn't make for good business! If you operate a business, you already know that errors cost money, annoy customers and cause you to waste a lot of time checking and fixing.

Research shows that customers care most about the quality of service they receive. Customers will tolerate an occasional mistake, but if they encounter repeated screw-ups, they will quickly take their business elsewhere.

Every business must have some type of quality assurance program to reduce errors and problems. Large companies have staff, procedures and programs in place to ensure that their error rate is minimal. Small businesses don't have the same resources to devote to quality assurance, but there are still some steps that can be taken.

Here are some suggestions for reducing errors, and their consequences, in your business. Best of all, most of these do not cost very much.

1. Get rid of problem products. If you have one or more products that are causing problems and/or customer dissatisfaction, don't sell them anymore! Not only are customers unhappy, but you have extra work with returns and issuing refunds. Stick with the winners.

2. Don't agree to fix things you can't control. Withhold payment from suppliers who sell substandard products and companies who provide substandard services. Take a hard line – make those responsible take action, at no cost to you. If they can't or won't take action, switch to more reliable providers.

3. Focus on information and not data. Rely less on time-wasting gathering of numerical data, and more on firsthand observation and direct input from your staff and customers.

4. Ask customers what they want. Give them what they need. It sounds obvious but often isn't – so don't get mired down with other considerations. The things customers want may cost less than the things you think they want, so ask them before you make plans. For example, customers may not need overnight shipment of their orders.

5. Do a rough cost-benefit analysis before setting goals. You may find that reaching a 5% error rate will cost twice as much as reaching a 7% one. So strike a balance between quality and the bottom line. Ask yourself if the additional expense is worth it.

6. Build in some redundancy. Because we operate an Internet-dependant business, we take precautions to make sure we are not adversely affected when one component breaks down. For example, we always use two e-mail addresses, on two independent mail servers, to receive orders from customers, to receive notification of credit card authorizations and to notify our suppliers to ship orders.

7. Implement simple monitoring systems. In our business, we require our suppliers to notify us and the customer when the order has been shipped. This measure enables us to monitor our suppliers' performance and address any problems.

8. Make it easy for the customer to get a hold of you if there is a problem. This is a particular problem with many on-line businesses. If there is a problem, you have to fill out a ticket, submit it and wait to hear from them. With our business, if a customer has a problem, or we made an error, the customer can call us toll-free, fax us toll-free or e-mail us. The better your quality assurance systems, the fewer calls you will get.

9. Fix it and make it right. Respond quickly to a customer's problem. We usually like to respond to an e-mail within 24 hours. We offer the customer the choice of reshipping the product (if it was lost, damaged or in error) or issuing an immediate refund. Also, if the mistake was your fault, you should consider throwing in a bonus – an extra bottle at no cost, or another free product to try out. Remember that repeat customers are the foundation of any successful and profitable business – so treat them like gold!

10. Solicit regular customer feedback. This can be done by having a suggestion box (print or electronic), feedback form and regularly talking to your customers. Listen to their ideas to make your products and services better meet their needs.

11. Fix your weak points. Look through your systems to find where the errors or problems are occurring. It may be a sloppy staff person, confusing procedures or poor equipment. Fixing your weakest points will do the most to improve your quality assurance.

12. Start small. Begin with a limited number of projects and move towards your final goals. This gives you better control over your budget, averts too many things going wrong at one time, and prevents you spending too much on the wrong things.

13. Don't look for one-shot solutions. Thousands of things have to be done right for a business to be successful and profitable. Spending money on one "solution" does not guarantee that your quality will improve and mistakes cease.

Implementing these budget quality assurance suggestions will reduce mistakes in your business and will help you sleep better at night.