Here’s what we need to know about quality: It is elusive. That’s mostly because people—our  customers and our teammates—have very different ways of measuring quality that often change. We have to learn and understand, then anticipate, what quality means to our customers now and in the future to meet their requirements. That happens through asking questions about the past, and constantly validating what the future may look like for our customers.

I fly a lot. So it’s only natural that this line of thought has brought me to the airline industry. Let’s look at the different ways we (the customers) measure quality when it comes to flying.

A positive feeling
Some of us evaluate quality on the basis of the feeling or belief we leave with once we encounter the product or service. For example, let’s look at the tagline for Delta: “We love to fly and it shows.” This tagline implies that quality is expressed around how Delta’s people show their love for flying and what they do, because they care! The image that Delta often shows with this tagline is that of a plane flying serenely into the sunset. Delta is communicating that quality comes from the expression of happiness, the fulfillment that its staff gets from their job and how that will make customers’ experiences better, too. Today, Delta is focused on gaining feedback, and they send feedback surveys after each and every trip to help track their customers’ feelings about what it’s like to fly with them.

Quantifiable aspects of quality
Another way to view quality could be around the quantifiable aspects of the product. When it comes to flying, customers often choose flights based on the availability of a convenient flight schedule, which could be one easy way to quantify quality. In addition, on-time departures and arrivals and safety are often reported by airlines and third parties, and this could contribute to some customers’ perceptions of quality.

Personal expectations
Another way to view quality could be about user expectations. What does someone who flies a lot for business expect when they show up to fly? For me, I expect to have a clean seating area, quick boarding, and courteous service. I do not care as much about the airline staff being friendly or warm; I would prefer professional and direct. I also like to leave on time. For somebody else, perhaps a family taking a trip to Orlando together for the first time, expectations could be very different. They may be looking for friendly, warm, funny, and supportive staff, and higher levels of safety. While this perception of quality could vary greatly from individual to individual, companies are often able to make assumptions based on the type of customer that flies on different flights.

An overall commitment to the greater good
This is the grander view of quality—or, quality for the greater good. This could include impact on the environment, a company’s devotion to serving its community and employees, local sourcing and a positive impact that goes beyond the customer’s personal experience. I recently saw an ad for Frontier that touted how the types of seats they use saves X amount of trees, and reduces pollution, etc.  Incidentally, Frontier has been suffering from bad press around how their seats are uncomfortable and very small. This ad addresses a grander view of quality, and hopes that its customers share that view.

Your spend compared to the value
Finally, one can evaluate quality based on the return relative the spend.  On Southwest, for example, you get cheap tickets, on-time departure, peanuts, and that’s about it.  There’s no first class, no special room to sit in, no bells and whistles. But some of their customers are defining quality based on value. And it is working for them.

I am sure there are even more facets of quality in the airline industry. How to mix and match the different facets of quality at any point in time is no easy task, but it could make or break one’s success. Continuous quality improvement is a fundamental aspect of any business plan, but it won’t work if the organization is operating with the wrong perception of quality at any given time.  How to mix and match the many facets of quality for your clients in order to meet and exceed their expectations is key to sustainable success, and that within itself requires special attention and constant evaluation.

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