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ISO 9001 – The customer is king

How ISO 9001 is used to put customers at the heart of what you do.

ISO 9001

“When a customer enters my store, forget me. He is king.” So said John Wanamaker, American merchant and pioneer in marketing more than 140 years ago.

I’m sure he wasn’t the first person in business to acknowledge that the customer comes first, but few have expressed it so powerfully.

It’s self-evident that if you produce goods or deliver services that the marketplace doesn’t want, then you’re doomed. Some brands can apparently fly in the face of that. You’re probably tired of hearing of Apple used as an example in all business and marketing case studies. But bear with me for a moment. Back in the day (we are led to believe) they eschewed focus groups and the like and took their direction from instinct and blind faith. Apparently, they didn’t ask customers what they want “because they don’t know what they need”. But these examples are few and far between, which is the reason why they make fascinating case studies, and Apple would rather we forgot about their failures. (Anyone remember Apple Pippin? Apple Newton? Apple QuickTake? Thought not.)

The difference with Apple is that they got their feedback from the market after those products were launched. Most of us, alas, are not able to afford to take that risk.

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Anyway, back to the real world. Whatever way you look at it, if your motivation is to survive and make profit, the customer is always right.

But just saying that doesn’t prove that you embrace it. How is a customer to know that you put their needs first? One solution is to show them your ISO 9001 Quality Management certificate.

Putting the customer at the heart of everything you do is itself at the heart of the ISO 9001 standard. It runs through every clause and begins with the Quality Policy (5.2) which states you must commit to meeting customer requirements: “Top management shall demonstrate leadership and commitment with respect to customer focus by ensuring that…customer … requirements are determined, understood and consistently met”.

Noone will quibble with that objective. But how do you go about it? In essence, it’s quite simple: you communicate with your customers – not just one way, but via an open, two-way dialogue. And not just before you launch a product or service, but on a continual basis. Your financial success will obviously be the ultimate measure of whether you’re satisfying your customers or not but it doesn’t offer insight into the whys and wherefores that help ensure continual improvement.

Here’s the crucial point: if you are ISO 9001 certified (or have ambitions to be), then the Auditor will be looking for proof that you put the customer at the heart of what you do. It’s an integral part of the “Plan – Do – Check – Act” ethos (with an emphasis on the “check”) that underpins all ISO management systems.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to getting customer feedback. It depends on all manner of variables like the nature and scale of your operations and the value of what you sell. Noone is going to want to spend a day in a boardroom with you to discuss a ten pence plastic widget they bought from you.

So, you should consider all the options: email surveys, email dialogue, phone surveys, phone consultation, instant feedback from your website to ask about their experience or face-to-face reviews are just a selection of approaches available to you. You may also want to remove any bias from the equation by subcontracting this work to a third party to gather and analyse feedback for you.

The default is often email surveys which are an easy way of capturing and analysing feedback on a large scale. But of course, we’re all surveyed to death these days, so it’s not surprising that response rates as low as 5% are to be expected. (30% or more and you are doing very well.)

In the business-to-business world, customers and suppliers depend on each other. A good, honest relationship will benefit both parties. In these situations, there’s no substitute for effective dialogue rather than an impersonal cut and paste automated email.

Whatever your approach, a simple “How did we do last time?”, “Could we do anything better?” is the minimum and an ISO 9001 Auditor will expect to see this. To demonstrate your commitment to continual improvement, you should be encouraging your customers to “challenge us, it can only make us better”.

There’s no such thing as perfection in this world and sometimes our customer will feel let down when we’ve failed to meet either their needs or expectations. Fortunately, the ISO 9001 methodology provides us with the tools to ensure satisfaction and drive improvement as long as we listen, respond and ensure our customers are at the heart of everything we do.

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