Recently, I listened to an interview on public radio with retired 4-star U.S. Army General Ann Dunwoody. During the interview, she mentioned that one of her core principles was to “never walk by a mistake,” because every time you do so, you set a lower standard for yourself and those around you.
This comment really hit home for me, not only because I conduct quality assurance for Primary Intelligence, but also because this is really a central tenet for Win Loss Analysis, Customer Experience Analysis, and all Voice of the Buyer (VoB) programs.
Voice of the Buyer programs, whether they are examining past evaluations or existing customer relationships, have as one of their goals the identification of missteps and missed opportunities. Companies that actively engage with their buyers in order to understand their needs and perceptions have the advantage of catching mistakes before they become repeated habits.
Conversely, companies who do not approach their customers and prospects to understand what is really happening during interactions with their employees (whether it is their sales reps, sales management, account/support teams, or executives) are essentially wearing blinders—unable to see the obstacles that will be in their way in future opportunities or that will threaten their continued relationship with current customers.
The result? Mistakes that become methodologies, creating a lower standard for sales and service performance.
The only way to avoid this scenario is being able to identify missteps quickly and take action to correct them immediately. Some companies are able to do this simply through discovery sessions (debriefs) with their teams.
But this is highly dependent upon having excellent lines of communication and team members who are open to confessing their errors and shortcomings—not an easy task for anyone. A more dependable method is using VoB programs to help identify weaknesses in your processes.
Essentially, a well-executed VoB program works as an early-warning system, as well as a diagnostic tool. It not only alerts you to the potential mistakes that might occur in your interactions with your buyers, but also provides insight into the nature and root causes of those mistakes, so that they can be rectified and avoided in the future.
Companies that don’t use VoB programs can only see symptoms (“Well, we lost . . . again” or “Oops, there goes another customer!”). However, VoB programs provide information on the real causes—providing a conduit for fixing and improving performance.
With the goal of creating an environment of excellence, there are three basic principles about assuring quality that your company should keep in mind when conducting VoB programs:
Principle One: Quality Assurance Does Not Mean Punishing Mistakes
“Never walk by a mistake” does not mean “never leave a mistake unpunished.” Instead, it means that you should never simply ignore mistakes and the opportunity they present to teach, train, and improve.
In other words, using VoB programs as a quality assurance tool is not about assigning blame; it is about learning and improvement.
Your teams should not be afraid of what a VoB program will uncover. Instead, they should be excited about the information coming from the program, because it means that they will be able to improve their performance, leading to greater personal success along with the company’s success.
Creating the proper atmosphere for quality improvement is dependent on how you address mistakes or missteps when you uncover them. Rather than punishing or shaming the team that was involved, you need to work with them to understand why the misstep occurred, and what you (as an entire group) can do to set a higher standard in future situations.
Specifically, do not focus as much on the mistakes of the past as you do on the potential successes in the future that can come from understanding those mistakes.
Principle Two: Ensuring Quality is an Ongoing Process
To misappropriate a quote from Thomas Jefferson, “The price of quality is eternal vigilance.” In order to keep mistakes from becoming entrenched in your methodologies, they need to be caught quickly and you need to be consistently watchful for them.
This means having a VoB program that is ongoing, rather than one that just looks at a few opportunities every once in a while. The mistakes that occur between those “once in a whiles” could be ones that have a major impact on your company’s success.
Another key component of this principle is not simply being reactive to issues that occur. If the way that you identify mistakes is through lost sales or customers’ complaints, fixing those mistakes becomes much more difficult.
If, on the other hand, you proactively look for potential issues before they become deal breakers, you can rectify those issues more easily, without losing sales or damaging customer relationships.
Principle Three: The Purpose of Quality Assurance is to Manage Mistakes, Not Eliminate Them
This principle will probably get me in trouble with some of the strictest Quality Assurance professionals. To my mind, there will always be issues that come up when dealing with human interactions like sales decisions or customer interactions.
While a 0% error rate can be a goal for a manufacturing process, achieving that same goal when dealing with people would mean zero innovation and no risk-taking—which would be grave mistakes.
The rule here is that mistakes will occur, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Your teams will learn from these mistakes and through trial-and-error (notice the word “error” in that phrase), they will also hit upon some new strategies and ideas that are advantageous to your efforts.
The role of using VoB as a Quality Assurance tool is not to keep mistakes from ever occurring, but to make sure that the same mistakes don’t keep occurring over and over again.
In this way, your company can innovate and try new things without the fear of lowering your standards. Just make sure you don’t walk by those times the innovation doesn’t work as planned.