Ben Dewison, Specialist Member of The Institute of Customer Service, UK, explains the importance of quality assurance and how it can be used to improve customer relationships.
Quality standards are set by internationally recognised bodies to develop best practice, enhance company performance and improve customer satisfaction. Standards can take various forms, including: regulations, contractual requirements and product guidelines.
The aim of quality assurance (QA) is to provide confidence that standards are being achieved and maintained within organisations. QA processes and activities determine whether compliance with these standards is occurring and provide direction on how businesses can perform in a recognised ‘right’ way with their customers.
The benefits of performing in the right way are clear. Organisations that meet standards are perceived to offer reliable products or services and we know that this can increase their market credibility and competitiveness. They are therefore highly motivated to gain this competitive advantage and can feel substantial pressure to meet required standards. This is because the failure to do so can result in loss of business and more importantly, a company’s reputation.
This pressure can be further compounded when an organisation is being quality assured by another external organisation. For instance, they may not know the QA organisation very well and are initially unclear on what will be expected of them. Or perhaps it is the first time they have been quality assured and they are unsure whether they are adequately prepared. It does not have to be this way, however, as a supportive and customer focused QA process, involving the customer at each stage, can help to mitigate pressures and lead to strengthened relationships between parties.
Let’s illustrate an effective QA customer orientated approach with an example. Company A wishes to upskill some employees and purchases a training course from an external learning provider supplier (Company B). Company A already has its own internal trainer who has been accredited by Company B to deliver the learning material in a classroom setting. In order to maintain accreditation and ensure delivery continues to meet the required standards set by Company B, Company A’s trainer will be observed once per year by a member from Company B’s QA Team.
When the QA activity is due, how should it be undertaken? Well, Company B could do a number of things in advance of the observation date:
- Engage with Company A at least a couple of months in advance, explaining what will happen before, during and after the observation visit. This should allow plenty of time for any questions to be put forward and answered.
- Engage with both the trainer and the wider Learning and Development teams, to position the reason for QA with the organisation as a whole, and outline the benefit of the business receiving QA feedback for its continuous improvement.
- Provide Company A with the QA observation criteria used to determine whether certain standards are being met. This will enable Company A to understand how it will be measured in advance, check its own delivery plan and reassure the business that the visit is not a test to try and catch them out.
On the day of observation, Company B can:
- Meet with the trainer and wider team in Company A prior to the observation, for introductions and relationship building. The trainer is likely to be nervous so he/she will appreciate any last minute questions being answered.
- Reiterate to the trainer and wider team what will be happening on the day and then the next steps after the observation (e.g., timescales for the report being available).
Following the observation, Company B can send the QA findings report to Company A, and then be readily available to discuss any aspects of the feedback.
To summarise, what are the wider benefits of this approach? Being involved throughout the QA activity will allow Company A to buy-in to the process and have a sense of ownership. They will feel more invested in the relationship as a whole and be open to further dialogues, such as a request from Company B to provide valuable feedback on how they felt the delivery went and how the training product can be improved.
Company B can fulfil its own goals of ensuring the integrity, consistency and standardisation of the course across all delivery partners, while at the same time benefitting from stronger customer relationships. This will raise the profile of Company B’s QA team internally within its own department and organisation, showing them as creating value for customers and providing a valuable source of product improvement suggestions.
The rationale discussed above can be applied to QA activity within any industry.
Through what is in effect strong customer support and communication, relationships are strengthened between all parties and accreditations are more likely to be maintained for the years to come.