Many businesses make the mistake of enshrining their own priorities while losing sight of what they need to do to satisfy clients

Iam in need of a computer repair. I open up the Yellow Pages and look through the myriad advertisements to sort the wheat from the chaff. I am a huge fan of certifications so I start looking for logos. Suddenly, I notice a company that proudly proclaims It’s ISO 9001 certified. I have made my choice.

Being the average consumer, I don’t really know what ISO 9001 certification means, but I’ve vaguely heard about it. Some consumers think it is some type of product or quality guarantee. ISO itself stresses it means nothing of the sort. From the consumer point of view, it means the business I’m about to deal with has looked at its procedures and processes and has well-documented revisions of what should happen in certain circumstances.

When I take in my computer to be repaired, for example, the procedure might be that the cover is removed with a flat-head screwdriver as most new computers have thumbscrews with a slot down the centre. If the screws on my computer are Phillips head, the staff are actually being non-compliant with the ISO certification if they use a Phillips head screwdriver. An ISO 9001 certification auditor would penalise a business that used a Phillips head screwdriver because it is not in the procedure. What the auditor is not expected to check is whether the screwdriver is the correct tool for the job!

And so it was with an IT business I had a discussion with this month.

They were crumbling under the weight of customer complaints and unhappy clients. A manager told me he was constantly dealing with invoice queries – clients not happy about unexpected and unannounced charges. Clients were not being responded to in a timely way and there was obvious tension within the organisation as most interactions with clients were unpleasant ones.

The further I went up the chain, the more I realised the strict set of processes and procedures they had created for themselves was actually creating the problem. Many businesses create their formal practices surrounded by mirrors. They look inward. They lose sight of the fact we are here for our clients. Unless we have a niche business, our clients don’t all fit into the one box.

I am not saying any of this is easy. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. It’s incredibly difficult to deliver over and above the expectations of your clients. But I can guarantee when the focus of a business is following the strict internal procedures and guidelines, exceptional service is more likely due to chance than planning.

The worst example in this particular firm was the adherence to chargeable and reportable hours. All of the staff had chargeable hours figures for the month and faced consequences if these were not met. Therefore their focus each month was on charging out hours to clients. This was the first mistake in the number of invoice queries the manager had to deal with.

Staff would turn up to repair a $600 printer and deliver a bill for $1800 at the end of the month. The most important point, for them, was that the technician’s chargeable hours were at the correct level.

I can understand a client querying an invoice like this. The business’s defence was classical in an internal, procedure-driven firm: “There has to be payment for all the hours the technician put in”.

Clients don’t care! What a client wants is a fixed price before a repair starts and they are happy to pay the bill once the repair is completed and the device actually works. Anything short of that, and expect complaints.

As much as I think there is a place in the market for ISO 9001, I place much greater importance on an organisation’s attitude to addressing client needs and surveying their clients to see if they are meeting those needs. Unfortunately, I am yet to see a certification that judges a company’s ability to deliver on that.

Tell me if you think that the 1,209,672 ISO 9001 businesses across the world have got it wrong at The first five people who send me their thoughts will receive a free book.

A blown opportunity…

I spoke to a business last week that had just cancelled an order with its IT provider. The clincher for the client was in a phone call from the IT provider, which was a small firm and was probably growing along similar lines as some of its small clients.

They remained client focused until one of their clients grew to the stage where they needed major infrastructure. The $70,000 install would have been the largest job performed by this company. A moment of truth came where the change had to be made from small, one-man band mindset to big-business mindset. Unfortunately, the mindset didn’t change. The client received a phone call asking for payment of the install before the ordering process could begin.

The client was taken aback. The install was going to be leased, which made it impossible to pay before the install was completed. The IT provider explained this was a big job for him and he normally used credit cards to order his goods but this was over his limits. He had looked at a bank overdraft but the interest rates were way too high, so he thought he would just get the client to pay up front!

Once again, the client doesn’t care about any of this. This lack of focus on the client just cost the IT provider his biggest opportunity to date.

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