I had a phone call drop the other day. It wasn’t a big deal. In this wireless world I think we have all had phone calls drop. We also get static, interference and garbled messages, but hey, we’ve gotten used to it. The difference was that this call wasn’t a wireless call. It was a call using a land line desk phone. Come to think of it, having a land line call drop isn’t such an uncommon event these days either. I have commented in the past that not quite good enough is now good enough. I think this is just a symptom of what I call a race to the bottom.
Benjamin Franklin once said:
“The bitter taste of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is forgotten”
I think for a very long time this was the case. It was accepted that there was a trade-off between quality and price. However it seems that times have changed. What was once true in a handmade, almost artisanal world does not seem to apply quite so steadfastly in the modern, mass production, readily interchangeable, short life span high technology world of today.
It used to be that you could get things cheaper but they invariably didn’t last as long as the more expensive better made items. This was a period when it took a while to make just about anything, and it was a requirement that it last based on what it cost to acquire. Back then when you bought something you expected to have it for a while. You expected quality almost directly in proportion to the price that was paid. You paid less, you expected less. If it wasn’t high quality you were going to have to live with that mistake for a while. As a manufacturer your reputation rested on every product you made.
I think the new approach today is to ask what is the best “relative” quality available at the absolute lowest price. Now it seems that the search is for as much quality as is obtainable at the lowest price. It is a somewhat subtle change in the relationship between price and quality, but I think it is an important one. I think in today’s world Ben Franklin would be asking what the minimum quality level is that can be endured at the target price point.
We are no longer buying quality. We are buying price and hoping for quality.
I guess that there still is a relationship of sorts between quality and price, it’s just that now it seems almost impossible to up-sell a customer (raise the price) based on quality. If you are not the cheapest, your chances of gaining the sale are probably going to be severely hindered by the other product that is the lowest price. Customers for the most part seem to view products as readily substitutable with each being able to perform essentially the same functions as the next, hence the “why pay more” approach.
I think it can also be traced somewhat to the public perception in the change of relative life expectancy the products. The shorter the life expectancy of a product, the quicker the next generation or replacement product hits the market, the more it seems that there is a tolerance for lower quality. It came out quick so a few bugs are always expected initially. As we have moved into the disposable high technology world, it seems the more tolerant the market is of lower quality, as long as the product is available for cheap.
Just over fifty years ago Gordon Moore noticed that technological capabilities doubled roughly every eighteen months. It seemed everything got either twice as fast or half as small on a very regular basis. This observation strangely enough became known as Moore’s Law. It basically ushered in the era of short product life cycles and rapid product replacement.
I have mentioned several times that I am probably a dinosaur. I remember (vaguely) my parents color television. All twenty three inches of that then massive cathode rate tube screen. Wow, what a monster. I also remember the repairman actually coming out to the house once or twice to repair it. Of course this was across the approximately fourteen years of its operational life in their living room.
Now televisions are huge with many larger than sixty or seventy inches. Unfortunately they are only expected to last a few years. Then they either break and must be replaced since the cost of repair is now so prohibitively high as compared to a new one, or are just replaced by the newer level of product technological advancement.
My point here is that while the absolute cost of the product may have come down in both real and time adjusted costs, I don’t think the total costs across the sample period have actually been reduced. In other words, the total cost of ownership across fourteen years and two repair visits is probably far less than the three to four televisions that might be expected to be purchased across the same time period today. However, it is only fair to note that who can say what the capabilities of a television will be in fourteen years at its current rate of evolution.
It seems again if you have a short technology cycle, short life expectancy, readily substitutable, mass production product, such as televisions, or smart phones, or personal computers, or just about every other electronic platform in the market today, quality is not the concern. Price is. And when that happens it looks like the race to the bottom is on.
The reason that I have gone into such belabored detail on what is obviously a consumer goods example is that it has been the bellwether for the business world as well. Let’s get back to my dropped call scenario.
For the longest time the communications infrastructure was a source of pride. I seem to recall when “five nines” of reliability, no down time, and always being able to place a call were proudly pointed to aspects of both the public and private communications systems. You could not get a higher quality infrastructure.
So you didn’t. You got a cheaper infrastructure. It now experiences issues and outages that in the past were unthinkable. And over time people have accepted it. Quality was sacrificed for price. You don’t hear anybody asking “Can you hear me now?” We all seem to be okay with it. We seem to have lost the drive and desire for “better” and have just settled for “cheaper”.
I don’t know if it is the consumerist behavior driving the business world in this direction or the business world drive for newer and cheaper technology that is stoking the consumerist behavior. As the apparent acceptance by customers for low quality continues, even though there seems to be an inordinate amount of business focus on creating the “relative” quality levels in technology products, price becomes an ever greater decision criterion. This trend can only benefit the low cost producers and providers in the market.
When quality is addressed as a cost as in the “cost of low quality” as it is measured today in business, instead of a generated value to the customer, then I think the bottom may be in sight. Feature, form, fit, function and quality no longer seem to be viable differentiators in the eyes of customers. Price and its financial partner, cost, now seem to be all that matters.
Maybe Ben Franklin was right in his time. I think Kurt Vonnegut may be right in this time. He was the one that said:
“In this world, you get what you pay for.”
The only issue now, is that we don’t seem to be willing to pay for it.