What is quality? Is it a well-built product, the best price, or superior service? To succeed in today's business world we all must take a wider view of how we define quality.

The old adage was that between product quality, good service and a good price, you could have a maximum of two of the three criteria. Today that doesn't hold water. Product quality and a competitive price are givens for a top supplier. To differentiate yourself today you must offer superior service and value added to your customer.

Before we talk about service, let's clarify our definitions of quality and price. Many customers assume product quality. A light bulb is a light bulb is a light bulb, they may say. That's not necessarily the case. Vast differences can exist between raw components, manufacturing processes, process control, packaging and support. You must know what you're selling and how or why it's better than your competitor's product.

Your story needs to be told. Unseen + Untold = Unsold! If you don't know the story, find out. My company has made training its top goal for this year. If our salespeople don't know who we are and what we do, they can't effectively sell our products.

Price is an overriding factor. But salespeople must remember that the lowest price isn't necessarily the best value. One of the first things my company tells a customer is that we will not be the lowest-priced supplier. However, we will offer the best combination of product quality, service and price. In other words, you can always find a better price but not a better value.

As a result, for a top customer, you must have a top-quality product and a competitive price to get in the door. The additional service and value added that you provide to your customer is what will set you apart.

Quality service has several aspects. Your company must be able to provide quick, clear answers from knowledgeable people, high shipping performance levels and the quick turnaround of an order. Once again, these aspects are required to outperform your competition. Where my company strives to excel is providing value-added quality to our customers. This value added takes all the traditional aspects of quality and extends it. I break down this value-added strategy into these three areas:

Offer a large market basket of goods and sell them all. This gives your customer a larger selection of products available from a single vendor. The customer reduces vendors, cuts fewer purchase orders, takes advantage of freight terms and spends more time working their business. This deeper relationship and partnership will save the customer money in the long run.

Offer customized solutions that fit customers' needs. To succeed today, you must be flexible in how you do business. For instance, while my company takes pride in its standard programs, we also offer customized programs tailored to meet the needs of individual customers. These programs could consist of quantity breaks, private-label programs, blanket orders, dedicated stock, drop shipments, joint marketing or sales efforts, or any number of other details important to the customer. We let the customer tell us what they need and then do our best to accommodate that request.

Make it simple and easy for a customer to do business with you. Business is difficult enough today without a complicated purchase cycle. My company simplifies things for customers by offering convenient order placement, timely order acknowledgment, low minimums, easy programs, quick turnaround of orders, and simple terms and conditions. We also provide a real person to talk to on the phone when customers have questions.

Today, quality consists of far more than a good product. To excel, you must step back and take a wider look at your definition of quality. By offering value-added quality to your customer, you give them a reason to want to do business with your company. This makes you more valuable to the customer and also allows you to grow your business. That's the whole point.


The author is director of sales and marketing, Eiko Ltd., Shawnee, Kan. Eiko began selling miniature lamps in 1986, and has expanded its offering to include a full line of lamps for the general lighting and specialty lamp markets.