Now here’s a tough one … What would you do if you were providing a service that appeared to be identical to the service offered by your competitors – in spite of the fact that yours was clearly the superior offering? That was the problem faced by a large commercial cleaning contractor with whom I consulted a few months ago. This contractor had a quality management system in place that ensured that the facilities it cleaned were consistently cleaned better than the facilities serviced by its competitors. The problem was that its customers had absolutely no way of appreciating this superior service.

How clean is clean?

My client explained that his customers would instinctively use totally inappropriate metrics to judge the effectiveness of cleaning contractors. ’Our customers assume that, if their rubbish bins are emptied, then their facilities are clean. ’The thing is that, all reasonably good cleaners will empty rubbish bins. To use volume of rubbish in a bin as a measure of ’quality of clean’ is a little like using plane crashes as a measure of airline safety.’ I suggested to my client that his organisation had already developed a solution to this problem, in the form of its quality management system. All he needed to do was share the key components of this system with existing and potential customers. In short, this quality management system consisted of three steps. Step one was to determine appropriate metrics that could be used to measure the degree of cleanliness of a facility. Step two was to determine the optimum level of cleanliness. (While too dirty is undesirable, too clean is unnecessarily costly.) And step three was to periodically survey facilities, measure variance from this optimum level of cleanliness and provide feedback to cleaners and management. The benefit of providing customers with access to this system was obvious. Our client could work with customers to determine the optimum level of cleanliness for their facilities (and accordingly, the optimum price). And this system could provide customers with an accurate gauge of our client’s performance (rendering the ’bin test’ unnecessary). What appeared less obvious, was the benefit of providing potential customers with access to this quality management system. My argument was that, just as customers had no means of judging the quality of our client’s service, potential customers had no means of judging the quality of our client’s competitors’ services. Therefore, access to our client’s system would enable potential customers to quantify the quality of service they were currently receiving and compare it objectively with our client’s service offering. Furthermore, this service would provide our client with an opportunity to develop a high-level relationship with its potential customers well before their cleaning contracts came up for tender.

A lesson from a monopolist

I explained that there was another exciting benefit in sharing this quality management system with potential customers (and with other market players, for that matter). In sharing its system, our client had the opportunity to establish an industry standard. Now, if you’ve followed the growth of Microsoft over the last ten years, you’ll know that ownership of an industry standard can provide an organisation with an unassailable lead over its competitors. You may have noticed that Microsoft’s growth strategy has been to establish an industry standard (initially MS DOS), to strengthen the standard (by forming close alliances with other software developers and distribution channels) and then to extend that standard (into Windows, and then key applications like Word, Excel and Internet Explorer). While I was not naive enough to suggest that ownership of a commercial cleaning standard would provide my client with the degree of market dominance currently enjoyed by Microsoft, I did suspect that it could provide a strong foundation for its marketing activities.

Can you own your industry standard?

Now, I wonder, could you benefit from the establishment (and ownership) of your industry standard? If your clients are having trouble differentiating between your service and those of your competitors, it might be in your best interests to provide them with the metrics they need to make more objective buying decisions. Of course, while you’re at it, you might publish your own index – and even your own model of ’best practice’. Come to think of it, you might even licence other organisations to provide ’accredited’ services to your market! How aggressively you promote your standard is up to you. But it’s nice to know that there is a way to turn your customers’ perception of service parity into a competitive advantage.