Price and Quality

(Published in the Quality Digest)
Eugene B. Lieb and Wendy H. Strawhacker

Recently we came across a supplier Quality evaluation that struck home the problem of using pricing as a Quality attribute. Supplier Quality evaluations have become standard communication devices in our increasingly Quality conscience environment. This firm was given an excellent rating in all aspects of performance other than in pricing. It was noted that the company had not reduced price as had been requested by the customer during the past year and therefore, had a poor "price Quality." This unacceptable rating in Pricing resulted in the supplier being given merely an acceptable or good overall Quality rating.

Clearly price is a part of the customer's expectations and it is justified to both measure customer satisfaction with price as well as communicate dissatisfaction. Many customer satisfaction studies include price and pricing in their evaluation attributes. Unfortunately, these values are often combined with the other attributes to obtain an overall customer satisfaction rating. However, price, is different from the other attributes of Quality. It plays a multiple role representing: (1) a cost to the customer, (2) the source of value to the supplier, and (3) a communicator of value.

A Quality Supplier-Customer Partnership must be symbiotic. Both the supplier and the customer should obtain value through the partnership. To be useful, Quality measures should have common value in the same direction to both partners. Both parties should obtain value by improving that attribute. This is not case in pricing. Price is a competitive attribute. It represents a cost to the customer and the primary value to the supplier. So, the customer is inherently dissatisfied with price. Decreasing price inherently benefits the customer, while it is likely to hurt, at least in the short run, the supplier.

Price implies a level of value and differentiates the product from competition. Premium prices allow services to be rendered to the customer. Responding to reduced prices often result in a different positioning of the product with a redefinition of Quality. What constitutes a good price in the long run may not run coincide with the hopes of the customer. The very survival of the customer's firm may depend on the product and the maintenance of a satisfactory price. Incorporating price into a list of attributes trivializes its role and its importance, and skews the impact of the remaining attributes.

Focusing on price holds an additional danger to any Quality partnership. Deming's fourth point clearly warns of about this focus: "End Awarding Business by Price." Reduced overall costs to the customer should follow from improved Quality, but reduced price may not. The goal is to make both the customer and the supplier better off. Focusing on price reduces Quality to the function of "beating down" the supplier. The recent attempt by General Motors to reduce costs by imposing price concessions on suppliers irrespective of existing partnerships and arrangements further demonstrates the danger of a price focus. True Quality relationships can not long survive in a hostile environment. As Edwards Deming has also noted, fear is the greatest danger to a Quality program. Fear can develop both within an organization and between Quality partners. Focusing on price can only increase that fear.

An alternative would be to focus on suppliers' cost reduction. Reduction of the suppliers' cost benefits the supplier immediately and should ultimately affect price. However, measurement in the cost reduction of suppliers requires extraordinary trust between suppliers and customers. This involves sharing of closely held information. Such trust can not be obtained in environments of hostile competition generated by the focus on price.