We have all experienced how frustrating it can be when an interaction with a company doesn’t materialize the way we expect.

It’s a safe bet that most everyone has spent several minutes on hold (while listening to irritating music). Much of the time you feel temporary relief of finally talking to a real person then disgust when informed that you need to call another number to resolve the issue. What about going through an excruciating electronic process involving pages of online forms, only to stumble at the final hurdle and have to start over?

What does this have to do with quality?

The quality movement, thanks in large part to people like J.M. Juran, W.D. Deming, and A.V. Feigenbaum, has made huge improvements in the performance, reliability and consistency of today’s products and services. These efforts have resulted in huge benefits for companies and customers alike. I can’t remember the last time I was in a car that broke down or had a flat tire.

That’s precisely the problem. How can you differentiate your company when your competitors’ products are of similar quality?

Quality giants like Juran and Deming were correct when they said that the customers’ definition of quality is the only one that matters. You know what quality means to your company, but do you know what it means to your customers?

By incorporating the voice of the customer into your improvement activities, you benefit. Customers can tell you what they value about your core products and the surrounding support services.

Combining external measures from your customers with internal quality metrics has the potential to improve business performance and continuously outpace your competitors.

Your organization likely already conducts customer-satisfaction surveys. Unfortunately, customer satisfaction isn’t a good indicator that customers will continue to use your company’s products. Customers who are merely satisfied are easy targets for your competitors to entice away. In fact, there have been studies which show that 70% of customers turn to your competitors because of poor service quality, not poor product quality.

To be successful, companies must commit to turn satisfied customers into loyal customers and turn loyal customers into advocates. These are the top rungs of the customer-experience ladder as described by many quality experts.

Even before prospects (stage 1) become customers (stage 2), you need to start addressing their expectations. They see commercials or hear about your performance from their friends. Once they become customers, your goal is to deliver what you promised and ensure that they’re satisfied (stage 3). Beyond satisfaction, you must strive to ensure that you deliver consistently positive experiences and build a strong relationship that develops loyal customers (stage 4) and, ultimately, advocates (stage 5).

A loyal customer is one who intends to stay with your company. When you build loyalty, your customers will overlook occasional failings. Outcomes don’t always go as planned, but a loyal customer believes that your company is striving to do its best and will be understanding if you are working to resolve the problem.

Advocates are even more valuable to your company. Advocates are customers who feel a strong connection to your product or service and will actively endorse it to others. They are so impressed with your company that they are willing to stake their own reputation on endorsing your product to friends. Advocacy is the best predictive indicator that your organization is delivering product and service experiences that are important to your customers.

There’s little doubt that turning your prospects into loyal customers and advocates is good for business. The question is, what does it take to achieve this goal?

It means delivering a positive experience each time the customer interacts with your organizations. On the rare occasions where customer experiences don’t go as planned, your organization must do whatever it takes to quickly make it right.

Delivering positive customer experiences involves everybody in the organization. It’s the reason your business exists. (If you don’t believe this try doing without customers for a month.) It’s particularly important that companies focus on the people and systems that the customers interact with most often.

If customers have a problem, it doesn’t matter if the data are statistically significant. Deal with it or risk losing them as customers—and having them tell all their friends and family about their bad experience. Companies should understand the “customer for life” metric. (For more on this topic, read “Successful Organizations are Customer-Centric” in the September 2011 issue of Quality.)

Quality professionals can help our organizations transform into truly customer-centric businesses and turn customers into advocates. It’s good for business and everyone wins!