The Cost of Low Quality

My project was late and it was time to tell the CEO. I expected a tough and one-sided conversation, but what I got instead was a great lesson.

A plant growing from a jar of coins
Photo by Visual Stories || Micheile / Unsplash

About ten years ago, I was leading a project which was experiencing some difficulties. We were using a new technology that none of the team had much experience with, which was not behaving quite as expected. Although the whole team worked very hard to meet the delivery deadline, about two weeks out it became obvious that we weren't going to get the bugs ironed out in time. As the project lead, it was my responsibility to deliver the news - no one's favourite job!  

Armed with a notebook full of excuses and an enormous sense of foreboding, I walked to the CEO's office, knocked and entered. The CEO had a reputation for pushing the teams hard and not holding back on sharing his true thoughts. I expected a tough and one-sided conversation, but what I got instead was a great lesson.

I explained the situation, keeping to high-level details and sticking to the facts, and finished by explaining that, while the software was working, we were still trying to fix some bugs and were observing some unpredictable behaviour under high loads. "In short", I said, "the application is feature complete, but I am really not happy with the quality". I went to continue, ready to break open the list of issues that I had brought with me, but he stopped me. He said, "Steve, when you tell a customer that you are going to be a few days late, they may be pissed off with you for a little while. But when you deliver a great product that they are delighted with, the delay will soon be forgotten. However, if you deliver a piece of crap on time and call it done, they will hate you forever."

Now, to say I was shocked by this response would be an understatement. But as I walked back to the team I began to realise the true meaning of the CEO's words.

Bespoke software development is a highly competitive market, and the very best way to ensure the continued success of your business is to build strategic partnerships with your clients - to become their "go-to" development partner. Research has shown that it takes between five and twenty-five times more effort to acquire a new customer than it does to re-engage with an existing one, and it was clear that the CEO understood this. The very best way to ensure a steady and growing income stream was not to deliver a disappointing solution and take the money but to spend a little more time and delight the customer. A culture of transparency would ensure that the customer understood the cause of any delay and, just as importantly, appreciate the extra effort being put in to give them work of the highest quality, which would allow them to fully capitalise on their investment for many years to come.

The same is true of startups. Quality is everything to the end-user. No matter how much value you can provide to a user, if they cannot access it easily, with a minimum of fuss, without hitting bugs or unexpected behaviour, they'll simply quit and won't come back. Whatever your market, the competition is fierce, and the barrier to entry in most markets, particularly for software applications, is incredibly low and ever-decreasing.

Think about this when defining your MVP (Minimum Viable Product), as defined by Eric Ries in his must-read book, "The Lean Startup". You will be much more likely to build a loyal user base by taking your time to really focus your first release on a set of core features that are built to a very high standard. If you deliver a poor experience, you are wasting your development and marketing budget. Potential users will find an alternative, and it'll be a near-impossible task to win them back.

Likewise, once the MVP is delivered, take your time to gather feedback and apply the same high quality bar to the next feature release. Don't disappoint your users. If every new feature greatly enhances the usefulness of your product for your users, they will be happy to wait. If the next release degrades the quality of the product, they will leave.

And if you are releasing software into an online store where users can leave ratings and reviews, this is an order of magnitude more important. It only takes a few scathing reviews to destroy the sales performance of a product, and each new release opens the door for more problems to occur. So build to a high quality and only release features you are truly proud of.

Build the right thing, but perhaps even more importantly, build the thing right.

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