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A Chain of Customers and Keystone Customers

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image of a chain of customers Most businesses take part in a chain of customers. For example, an auto parts warehouse distributor purchases a muffler from a manufacturer and redistributes it to a jobber, who in turn sells it to a repair facility, who then installs it on a car driven by the customer's wife. The jobber, the installer, and the customer are all part of a customer chain; they have different needs and occasionally conflicting ones.

Which one do you need to pay top attention to? Does it make a difference if you are a manufacturer or a jobber?

"Keystone" Customers

The first step is to uncover the "keystone customer." Who ultimately determines the success or failure of your business? Like the keystone that holds a Roman arch in place, if we do not satisfy this customer's needs, the whole customer chain can collapse.

In the muffler example, the keystone is the wife. If she is unhappy with the sound or smell of her car after the new muffler is installed, she may ask that it be checked again (time for which the installer will not be paid). If she is still not satisfied, she may ask that the new muffler be replaced with another brand, or she may not want her car taken to that installer for other services. Conversely, if the keystone customer is satisfied, good will and word-of-mouth advertising may result.

In QFD, it is important that the needs of the keystone customer be addressed because the end users in any product or service supply chain are the most important members of that chain:

"The final user of automobiles is the only person who puts any money in the supply chain. We (the rest of us) are all passing his tokens up and down the chain." [J. Timmer, then Director of Operations and Strategy for Chrysler, souce: Automotive News, Sept. 18, 1998]

A product development team of Nokia also reported in the 2000 QFD Symposium:

"When choosing which customer 'gemba' to research, we could have chosen our direct trade customers or members of the distribution channel because the mobile service operators have a strong influence on the product specification in the Japanese market... But we chose end users because this was where we believed the biggest improvements in our understanding would come."

Listening to Multiple Customers

In QFD, that is why Gemba visits and Voice of the Customer are among the first to be examined and analyzed —- even when your business usually does not require meeting with end users.

Satisfaction of the keystone customer should be everyone's business because that is what glues the chain together. This does not mean it is all right to ignore other customers in the chain. QFD enables you to accommodate multiple customers, even when their needs and positions may be a conflicting one.

In the above example, the muffler manufacturer, auto parts warehouse and distributor, jobber, repair shop, and installer are stakeholders within a customer chain, regardless of where they may be in the chain. By using QFD, you can identify which stakeholders and what needs actually matter most to your new product development and business goal. QFD helps all parties in the same chain of customers work together toward the common goal of satisfying the keystone customer.

QFD = Coherent Quality System

The importance of listening to the Voice of the Keystone Customer at every link of the chain applies to how the organization operates as well.

QFD offers a coherent quality system. With limited time, human, financial and other resources, it is important that organizations concentrate the best efforts of all members and departments on what matters most to the customer.

These best efforts must be aligned and coherent so that each person or department builds on and reinforces the efforts of others to deliver what matters most - and thus, value, to the end customer. This, in return, will build a competitive business.

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