Friday, October 16, 2015

Quality in the Disposable World

I’m taking the Guitar Repair and Building Program at my local technical college. During a discussion with an instructor, we touched on a misconception about customers’ expectations and dissatisfaction inclinations. Like a lot of small business people, my instructor was under the delusion that customers will naturally complain if they are disappointed with service or product quality. Many larger companies are equally happy to pretend that they are getting 100% “compliance” from dissatisfied customers. The fact is that most customers simply log their dissatisfaction and tell themselves they will remember to never buy that particular company’s product or service again, after receiving crap service or a defective product. Most companies are perfectly happy with that outcome. Sounds like a perfectly balanced system, right?

At the other end of this “system” is the wrong-headed conclusion most business people make about customer loyalty. I’ve heard more than a few executives claim that customers don’t shop out of loyalty any more. The problem isn’t with customers, it’s with businesses. Loyalty is not a one-way street: you have to give it to get it. Counter-intuitively, you have to work at giving it.

During my ten years with QSC Audio Products, we’d developed a pretty thorough system of handling customer complaints, tracking customer purchases, feeding back customer and product information to marketing, engineering, and manufacturing, and statistically analyzing our product warranty problems and costs. When I left that company, I’d been recruited by an MI conglomerate to turn their low end sound equipment division into something more resembling a competent manufacturer. During the initial talks, I’d been led to believe the company was considerably more substantial—organizationally and financially—than it actually was. So, that moment of employment was doomed from the beginning. If I wanted to fund a start-up with my own equipment I’d have started-up my own company.

Late in the 30 days I wasted in Indiana, I was asked by the company’s guitar division customer service manager to explain QSC’s quality management system.  About 1/10th of the way into the discussion, he interrupted me to say, “That’s all way too complicated and expensive.” He went on to say that the company shipped product with a known 50% defect rate, based off of the internal random inspection data from a few years back (Since they quit inspections after a few months, product quality had probably gotten worse.). From a suspected 50% defect rate, about 1% of the company’s customers complained, expecting some sort of warranty response. If they stonewalled that first complaint, about 1% of the first 1% would come back for more abuse. No special inspection was done for warranty replacement instruments, so at least 50% of the replacements were also defective out-of-the-box. According to the manager, that 1%-of-1% routine applied to warranty replacement complaints. So, while at QSC we were aiming for 6-sigma (99.99966% defect-free, but often struggling with three-sigma performance; 99.73% defect-free), his company could boast an uninformed-by-reality 99.99235% non-warranty-claim rate without spending a dime on quality control and while shipping product that most customers would call “junk.” Between that and a conversation with the CEO regarding the discrepancy between the information in my offer letter and reality, I quit a couple of days later.

Those statistics are from large-quantity production. Small quantity (boutique) production and service businesses don’t have access to actual numbers and formal inspection procedures and if they rely on customer complaints for feedback they are committing business suicide. In fact, the only way a small business can get any kind of information about customer satisfaction is to hunt for it. When someone cares enough about the product or its performance to complain, a conscious customer service tech should take that complaint seriously and to heart. The 1% of your customer base who care enough about your product or their expectations to complain are rare and valuable. If you choose to ignore them, don’t complain when your customer base makes its buying decisions solely on price and delivery. You have informed them through your actions that you don’t give a shit about their expectations and the result is that they won’t care about you or your company’s survival.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Pure Acoustic Bullshit

40 years ago, my partner and I did a summer’s worth of acoustic music festivals, mostly bluegrass shows. After the 90th time hearing some toothless bullshit artist jabber about how “pure” his “acoustic music” was, compared to rock or R&B, while he thumped on his mic saying, “Can you hear this, I cain’t hear nothin’,” I pretty much had all I could stand of bluegrass, hillbillies, and anything “country.” After that season, Dan quietly packed up his stuff and left the business and we folded the studio, equipment rental business, sound system design and consulting, and repair/maintenance services not too many months later. Today, it was “déjà vu all over again.” I helped setup the stage and do the sound check for an oversized group of young people pretending to be acoustic musicians at the local theater. The sound check reminded me of why I am a volunteer for this work, not a paid professional. In fact, the only way I would have money in this game would be if it were mine and I could hire and fire “musicians” at will.

Let me make this perfectly clear, in case you are not only deaf but incredibly stupid: if you need amplification to present your music in a 250 person theater, you are not an acoustic musician. If you have a pickup installed in your guitar and that is how your instrument conducts signal to the FOH board, you are not an acoustic musician. If your stage volume (monitors and POS personally owned equipment included) are adjusted to be too loud for the acoustics in the room, before the front of house (FOH) system is even engaged, you are a pitiful combination of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Spinal Tap.

In this particular group, the only person on stage who seemed to have the slightest notion that the sound system bullshit was grossly out of control was the fuckin’ clogger. When a tapdancer who brings his own sound stage thinks you are “too loud,” you are way past too loud.

There is a concept in music, at least in the studio, called “serving the music.” It is apparently a non-issue in live music and it’s 99.999..% of the reason why rational people rarely attend live music performances. Serving the music means that musicians do anything necessary to ensure the music is delivered to the audience in the best possible manner. It means that the FOH system gets setup first, then whatever minimal reinforcement the musicians need to hear themselves well enough to perform well is added. Since most of the great performances I’ve seen were sans-monitor system, it’s pretty obvious that great musicians don’t need their own mini-concert system at all. Bluegrass musicians ought to be able to hear the damn instruments on stage without anything resembling a monitor system. If they can’t, they have wreaked hearing and should give it up and go back to their Spinal Tap cover band career.

So, the next time you find yourself fucking with the monitor gain-before-feedback when you haven’t even fired up the FOH system, remember this: I fucking hate the way you sound and so does everyone who has ever bought a record and listened to it carefully. As long as your own ego is the main focus on your stage, you are not a musician but you are definitely a spoiled child who didn’t get enough attention from mommy when you were nursing or being potty trained. Or maybe the last one never happened?

Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.