The evolving role of customer focus in quality management: Using customer feedback to mobilize quality improvements in the age of digitalization and increased service delivery

Abstract: Understanding customer needs is fundamental for being able to deliver high quality products and services, and, as a result, maintain and improve customer satisfaction. Achieving this has become a challenge, as rapid technological developments, market saturation, and increasingly skilled competition from low-cost economies have led to progressively more complex customer needs. In addition, more manufacturing firms are offering services, thus shifting the focus from merely providing a physical product to also providing services. These changes result in an array of challenges for quality management regarding how to manage the integrated duality of product and service quality. Consequently, the need for quality management to understand how customers perceive the quality of the firm’s offering is becoming increasinglyimportant, as merely focusing on technical product quality improvements is insufficient. Compiling five papers, based on four studies across both manufacturing and service industries, this thesis outlines the evolving role of quality management in the age of digitalization and increased service delivery, by exploring the use of customer feedback for quality improvements in both products and services. First, the thesis identifies the prerequisites needed to use customer feedback for quality improvements, identifying the importance of access to the different interfaces through which customer feedback emerges. These interfaces are growing in number and complexity as digitalization and increased service delivery reshape how firms and customers interact and how offerings are delivered. Second, the capacities needed to mobilize customer feedback for quality improvements are explored using the concept of absorptive capacity, which describes the capacity to acquire and use external information. The studied firms are found to have underdeveloped absorptive capacity in terms of mobilizing customer feedback regarding service quality compared to mobilizing customer feedback on product quality. Third, the evolving boundaries and scope of quality management, driven by digitalization and increased service delivery, require quality management to go from reactive and inward-focused to embracing a proactive, continuous, and customer-focused way of working. Furthermore, the abundance of codified customer feedback in the form of big data readily available for firms today, leads to the risk of predominantly focusing on technical quality aspects while neglecting more intangible quality elements. The importance of integrating small data into firm efforts to manage quality is therefore key to ensuring quality improvements encompass the entire customer experience. Conclusively, the evolving role of customer focus in quality management requires the reconceptualization of quality to quality-in-use, and the development of both the capturing and the converting roles of quality management in terms of mobilizing customer feedback for both quality improvements and increased customer knowledge.