It is one thing to read about the value of quality, but it’s an entirely different thing to experience the harsh consequences of its absence. I suppose some lessons are best learned through the school of hard knocks, and the value of quality was one of them. For obvious reasons, I won’t mention the name of the company, or the product, but trust me – the events described below did happen, and I had the dubious benefit of experiencing them first hand.

Will Rogers

“It takes a lifetime to build a good reputation, but you can lose it in a minute.” Will Rogers

I was responsible for a major product line, which was launched with major fanfare just a year earlier. The sales team liked our product, customers feedback was generally positive, and our revenues were growing rapidly. Yes, we had competition, but with the momentum we were building, we felt the market was ours to have.

I sat one afternoon with a colleague, who was responsible for another product line within our company. I knew they experienced some quality challenges with their product line. He showed me an interesting graph, that displayed their product revenues and customer found defects (CFDs) on the same timeline. It didn’t take a mathematician to observe that the two charts were inversely-correlated: as the number of CFDs rose, the revenues declined, and vice versa. I thought this was a valuable observation, and vowed to keep that lesson in mind.

We operated in a fast growing and a competitive market. Our closest competitor just launched their latest release, with some significant additional capabilities. They were getting some attention from the media and customers started asking about them – but we felt it was only a short-lived challenge. Our development team wasn’t sitting idle; we had our own new release underway, and believed that once we announce that release, the market will lean in our favor.

An important industry tradeshow was just around the corner. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to announce our new release, and apply for the lucrative “best of show” award. The media buzz generated by such an award could certainly help secure our leadership position.  However, the new release wasn’t quite ready yet. Extensive internal testing was well underway, and the number of defects uncovered by our quality assurance (QA) team was still pretty high.

A key condition for applying for the tradeshow award was that the candidate product should have been announced, and ready for shipments within 30 days after the show. We contemplated what to do. Well, we thought, it won’t be the first time a product is announced before it started shipping… We can simply announce the new release, apply for the show award, and ship it when it’s ready. Simple.

The announcement was received even better than we expected. Our product received a lot of attention at the show, and yes – we won the “best of show” award! Things couldn’t be better from a marketing stand point. There was one small caveat though: the product had to be shipped within 30 days, otherwise we would need to forfeit the award.

The development and testing team started a frantic race to get the product ready for shipment. But as we all know, software quality has a mind of its own. The defects graphs were indicating that the release wasn’t quite ready, but the consequences of not shipping the product and losing the award were unthinkable, or so we thought.

After much deliberation, we decided to ship the new release – even though it wasn’t quite ready. We also decided to keep working full-steam on a subsequent “maintenance release”, which will essentially be the real production release. The rational was that the number of software downloads of our “new release” would initially be small, and with a stable release becoming available “a few weeks later”, our exposure should be minimal. Boy, were we wrong!

The media attention generated by our successful announcement, coupled with our “best of show” award created an avalanche of downloads of our newly posted software version. We had hundreds of downloads within a couple of weeks, which may not sound much… But given that our customers were companies, not individuals, this meant that hundreds of organizations deployed our “not so ready” software into their infrastructure. This couldn’t be good – and it wasn’t!

The following weeks were a total nightmare. Our customer support lines were flooded with angry customers who demanded resolution for their problems “now”. The sales teams who were so eager to sell our product just a few weeks ago, decided to take a major step back and wait for the commotion to end. The development team was forced into “firefighting” mode, trying to fix critical customer problems first. The planned “maintenance release” suffered delays, which increased our exposure in the market.

When the dust settled a couple of months later, we finally had a chance to do damage inspection. The glory of the “best of show” award has long worn down. The word on the street was that our product is faulty, which gave our main competitor a much needed boost. Our quarterly revenues were significantly down. Yet the most painful part was the loss of confidence amongst our company sales teams. They just didn’t want to take unnecessary risks by introducing a “problematic product” to their customers. As Will Rogers once said: “It takes a lifetime to build reputation, but you can lose it in a minute.”

I couldn’t but painfully remember my colleague’s telltale graphs of revenues and defects…  But this isn’t where the story ends though:

We decided to buckle down and dig ourselves out of the hole. Quality became a major objective for our software, and we vowed to never repeat the same mistakes again. Subsequent product releases met the standards we set for ourselves, and the tide started to slowly turn. We elected to be transparent with our sales teams: we shared the lessons we learned, the changes we made, and presented regular updates of our quality metrics – including comparisons to other products within the company. But most importantly, we spared no effort in taking care of customer found defects, and minimizing disruptions to their daily work.

The turnaround took about a year. During that time, we prioritized quality and customer care over new features. Yes, our “feature velocity” slowed down considerably, but we considered quality to be our number one feature. As quality improved, so did customer confidence and more importantly – sales willingness to engage with our product. Revenues eventually recovered, though we lost our #1 market position. It was our turn to wait for our main competitor to falter…

This “hard knock” taught me a few things: 1) Quality does matter 2) When facing a tradeoff between media fame and customers success – the latter should always win. 3) Facing harsh reality and focusing on the right things will help you climb out of a deep hole…