Keeping Your Standards High - Brass Tack Thinking

The coffee table I’ll never have – image (c) Pottery Barn

I had fallen in love with a coffee table.

This seems like a small thing, but after I’d been looking for months to find one I really loved to complete my living room, it was a minor triumph. The winning table was found online at Pottery Barn, quite honestly somewhere I’d never really identified with as a shopper. But lo and behold there it was, and I couldn’t deny it.

The base was three steel, worn library flat files. The top was a big slab of reclaimed wood, and the whole thing was set on big, clunky steel casters. (That’s it over there on the right). It was perfect. And I agonized over the price ($899) but eventually ordered it anyway.

The table was backordered (it was new to the inventory). So I waited patiently. And waited. And waited. Until the call came…

… that I’d never get that table after all.

Pottery Barn had received their first shipment of tables from the manufacturer, and they weren’t “first quality”. On the phone, Steve explained to me that they have exacting standards for the quality of the items they sell at Pottery Barn, and this one not only didn’t meet the standard initially, but they didn’t believe the manufacturer was going to be able to correct the problem, so they had decided not to carry the product at all.

As a result, he had the unfortunate job of calling the hundreds of customers that had placed an order to tell them that they weren’t getting their table, backordered or otherwise. They offered a discount on a different purchase for the inconvenience, if we chose.

I said thank you.

You know why? Because Pottery Barn recognized that every piece they ship out under their brand and company name reflects on them. If they compromised this time, they’d be dropping their standards and shipping something inferior to their customers. They weren’t willing to do that, even if it meant disappointing people temporarily and giving out discounts they didn’t anticipate. In other words, they held to their standards, and doing so cost them money (I, for example, ended up buying something else not at their store).

This is a really important lesson to learn in business.

Holding yourself and your company to high standards and relentlessly delivering on or above expectations means sometimes making hard choices. Sometimes that means not taking on a project you know you can’t do well. Sometimes that means overdelivering on a project that you underestimated to begin with.

You cannot buy a reputation for being a business or a professional that consistently delivers. You have to prove it, over and over again, until there’s no question that your results are from consistent and amazing work, not shortcuts.

I didn’t buy the coffee table from Pottery Barn this time.

But you can bet that I noticed that they care about what they deliver to their customers, that they’re devoted to the quality of what they ship, and that they have standards they’re not willing to compromise.

And their catalog is still on my table, having survived the mass-recycling of so much other direct mail.

Standards matter. Keeping to them is sometimes hard. But there is absolutely no substitute for quality, whether it’s a coffee table or the services you provide.

Don’t compromise. Once you do, it’s really hard to go back.