Does Quality Matter? If So, Prove It. – Urban Ag News

If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.

We all know brands with products and services that represent quality. But have you ever been the person responsible for selling quality? For earning the premium price associated with producing quality products?  

Since my first job in 1996, every company I worked for, represented or owned believed they had the highest quality product in their market or class. However, I now realize that believing you have the best (even if it is true) does not mean you can convince your customer or that your customer values quality in the same way.

What does quality mean?

Dictionary definition: The standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind; the degree of excellence of something.

Other definitions often depend on what quality represents. If you talk about a product, quality normally represents specific features. If you talk about a service, quality normally represents something that consistently meets customers’ needs. If you talk about a process, quality represents the ability to always meet specifications.

What is the problem with selling quality?

The issue with quality is that it is often subjective and based on feelings or marketing. Seldom is quality determined by objective facts. Personally, I consider quality as something that demonstrates reliability. In other words, quality is a function of performance measured over time.

Selling quality in controlled environment agriculture (CEA)

In today’s world of commercial horticulture, I struggle with the term “quality.” It seems everyone has best-in-class products and the highest quality. The situation is comical.  

Let’s break down two scenarios to determine how quality is defined. The first one focuses on consumer purchasing habits and the second on business purchasing habits and decisions.

In 2023 I challenged one of my valued vendors to define why their new product was of higher quality than their competitors. The conversation did not go well.

First, let’s look at fresh produce sales and use greenhouse tomatoes as an example. Over the past few months, numerous articles have highlighted the competitive nature of the European greenhouse grown tomato industry.  

In August, the Spanish industry magazine Mecardo published this article: The Spanish tomato resists Moroccan and Dutch competition by betting on proximity and exclusivity. The piece discusses the challenges the Spanish greenhouse tomato industry faces in competing with Moroccan-grown produce. It states that Morocco has now displaced Spain and the Netherlands as the number one exporter of tomatoes to the United Kingdom. The conclusion is that Spain is losing the battle on price and that it should avoid competing on price and focus on quality, reliability, and service.  

What I find humorous is that if you are based in the Netherlands, you likely say the EXACT same things about Spanish tomatoes. The argument seems to be that if you cannot compete on price, you must have a better-quality tomato, especially in a consumer category where taste and flavor are highly subjective.  

(I acknowledge that you can measure certain qualities in tomatoes such as brix, aesthetics, size and shelf life. The question remains as to whether those qualities outweigh price when this article also states that tomato consumption is decreasing. “The sector is concerned about the decrease in tomato consumption that is occurring both in Spain and in the EU, which has fallen by 13% in volume and 2% in value in the 2021/22 campaign, according to the latest data collected by Fepex. Tomato consumption in Spanish homes has gone from 13 kilos per person in 2021 to 11.9 kilos in 2022.”)

For the second example, let’s use LED grow lights. This one is more challenging because the technology promises long-lasting reliability, but most commercial installations have not existed long enough to prove or test the reliability claims. 

Unlike other technologies in the commercial horticulture space, we have a third-party agency, Design Light Consortium, that collects performance data. Unfortunately, the agency does not always make internal unbiased testing data available.

LED grow lights have metrics we can measure and test, such as output (umols/s), efficacy (umols/joule) and spectrum. This ensures buyers get what they paid for, at least out of the box. However, this is where quality becomes a test of reliability over time. 

Anyone investing in a retrofit lighting system calculates a return on investment. The estimation compares the running hours the greenhouse uses per year against the difference in energy used at a given price per kwh. This determines the years needed to earn back the investment. If the product fails to perform at the same specification over the years, the initial return on investment becomes null and void.  

Much like the tomato discussion, the final component is price. A question that many debate today is, can the cheapest product on the market also deliver on quality claims? Even for someone deeply invested in understanding this technology, this gets confusing. 

What can be said is that the components used to build the light determines the product’s longevity. Cheaper components are less likely to deliver consistency over time. This is to be expected.

So back to the original question, what does quality mean?

You tell me. What is clear is that, in most cases, quality is more subjective than objective. Even when you can measure quality, you have to consider consumers’ interest in different levels of qualities for given products in certain sectors. Consumers continue to show they will forgo high-quality products in favor of good-quality products at a more reasonable price. This makes selling quality products a challenge.

Quality and high yield are different. When you spend more money to build your farm, you need to increase yield. This does not mean you increase quality, regardless of what suppliers want you to believe.

Over the years, I have made three incorrect assumptions about quality. First, as a young sales person, I assumed that “quality” meant my product was better than competitors. And while I am fortunate enough to have only worked with high-quality products, these qualities did not always translate into a difference the customer valued.  

Second, I assumed everyone valued quality the same way I did. Personally, I always buy the best product that lasts the longest or performs better than comparable products. In other words, I only want to buy something one time. It took me years to realize that not everyone values quality and that good enough at the right price point often wins out.  

Finally, and probably most importantly, people pay premium prices for quality. This one confused me because people are complicated. Many of my customers drive the nicest cars and invest in the best homes. But when it comes to their business, they do not value every component required to operate in the same way. 

And who does? We pick and choose what’s important to us, what we can afford, and what we value. Plus, we continuously change our minds depending on the factors we face at that moment.

Ultimately, quality products need to align with the perceived value that customers derive from them. If companies cannot communicate and/or demonstrate the value proposition of their products, they will not achieve their desired premium pricing.  

If you are burdened with selling quality, my thoughts are with you. After 26 years of selling, my advice to you is simple:  

First, make sure the product you sell has multiple features that represent the qualities your clients want. Second, constantly listen to your customers and relay new information back to your company. Be transparent and truthful with your customers. They will value this as a premium service, which should never be overlooked.  

And, finally, I hope you are successful. If we have a chance at being environmentally sustainable, we need products to last longer. We cannot continue to live in a throw-away world.

Urban Ag News looks to hear from you.

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