The 1% case

A former boss of mine taught me that there are two kinds of situations in the business world:

  1. Most of the time, the 80/20 rule applies. Get 80% of the problem correct (or solve the problem for 80% of customers), and you won’t need to worry about the other 20%. For example, when writing a FAQ, 80% of people are going to ask the same ten questions. Give good answers for those ten questions and you’ve taken care of 80% of the problem. Often, reducing 80% of the problem is enough to not worry about it after that. Similarly, if you’re spending $5,000 a month on exceptions, and then you take care of 80% of those exceptions, you’re probably in good shape. A budget of $12k annually for exceptions is a lot easier to stomach than $60k annually.
  2. Sometimes, however, the 1% rule applies. If you have a problem even 1% of the time, that’s unacceptable. You need to get as close as is possible to 100%, and 99% just isn’t close enough. For example, if you’re an air traffic controller, you can’t just land 99% of the planes. (“They never compliment me on the 99 planes I landed properly — they keep harping on the one little plane that crashed.”) Similarly, uptime for a real-time service that customers pay for should generally be higher than 99%.

I’m thinking about this specifically in regards to the Black & Decker product I wrote about yesterday. When I called support this morning, the agent told me that she doesn’t get a lot of complaints about the product working, and she believes it works “most of the time, for most customers.”

For a car battery starting, I want 99% reliability or better. I suspect that in this case, Black & Decker is selling a product that merely works 80% of the time. That may be good enough for some customers, or for many products, but not for this customer, and not for this product.

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