Quality Training: Selling the comeback: Rank Xerox is marketing the secrets of its dramatic revival. Roger Trapp reports

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The Independent Online
IT TOOK a crisis to change the culture of Rank Xerox, the international photocopier company. At the end of the 1970s, the organisation's patents ran out and - in the words of Vern Zelmer, the UK managing director - 'the Japanese were killing the company'.

Since turning itself around in the early 1980s, the group has become noted for its adherence to quality. By winning the first European Quality Award, to add to the Deming and Baldridge award it already had on its mantelpiece, it has achieved what it claims is a unique hat- trick of awards in this area. And with companies increasingly prepared to share information about quality, Xerox finds itself much in demand at seminars on the subject.

So much so, in fact, that it has launched a special service aimed at helping other companies get the message before they, too, face a crisis. Rank Xerox Quality Solutions is a worldwide team designed to sell training of this type.

Jim Havard, director of business management services and quality at the company's UK arm, said the training concentrates on such issues as process re-engineering and benchmarking - two current buzzwords associated with changing the ways companies are run and enabling them to compare their performance with what is best practice in their sector and elsewhere. It also does health- checks 'to assess where you are and where you need to go' - and to sell the company's old quality training manuals.

Having spent a lot of time helping companies because of the public service notion that all industry benefits from efficient, well-run companies, Xerox feels it is justified now in charging for its expertise.

Mr Havard said the desire for its assistance had been so great that company managers could spend every day talking to their counterparts in other organisations. While workshops attended by senior executives had been highly popular, there was also 'a huge demand for people to come back to tell them about the detail,' he added.

So far, there has been a lot of interest, suggesting that companies are not averse to paying for something that could make the difference between collapse or survival in an increasingly competitive environment.

Xerox sees other benefits to itself besides the fees - for instance, it comes into contact with companies that might turn out to be customers, or might have new ideas. 'We're still humble enough to learn,' said Mr Havard. Indeed, both he and Mr Zelmer stressed that the company could not relax, especially as others are catching on to the approach. 'It's a continuous improvement thrust,' Mr Zelmer said.

He added that quality standards such as the BS5750 initiative do not quite fit the bill because they deal with procedures, not processes, and overlook the importance of looking at a company in total.

'Between 80 and 90 per cent of quality programmes fail because they don't take a holistic approach,' he said. Many companies concentrate on customer focus, but if they do not get the infrastructure and organisation right, their programmes will not work, he said, adding that it is particularly important that a system enables staff to make decisions that will help the business run smoothly.

For this reason, Rank Xerox has given employees handling customer complaints the power to settle claims up to a value of pounds 200. The idea is that the waste of management time resulting from referring such matters upwards would cost much more - and at the same time, by delaying a decision, could frustrate the customer.

Rank Xerox is also in the middle of a programme that it insists puts teeth into customer relations. Every month 10,000 customers receive questionnaires on satisfaction. The responses have a direct effect on the company's employees. Bonuses related to the results account for 30 per cent of executives' income and 3.5 per cent for all other staff.

Moreover, managers are constantly appraised by superiors and subordinates. Failure to be seen as a 'role model' is a 'knock-out factor' for anyone seeking promotion.

It is 'a life-threatening experience for the old command- and-control people', said Mr Zelmer, adding that some had left the company.

'This is the single most powerful thing we've ever done. When we get finished, we will know every bit of fuzz in our navels,' he said.

'Is it perfect? No.

'Is it the best we've seen? Probably.'