IN 1970, a romantic drama film simply named “Love Story” topped the box office and reaped five Golden Globe Awards and one Academy Award as well as 11 nominations in prestigious award-giving bodies.

The film was about a seemingly mismatched couple—a young Harvard man from a wealthy family, Oliver Barrett IV (played by Ryan O’Neal), and a poor working class girl from Radcliffe College, Jennifer Cavalleri (played by Ali MacGraw). Disowned by his wealthy father for marrying beneath his class, Oliver stuck by his great love, Jennifer, amidst financial difficulties until leukemia struck Jennifer and brought a tragic end to their happy but albeit struggling married life. At her deathbed, Jennifer told Oliver, in the now famous line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.

That was almost 40 years ago and up to now, romantics of all ages around the world still use that mushy line with perhaps the melody of the song playing in their minds.

But wait—this column is not about love. Rather, this column is about quality and what it means for us in Asia. So what’s the connection? Pardon me for using this sentimental line, but I think quality, like love, means never having to say you’re sorry.

I don’t mean to generalize but I observe that many Asians find it so easy to apologize or say “I’m sorry” whenever mistakes are made. This is not to say that apologizing is not good; of course, apologies should be given when appropriate. However, when a situation comes to a point when one or many parties are obliged to say “I’m sorry,” then it must be a situation where there is a failure of quality. The American Society for Quality states one of the definitions of quality as having “a product or service free of deficiencies.” And once a product or service is deficient, then, I am sure there are one or more parties who are disgruntled and unhappy.

Let me share with you some true stories about quality to illustrate this point.

A female obstetrician-gynecologist was already in the operating room being prepped to deliver a child through a caesarian section. She was given a spinal-epidural anesthesia. Her surgeon was ready to cut open her abdomen when the patient asked, “Why is it that I can still feel my toes?” Despite assurances from the medical team of the effectiveness of the anesthesia, the patient called for a halt in the operation to verify the anesthetic that was injected. They discovered that the anesthetic was already past its expiration date. The only thing the hospital could say to the patient was “We are sorry.” That was not quality hospital care.

A young housewife bought a shiny black four-burner stove and gas oven with a glass top from a well-known brand. When the warranty expired after a year, the shiny plastic knobs broke one after the other. The expensive stove lay unused for several weeks for lack of a cheap knob to turn it on. The housewife bought replacement knobs from the manufacturer’s only service center. The new knobs were an ugly dull black and didn’t fit. The young housewife was really sorry she invested her family’s savings in that kitchen equipment. That was certainly not a quality product.

A young professional had already settled his outstanding balance and closed his credit card account. However, the bank continued sending him billing statements. Then, law offices started sending him threatening demand letters. He painstakingly showed proof of payment to one lawyer after another. After sending several letters to the bank, the young professional was able to talk to a bank employee who finally listened to what he was saying. The bank personnel issued him a certificate that he had no more outstanding balance with the bank. Today, the young professional manages to survive without a credit card. The company never apologized to him but the young professional was sorry he ever applied for a credit card in the first place. That was not quality customer service.

Unlike “Love Story,” these quality stories are tragedies because these could have been avoided with quality management. When a company fails on quality, it really ends up being sorry (because of damaged reputation and decreased revenues). The customer ends up regretting ever availing of the company’s products and services as well.

Oliver and Jennifer worked hard to have a good relationship. Similarly, companies have to work hard to develop good relationships with their customers. Both love and quality means never having to say you’re sorry.

Author: Regina Galang Reyes. First published in Asian Quality, September – October 2008 issue.

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Founding Editor, People at Work, Business, Phiippine Daily Inquirer

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