Good, Cheap, Fast: The dilemma of providing ideal service

good-cheap-fast signJust a few days ago I was in a local mechanic’s shop and amidst the shelves stacked high with dusty papers and some foreign-looking objects that were likely common knowledge auto parts, there was a simple sign hung on the window that looked into the garage. It read, “We offer three kinds of service: Good – Cheap – Fast. You can pick any two.” After my initial amusement from envisioning an old crotchety man pleased with himself as he hung this sign in his shop, I realized that is the dilemma every business owner faces when trying to offer a customer ideal service. For a laundry list of reasons, my business is very different from this mechanic’s. But when it comes to customer service, this sign accurately summarizes us both.

If it’s fast and good, it won’t be cheap. “Rush” projects are common in almost every industry. From the mechanic to the Public Relations professional, sometimes some things just cannot wait. Because a rush project can save a client from a terrible inconvenience, loss of potential business or increase their revenue, I certainly accommodate them whenever possible. In fact, one of my main reasons for keeping ahead of my planned projects is to allow for the occasional rush project. Allow me to say what most other business owners think; we keep this open time for rush projects because they’re a great source of unexpected and well-paying work. People are willing to pay more to prevent a bad situation – and thus, the dilemma of rush service. A bad business owner takes advantage of this opportunity to gauge a client in a vulnerable situation (i.e. obscene rush shipping charges or overtime wages), while a good business owner charges just enough more to compensate them for the extra hours of work and the opportunity-cost of pushing their scheduled projects to the side.

If it’s good and cheap, it won’t be fast. For clients who want the highest quality of service at the best price possible, the key is to be flexible with your deadlines and to start well ahead of when you need something done. The best example I can give here is my experience with mass mailings and the postal system. If I have a large enough mailing, I can benefit from pre-sorted postage rates which are half that of a regular stamp. This is a huge cost savings when your list is in the thousands! However, the big caveat here is that you must give yourself ample lead time for the mailing to process and hit mailboxes—I’m talking about a month. The postal service offers this discount rate, but it can take up to 25 business days to be delivered, as opposed to the standard 2-3. If you want something done good and cheap, you must be more flexible on the time frame in which you wish to have it completed. A long lead time (and ample patience) can save you a lot of money in the long run if you can plan ahead for it.

If it’s fast and cheap, it won’t be good. This combination of service is the one that most good business owners would prefer to avoid entirely. When it’s all said and done, neither the customer nor the business will be happy with a final product that was done quickly and cheaply. I know this is one of the rare instances where I might need to step away from a project if I think it will poorly reflect upon me or my business. Certainly I offer every client my best services at the fairest rates; it’s only when I’m stretched beyond reason that it becomes a problem. The two other options above prove why fast and cheap service won’t be the best quality. A business either needs to charge more for a rush project that pushes all other projects to the side or needs more time and flexibility from a client to do the best work on a tight budget.

Can we ever have all three? If you’re talking in extremes, I’d say the answer is no. An award-winning web site design done in three days for under $500 is either a scam or poor business management. In the real world, one of these three factors (time, quality or cost) would need to give. In less extreme examples, I have personally benefited from rush projects, done completely to my standard and for a fair price. The key is relationships. Once you build a good relationship with a business owner or contractor, you can work with them to achieve a good balance of all three.

As for me and the mechanic, I paid well under what the dealership would have charged me, fulfilled my inspection until 2014 and had my car back in just a few hours. So regardless of what that sign hanging in his window said, I think I just might have gotten away with choosing a little bit of all three!

11 thoughts on “Good, Cheap, Fast: The dilemma of providing ideal service

  1. This is so basic and yet so profound. It sums up the fundamental truth of all business relationships, and shows up the concept of “Lowest price, no matter what …” for the false bargain that it really is. Great writing, Stephanie

    1. Thank you, Ian! I also thought that the message of this sign was so simple, but true. I know I’ve personally battled against competitors who claim to deliver lofty promises for an undercut rate, but in nearly every case these have proven to be too good to be true indeed. There’s a balance and a cost to everything.

  2. I came across your blog by chance and am glad I did. A really well-written piece, the key is as you say having a good business relationship and in times of recession, more than ever, good communication.

    Also as an aside enjoyed “amidst the shelves stacked high with dusty papers and some foreign-looking objects that were likely common knowledge auto parts” which made me smile.

    Keep up the good work.


    1. Thank you, James! I always enjoy hearing feedback on my posts and am glad you enjoyed this one in particular. I try and find some wisdom or inspiration in every day situations if possible–makes life a little more interesting!

  3. Wow. I always love the straightforward advice you can find in simple signs. And your commentary added so much more impact.. now I want that sign by my desk!

    Thanks for the wise and entertaining read.

    1. I’m glad you see it as advice–sometimes I think it’s just my own ramblings 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed this post. I have a few more “wise ramblings” coming up in the next few weeks as well.

  4. As a GP (family physician) in the National Health Service in the UK, this really rings true. Traditionally the NHS has provided a good, cheap service. In recent years, we have been expected to add fast to that equation for less resource!
    May I use that photograph on my own blogs please?

    1. Hi John, thank you for the comment and I’m glad to hear that you can personally relate to this concept as well. That sounds like a very challenging situation! Yes, you are welcome to use this graphic. – Stephanie

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