Quality, Value, & Grade – An Exploration

Is Higher Quality Always Better?

You don’t have to be in the business world to feel that, intuitively, that better quality, is, well better. Phrases like “quality over quantity” and “you get what you pay for” drive this point home for just about everyone from a young age, but have we ever stopped to think about cases in which higher quality might not actually be the best choice?

From the LinkedIn vault this week, user Mikel Harry posed this same question, and asked the community to weigh in… and weigh in they did. It quickly became apparent that to have a proper discussion about anything regarding quality, certain phrases had to be defined. The hardest and most essential, of course, was how to define quality itself. Next, came some peripheral and derivative terms like ‘grade’ and ‘value’, which heavily play into our perception of quality.

Before we break down the main question at hand, let’s get a few definitions nailed down for everyone:

Basic Definitions

Value: Value is all about the perceived gain from spend. In other words, value is a measure of what people feel they are getting out for what they put in. In most cases, value is primarily concerned with the end user or customer, as they’re the ones who have to hand over their hard earned money to you for your product. A good way to think about value when marketing or advertising any product, is that your goal is to make sure that whatever you are offering is worth more to a customer than what you’re asking for it. For example, you’re selling widgets for $10 and a prospect perceives that the value of the utility they’ll gain is $11, and they therefore decide to buy. That’s value in a nutshell.

Grade: Grade is a tricky concept to get your head around for many people because it’s closely related to (but not the same as) quality. A poster in the LinkedIn discussion illustrates this relationship by discussing the thread count of a fabric, such as a bed sheet. Various thread counts, for example, represent different grades. For example, you might be looking at sheets with a grade of 400 threads per inch or at a grade of 900 threads per inch. Another example might be organic vs. traditionally farmed crops. Higher grade items will be associated with a higher price point, though this is not necessarily indicative of a higher quality.

Quality: Quality, then, is best described as variations within grades. For example, your organic vegetables may be more expensive simply because of the way they were farmed, but if they were bruised during harvest or grown in poor conditions, they could be of a low quality despite being organic grade (and higher priced). In the thread count example, the quality of the individual threads used, or the craftsmanship applied, could actually be higher in a lower thread count fabric. In the 900 thread count sheets, for example, individual threads might be defective, lowering the quality. Traditionally, higher grade materials often are also higher quality, but it’s important to recognize that this isn’t always the case.

That said, understanding definitions isn’t enough to answer Harry’s original question of whether there are times or not where a lower quality product is actually a better choice. He starts off his discussion by giving a rather long-winded hypothetical story about a man shopping for drill bits for a home construction project. In the end, the man selects a cheaper, “lower quality” drill bit because he only needs it to drill one hole in his garage door fix, and therefore doesn’t really care about the longevity of the product. Of course, the problem here is the colloquial or everyday usage of the word “quality.”  Using our definitions from above, it would appear that the choice between drill bits was actually one of grade rather than quality.

Fitting the Job

Harry’s anecdote was pointed out by other users as being an example of a product bought to fit a certain job. User Shashank Vaislay offered this Indian colloquialism as reinforcement of the concept:  “where there is need of needle, there is no point of using sword.”  Indeed, this is generally intuitive when placing yourself in the position of the buyer/customer; you generally buy based upon your perceived need.

By extension, the value of certain products changes to you as your needs do. In your early twenties, you have very little use for a baby stroller, but the second your first child’s on the way, you’re comparing amazon reviews and shopping around for the safest, best stroller around, because your needs have changed.

Of course, we can extend this example to demonstrate differences in grade as well:  If you live in the countryside and you need to be able to use your stroller in a gravel or dirt drive way, walking path, etc., you might spring for that ultra-rugged stroller with changeable tires and assisted push. If you’re only on smooth streets and sidewalks, you might only need a basic, smooth/plastic wheeled one. Basically, you don’t need the rugged grade. Again, this has nothing to do with quality (both strollers could last years doing what they’re designed to do).

To answer Harry’s original question in the strictest possible way, no, I do not think that there are cases in which lower quality products are a better choice, unless their low quality comes about as a result of a lower grade. The only time I can think of that you would intentionally buy a low quality item for is if you want it to break easily.

Even that, however, would simply be an example of buying for your needs. Any buy based on quality or grade, then, is going to be really rooted in value. For this reason, I would propose that, of the three, value point is always going to be the biggest determining factor in what someone decides to buy.


When exploring quality as perceived via value, then, you need to take audience into account. One of the reasons business owners might “get it wrong” is that they are approaching a product or service based upon their own perceptions of value, rather than the customer’s.

Practices like Lean, which focus on the value of a product, service, and even process to the end user, are good tools to help remedy this. Even without getting technical, one of the best ways you can ensure decisions in quality and grade resonate correctly with your customers (the people paying your bills!) is to build a profile and put yourself in their shoes.

Building a profile means actually putting together an imaginary person that represents the average wants, needs, and interests of your audience. Name them, give them a visual representation, whatever helps make them real and important to you.

These types of tools and considerations are, in my opinion, going to be more useful to most people than quality questions like the one on LinkedIn, partially because those can lead to dangerous conclusions and perpetuate misinformation (the definition of quality, for example). Of course, ultimately, what’s most useful to you, like anything else, is what you find the most value in.

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