Stories about Software


Why “I Do High Quality Work” Is Both Good Policy and Terrible Positioning

In a relatively recent post, I teased writing about the “attractive nuisance” of freelancers and aspiring business owners branding their work as “high quality.”  And now I’m going to do just that.  I think this is important.

But I’ve got to say, sometimes it feels like I’m just swimming in contrarian hot takes and click-baiting my way to, well… to I don’t know what exactly.  I mean, it’s not like I have any real mission on this site other than talking about whatever pops into my head.

Still, though.  I swear I’m not just an aspiring middle aged edgelord.  There is a method to the madness.

High Quality Work Itself is, Of Course, Desirable

To prove it, I’ll make clear that I have no actual problem with the ideas of doing things well, mastering skills or taking pride in one’s work.  I wouldn’t advise you to do things poorly.

After all, just recently, I re-caulked my shower and never once thought, “meh, I’ll just spray this stuff at the seams until it’s everywhere and call it a day.”  Instead, I got out the rubbing alcohol, putty knife, painter’s tape, and worried at it until I had a smooth, symmetrical bead.

Off the cuff, I’d say situations where doing shoddy work is any kind of advantage, in a vacuum, are really quite rare.  Maybe rapid prototyping or something…?  With most work personal and professional, there’s no need to overthink whether excellence trumps mediocrity.  It does.

The trouble is that positioning your work as “high quality” is a much different beast from doing work that is high quality (which, I might argue is just table stakes for conducing business and not a differentiator).

Confused?  No worries.  I’ll explain.

The Problems with “High Quality” as Positioning for Freelancers

I’m going to run through my list of problems with this positioning approach roughly in order of importance and ease of understanding.  My intent is to build understanding toward the real, core problems with trying to conduct business when “I do good quality work” is a core plank of your marketing and sales pitch.

1. It’s Trite

So you’ve decided to hang out your shingle and freelance.  You slap up a website and start brainstorming your home page copy.

What’s the first thing that you put up when you’re brand new and have no idea what to say?  Something like “we here at I-Swear-I’m-Not-Just-One Person Inc believe strongly in integrity and high quality work.”

And with that in place, the platitudes start flowing like wine, until you’ve created just the worst sales copy.

Then you go out and start answering some RFPs to win business.  And you know you’ll win it, too, because you have an ace up your sleeve: quality.  In a world where literally every single other human on the planet does bad work, you do good work.

But then there’s a plot twist!  It turns out that each of the other 12 people responding to the RFP also claim to do high quality work!  Diabolical!

In all seriousness, pretty much everyone claims to do high quality work.  Positioning yourself this way is the business equivalent of putting “excellent communication skills” or “motivated self-starter” on a resume.

2. What Does It Say about You That You Think This is a Differentiator?

This is a little bit subtle, and it might not occur to some people that would hire you to do work.  But it’s worth bearing in mind.

If you think of doing high quality work as a differentiator, then this logically implies that you think of good work as some kind of additional value-add to normal work.  In other words, either you think most people suck at what they do, or else you think that one should half-ass it unless a client pays extra.

In your world, there are at least two rungs on your (or anyone’s) offering ladder:

  • Mediocre work, starting at only $75 per hour
  • High quality work, for the still affordable price of $99.95

So what happens if I engage you for a long period of time and you raise your rates, but grandfather me in?  Do you quietly shuffle me into your mediocre work tier?  If quality is an add-on accessory in your world, this isn’t a crazy thing to wonder.

3. “High Quality” Is Neither Verifiable Nor Falsifiable (for the Most Part)

Going a little deeper on the theme of triteness, what does “high quality” even actually mean?  If you tell me that I should hire you because your work is “high quality,” how would I verify such a claim?

Contrast this with things that professionals might tell you when you enlist them:

  • We’ll get rid of the carpenter ants in your house.
  • When we’ve finished this project, your shower’s supply line won’t leak anymore.
  • This roof we’ve installed will last ten years, and we back it with a warranty.

Now, any of these service providers might talk about quality alongside these types of guarantees.  But they’re offering something meaty — something that you can easily confirm or disprove.

“High quality” isn’t like that (unless you’ve defined a specific way to measure it, in which case, that specific measurement should be your positioning).

You can hand over your source code and say “yep, here it is, some primo code!”  But the client might counter with “nuh-UH!  That sucks!”

Which one of you is right?  Absent some predefined criteria or involving a mediator (never a good sign, though, fun fact, I was once approached to serve as an expert witness in a lawsuit about bad code to do exactly this), it’s just a matter of opinion.

So the claim isn’t just trite — it’s empty.

4. You Sound Like An Employee

I challenge you to do an exercise, if you have the means.  Sit in on a few job interviews and sit in on a few established vendor sales pitches.  As you’re doing that, tally up the number of times each one sells “high quality” as a differentiator.

I’m willing to bet that you put a lot more ticks in the “employee” column if you play this game.

If you want to put salaried work and freelancing/hustling on the same terms for comparison, consider salaried work as a specific, unique case of freelancing.  You have a business with 5-ish year engagements for single whale clients.

And your sales process reflects that.  Hard.

To wit, selling your labor as a salaried employee means that once every few years, you put on your spiffiest tie and compete against 100 similarly skilled people for the job.  And, after various phone screens, interviews, second interviews, and take home tests, may the best — er, excuse me, highest quality — candidate win!

The salaried world is heavily steeped in the meritocratic farce of “quality” as the primary driver for selecting a candidate.  But the further you move from salaried employment, the more this dynamic falls away.

Successful business owners fill unique niches.  This means they offer things that nobody else does or can.  Being the “highest quality” one of 10 otherwise indistinguishable businesses isn’t part of that game plan.

So when you position yourself as “high quality” in your freelance work, understand that you sound less like a business owner and more like an employee between jobs.

5. Positioning Yourself as High Quality Begs Your Customers to Grade You, Creating a Bad Power Dynamic

Let’s look at another subtle realpolitik consideration.  This has to do with how your buyers look at your relationship with them.  To demonstrate my point, let’s do an exercise in analogy.

Imagine that you’re walking down a city street, looking for a bite to eat.  Along the street are a dozen restaurants, all serving the same cuisine.  Out front stand their owners, all telling you that you should choose their food, since it is of the highest quality.

In this situation, don’t you kind of feel like a panel judge on some kind of food network reality show?  “Oh, you have the best quality food, do you, owner #6?  Well, I’ll be the judge of that!”

Bathos, God of Grading

When you tell your buyers that your work is high quality, you invite them to grade you.  And inviting them to grade you casts them as the expert and you as a supplicant for their approval.

Even if you win the business, you start off on subordinate footing in the relationship.  You’ve won the business by promising the customer that you’ll earn a good grade from them, according to their own subjective taste.  And that’s about the weakest negotiating position I can imagine.

6. You Force Your Buyers into Your Weeds

This is yet another subtle consideration, but it has more to do with your sales process than with the optics of groveling in front of your prospective buyers.  When you use “high quality” as your positioning, you demand your buyers get into your world enough to understand, in granular detail, what quality means.

Analogy time again, to illustrate.

Let’s say that you have a leaky faucet in your kitchen sink.  You call three plumbers and ask them for quotes.  All three of them quote $250, and all three of them say you should pick them because they “do high quality plumbing.”

Who are you going with?

The answer is, of course, you don’t know.  Throw a die?  If you really want to understand how to differentiate, you’d need to really get into the weeds with them about their “high quality” plumbing.

  • Are they really skilled at finding leaks?
  • Is finding the leak easy, so the quality differentiator is really more about the technique for applying a sealant to patch the pipe?
  • Or maybe they should replace the pipe altogether, so it’s a question of who has the most years in the craft of pipe welding?

Now, in contrast, imagine if one of these plumbers said this.

Look, I don’t really know what anyone means about ‘quality,’ or whatever. But for $250 I’ll replace your pipe and if my fix doesn’t last at least 20 years, I’ll redo it for free and pay for any damages that result from a leak.

I don’t know about you, but I’d immediately hire that guy and let other two duke it out over what “quality” plumbing is (ideally somewhere out of my earshot to avoid dying of boredom).

7. High Quality Positioning Means You Almost Certainly Don’t Understand Why People Pay You

And, finally, let’s wrap things up with what I consider to be the worst problem of all.  Using a subjective platitude as a differentiator means that you don’t actually have a differentiator that you’re aware of.

And that means that you don’t understand why people pay you for your services.

When businesses contract things from you, as a freelance service provider, they have some kind of profit motive.  Sure, they want you to write “high quality” code, all else being equal, but what they really want is some kind of outcome that results from whatever you’re automating.  Your work should somehow help them save money or earn more revenue.

Now imagine if you knew exactly how that would go for them.  Imagine if you knew that work you were putting in on the backend infrastructure of an eCommerce site was going to increase their daily sales by 10%, from $1M per day to $1.1M per day.  Your work was about to help them make an extra hundred thousand dollars per day.

If you knew that you could make someone $100K per day, wouldn’t you lead with that during sales calls?!  And wouldn’t it then seem comically shambolic to omit that selling point in favor of, “uh, well, I’m like good at my work and stuff…”

Through this lens, “I do high quality work” is actually a worse piece of positioning than “I’m cheap.”

At least the freelancer with the lowest rates can articulate an actual profit motive for working with them, albeit a weak one.  “High quality” just completely punts on the issue by giving a homework assignment back to the buyer to figure out how and if your vague claim of “higher quality” should matter to them.

Reasoning about your work as “high quality” is a crutch freelancers use to avoid the thorny issue of figuring out why people really pay them.

How Should You Position Yourself?  That’s a Hard Question.  Start Answering It.

I really wanted to round out the “problems” section with the mention of high quality positioning as a crutch.  Because only by understanding it that way — as an attractive nuisance and low local maximum — can you figure out what to do next.

The problem, however, is that what to do next is messy and confusing.  It typically only comes through hard-won experience.  And, like so many other things, good positioning is virtually impossible for a generalist, meaning you need to niche in order to stop stammering out, “hire me because I do the thing real good.”

But fret not, even as I wrap up this post without a lengthy section on how to proceed.  Because “stop positioning your work as high quality” is enough for a homework assignment for today.  If you stop allowing yourself that crutch, you’ll start developing better means of locomotion, even as it’s painful and awkward at first.

So your task really is this.  Understand that “high quality” is a non-answer to the question of why someone should pay you to provide a service, so you don’t currently have an answer to that question.  Now start brainstorming your real answer.

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3 years ago

Building Quality Software by Robert L. Glass describes in detail what “quality” means. Based on that book, the topic is actually quite multifaceted and complicated. I don’t very many of the “I do quality work” people have read that book.. LOL!!! Just wanted to bring that up. Enjoyed the article. Very insightful.

Erik Dietrich
3 years ago
Reply to  Collin

Thanks! Does he go into specific detail as to how one measures quality? I think those measurements are the key to fixing the positioning. “I write good code” and (for example) “I write readable code” sound similar but are miles different, since one could more easily quantify and measure “readable.”

3 years ago
Reply to  Erik Dietrich

Glass argues for measuring quality through several attributes (e.g., presnce, of bugs, customer satisfaction, maintainability of code, etc.). If I’m remembering correctly, he argues that each application/project should have its own set of attributes against which an endeavor would be measured. If you take Glass’s argument to the extreme, you could argue that what defines quality and how it is measured should be negotiated with each project, since each one is different. The book is an interesting but heavy read.

Erik Dietrich
3 years ago
Reply to  Collin

That squares, in my world, and it’s a good example of what I was getting at. So, using your examples from his work, I wouldn’t position myself as selling “good” code, but rather “bug free code,” “code that satisfies your customers,” or “maintainable code.” All of those are still fairly weak positioning statements, but they’re at least, relatively speaking, both falsifiable and of actual interest to the clients. From these, I’d even tighten up the positioning further by starting to ask questions like “why is it necessary to be free of bugs” or “who cares if it’s maintainable.” Usually, playing… Read more »

3 years ago
Reply to  Erik Dietrich

Yeah. At a certain level, definitions of quality would start to bleed into requirements, meaning what the customer is looking for or cares about, so you might as well approach defining quality like you approach defining requirements. They’re probably going to be entangled anyway.