The web is all around us, we use it daily as consumers and yet its use by our companies and organizations still leaves much to be desired. To fulfill the web’s promise we need to step back and look at its use by our customers, as opposed to the technology and design behind it, to see how we can improve our participation in it.
Our customer is looking for a set of earphones or headphones; where does this quest take him, what products does he end up with? Could he have done better? Is his path filled with uncertainty and hassle? How much does he enjoy the final product? In the old mindset, all of this is “his problem”; in the new mindset, it is a series of opportunities to compete on a better outcome and improve the experience for our customer at every step; and the web lets us meet our customer at each of these steps.
Our customer ends up with a set of earphones which don’t quite fit his ears, listening to poorly sounding music from his phone; he isn’t sure of having made the best purchase and pretty soon stops listening and leaves the earphones on a shelf, to be forgotten. In the meantime there are earphone tips which would have made them more comfortable, digital players which would have made the most of the music files, music which would have knocked his socks off; and all their vendors are missing a sale. In the old world this would be the end of the story; in the new world he will leave comments at the store’s and the brand’s websites: “Don’t bother, it’s not worth it”; and at a stroke the brand will have lost thousands of potential customers, not just this individual’s future purchases.
The lesson is that the very first step for any web project is to ask ourselves: Where do we want to take our customer? For companies with established brands, the question becomes: just how much are we really fulfilling our brand’s promise? We are talking about the breadth and depth of our customer’s experience with our product.
Following Theodore Levitt’s classic 1960 HBR article “Marketing Myopia”, the earphone brand isn’t in the earphone business, but in the “sheer pleasure from music” business, or in the “make workouts less boring with music” business; the digital camera manufacturers are in the “get that perfect shot while on holidays with the family” business or in the “help me see if this photo hobby is for me” business: the idea is old, but the web makes it all the more possible, and all the more pressing because our customer is closer to that expanded definition of our product.
The second step is to establish a way to generate insights into our customers to answer that basic question. Who has that knowledge? How can we collect it, understand it, use it? This implies a cultural shift because we can only answer these questions from our customer’s perspective instead of seeing him as the source of all our problems.
This cultural shift might be a deeper problem than you think, as we might have lavished on our product’s design, spent years perfecting the engineering behind it, countless resources on our supply chain… Only to have the wretched customer “holding it wrong“.
This second step involves another cultural shift because we cannot ask specific results from whoever is in charge of generating insights: it’s a learning process and we’ll know what to do with the insights only once we have them. Some people don’t have the temperament to work outside of an established framework, some companies aren’t structured to invest in results that aren’t applicable in the shortest of terms, some executives don’t have the time to stop and think, office politics might get in the way… But the insights are still necessary to proceed, and whoever is able to produce them will have a competitive advantage, so we need to find a way; those insights might also be a required ingredient for other projects such as CRM. The solution I suggest is to establish a “Web Lab” which builds a map of our customer’s experience and produces specific web solutions, some of which might be very simple and easy to implement.
The third step once we have those insights and establish a few web solutions, is to understand the resources required to implement them. The good news is we will have already made the biggest and most difficult investment, namely those customer insights. We will also be in a position to establish which resources are the most important, what we can do with what we have, which resources need to be cultivated internally and which need to be outsourced, and specific requirements for external suppliers.
It would help if we followed a web methodology which establishes a specific flow for our projects, from our goals and solutions as defined in a content strategy, to the information architecture, usability and programming requirements; while these may sound daunting to the uninitiated, it is much easier and quicker to implement for the respective specialists with good requirements, and a lot can be done with available and even free or very cheap technology.
As consumers the web is expanding our horizon and our expectations; if we invest in understanding our own customers’ path we can use the web to improve their experience around our product, expand our sales as well as our profit margins, and have a competitive advantage.