IDEAS FOR LEADERS: You DO Talk to Customers, Don’t You?

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An original post from: Mark Hurst

One of the things I like about the customer experience method is that the word “customer” appears in the name. The discipline of user experience has a similar benefit: users, the focus of the practice, are named right there in the title. These are in contrast to usability, whose name implies the usability of the tool being used, rather than the experience of the person using it. It may be a small observation, but “what’s in a name” often reflects how the method is practiced.

One thing I don’t like to see is when practitioners of user experience, or customer experience, conduct their work without bothering to directly observe the people named in their discipline. For example, a user experience guru who never talks to users would seem to be a bit suspect, right? What about a customer experience practitioner who doesn’t spend time with customers?

I occasionally come across reports written about the user experience of various sites – often ranking the sites, and making suggestions for improvement – without any observation of actual customers using the sites. Instead, the reports are based on any number of data which can be helpful in some instances but are no substitute for live observation:

• heuristics
• quantitative studies of “clickstreams”
• personas (assumptions about who we think is using the site, and what we think they might do there)

Again, none of these methods are “wrong”; here at Creative Good we have used all of them at one time or another, in past projects. The problem arises when they are used without direct observation of customers. How can anyone presume to know the strategic issues in the customer experience, without listening to actual customers?

By definition, any customer experience project must involve real, live, actual customers. It’s not adequate to operate solely from pre-defined rules, reams of quantitative data, or hypothetical (and fictional) stories of users. Customers themselves must be the focus of the research, and their experience on the site must be the basis of the resulting strategy.

Benefits of focusing on customers

Basing the project on actual customers has other benefits (beyond satisfying the basic definition of customer-centered work):

1. Setting priorities: Customers will tell you what’s important to them, in what order. One of the problems with reports generated from heuristics, or hypothetical situations, is that they generate a “laundry list” of issues – not the five most important issues, but the 100 issues that all contribute (at whatever level) to the site’s problems. It’s much more valuable to know the prioritized short list of strategic problems to focus on.

2. Organizational politics: There is no organizational change method more powerful than sitting executives and key team members in front of real customers. (My business partner, Phil Terry, used to work at McKinsey, and he’s seen his share of “change methods.” Trust me, direct customer observation is the best.)

Because of these two benefits, conducting direct customer research delivers the most important benefit of all:

3. Significant business impact: Focusing an organization on strategic priorities, backed up by a supportive political environment, can make tremendous changes – quickly – that result in measurable business results. (You ARE focused on business results, aren’t you? But that’s another column…)

Regardless of what the “gurus” might say, no one is smart enough to craft a customer experience strategy without first directly observing customers. Even on the new online service I’m creating, which is still in development, I recently ran listening labs with actual customers. I sat as an observer and listened to customers tell me exactly what they wanted from the site. In that lab, the customer was my guru. I was only as good as my listening skills.

So – you ARE talking to customers, aren’t you? After all, if a customer experience practitioner isn’t involving real customers in the project, I’d have to ask: what are you afraid of?

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IDEAS FOR LEADERS is a collaborative Blog providing ideas from experienced leaders to improve organizations.