Your Customers are Smarter than You Think

I recently took part in a customer focus testing of a web application. A group of people were brought in to a small room with a laptop and asked to go through a series of tasks related to the web application that was being developed. The test was being videotaped; based upon the results of the test the application was going to be either revised or released.

When the participants sat down at the laptop they all stared at the new web application for a few minutes, clearly intimidated. As they began to run through the series of tasks it was clear this was going to be a trainwreck: they did not understand the instructions, they could not move through the interface, the content was confusing, they did not like the design; the participants did not complete a single task. We were dumbfounded: how could they not love and use this application? It was brilliant!

After the test was completed, the team of developers, designers, SEO analysts, project and account managers reviewed the sessions on video. After watching session after session of the participants try and make their way through the test, it quickly degenerated into a comedy at their expense: people yelled suggestions, made off color comments and worse, began to doubt the testers intelligence. At one point, someone in the room yelled out: “Boy, is are they dumb.” After the laughter died down, a voice in the back of the room piped up: “Yeah...and they pay our salary.”

It quickly stopped being funny. The team realized they had made something that nobody but themselves understood or use. Their new application was worthless. It was scrapped and started over.

Professionals in the digital world are often prone to these common pitfalls: They fall in love with their work and they’re smarter than everybody. In reality, the customers for whom we make websites, write content and code applications are the ones who know what they want and how they want it to work and if it the new site or content or app fails that criteria it is quickly delegated to yesterday’s news. Simply, our customers are smarter than we are, and if we want them to remain our customers we have to stop wanting to be smart and start being helpful in getting them what they want.

Where can we take the customer?

It’s common folklore that Steve Jobs didn’t care what his customers thought about his products. He even famously quipped “A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them.” But towards the end of his life, his views on what his customers wanted evolved:

“You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology…I’ve made this mistake probably more than anybody else in this room…As we have tried to come up with a strategy and a vision for Apple, it started with ‘What incredible benefits can we give to the customer? Where can we take the customer?’...I think that’s the right path to take.”

UK design firm Crunch believes any new project begins with engaging the customer as part of the planning period, even before they have begin making drawing prototypes. As Head of Design and User Experience Mark Cossey explains, “We often listen in to sign-up calls for new customers. It's so important to hear their voices, pick up on their emotions and frustrations. Having a connection with our users helps us make better decisions based on feedback rather than taste or personal preference. We do use personas but these are snap-shot personas that use keywords to convey traits and personalities – they act as reference points.”

Los Angeles-based web design agency Connective believes customer engagement does not only begin with what the customer may want, but what they may be doing on your website and to accomplish this, you must understand your customer on a deeper, more intellectual and emotional level; a technique they call the “Customer Funnel” or would be more commonly known as the “Customer Journey”.

“In an ideal world, you would convert him from someone who doesn’t know anything about your product into a lifelong soapsuds consumer. To make that happen, you need to know where he’s at, mentally and emotionally, and then greet him with an appropriate design and appropriate content, which will lead him to the next step in your funnel. Maybe that next step is to give your representative call. Maybe it’s to sign-up for a newsletter. Maybe it’s to purchase a product from your website. Whatever that process is, you need to know what it is, and it needs to inform your design, copy and other overall online presence. “

People Come First

The idea of early customer engagement might work well for tangible products like applications and websites, but how do you capture the customer imagination when it comes to something more intangible like content, which has the double-burden of getting the customer interested and providing SEO for their website? Usability studies have shown that the average Internet user is very saavy in understanding what is cheap web copy and what is not, and they have heightened expectations on what they want to learn and the services the Internet will provide them.

In many cases, because of commitments to SEO, copywriters will trade the education of their readers or readability of their copy in order to appease Google for search rankings. This, according to SEO guru Neil Patel, this is a common mistake that people writing content often make.

“According to Copyblogger, SEO is the most misunderstood topic online. But, SEO content isn’t complicated, once you understand that people come first, before search algorithms. Thriving in your online business means that you must go beyond simply “writing content.” Your content needs to accomplish two goals: first, appeal to the end-user (customers, clients, prospects, readers, etc.) and second, solve a particular problem.”

Long-ranging Benefits of Putting Your Customers First

The long-ranging benefits of having a satisfactory customer journey are numerous:

  • Improvement in customer satisfaction
  • Repeat customers and increased customer loyalty
  • Increased referrals
  • Reduced customer churn
  • Stronger customer relationships
  • And most importantly, increased revenue and sales

A 2014 report by McKinsey & Company confirmed it: customers who were more satisfied with the website, application or copy they were reading were 35% more loyalty to the brand that catered to them if even the brand was smaller and had less products to offer. Kinsey had a more direct conclusion: “Companies that have a close and personal connection with customers relative to their competitors do better.”

Our team, which had mocked our users as being “dumb”, is now taking a more radical approach: we are listening to their feedback before starting. And why shouldn’t we: they’re the smart ones.

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