Why is listening to customers so hard?
June 25, 2001
Why is user-focused design all-too-often foreign to companies? One of the main reasons is that it forces companies to actually listen to their customers—something most only give lip service to. And that in turn is because most companies don't do a good job of marketing, according to the authors of an incisive, and acid, book critiquing the marketing profession.

According to the authors of "Counter Intuitive Marketing," even in a group of companies that submitted to a best practices review (and presumably had their act together more than most companies), the authors found less than a fifth were doing a better than average job. (Note: the authors are marketers in the broad sense, of "developing a market," not the "push the goods" sense that people often think of marketing.)

The list of reasons would take up a long essay, but most of it boils down to seat-of-the-pants decision making by today's harried executives. Listening to your customers takes both time and effort to do right—something most companies are too impatient to do given today's environment. And for public companies it's a trend worsened by the obsession with quarterly results. To quote the authors:

"Many executives seem to be running their businesses like homeowners repairing the front steps and slapping a new coat of paint on a house they plan to sell. They're selling in two ways. They're selling to the public, pushing up the stock price so that they can cash out when they exercise their options. And they're selling out to other companies that are happy to take them over.... These executives have, in short, no vision for the business (other than "For Sale.") With such a mind-set, the customers are a distraction, with their endless whining for service and repairs, new products and features, and prompt delivery."

While (hopefully) most companies aren't this bad, many still don't put customers at the center of their business, more through sins of omission than commission.

"We can sympathize with the CEOs because we find at many companies that marketing is not the center of the business, nor is it being done very well from the fringe. Many chief executives, given their backgrounds and interests, put finance at the center of the business. Some entrepreneurs put manufacturing or operations at the center. A few companies even put strategic planning or information technology at the center.

These are all important functions, but it is marketing that finds, attracts and keeps customers. Only through innovation and marketing can a business grow. Customers do not care whether you hit your quarterly sales forecasts, whether the factory is efficient, or whether the employees have a generous dental plan. Customers—the selfish brutes—care only about their wants, their needs, their problems."

When you think of it that way, you can see how user-focused design converges with marketing's "listen to your customers"—although there are still important differences in viewpoints between UX and marketing.

Or as interaction design strategist Paula Thornton put it: the sales staff can continue to look for clients/customers who aren't doing business with you already, just give us a part of the sales budget and we can increase sales from those who want do business with you and can't because of artificial barriers. ::

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Copyright © 2001 All Rights Reserved.
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