by Gerry McGovern

August 2007

Customer focus is the secret to web success

The science of content management begins with a deep understanding of your customer. The Web is more likely to push your customer away than to bring them closer.

The Web creates a wall between you and your customers. You cannot see them, you cannot hear them, you cannot empathize with them. At best, you get some cold, hard statistics about what they did when on your site.

Most web teams I meet are incredibly cut off from their customers. More worryingly, such teams rarely recognize how important it is to have regular interaction with their customers.

Your website is there to serve your customers. Everything must revolve around them. They must come first. If you don’t put your customers at the very center of everything you do, your website will fail.

Imagine if you managed a shop. Do you think you could manage that shop from 50 miles away by just looking at the statistics that were delivered from daily operations? Do you think you could know what your customers wanted from your shop without constantly observing and talking to them?

Imagine you are standing in your shop. It’s raining. A number of your customers are slipping as they enter. The mat is old and worn. What are you going to do? You’re going to change that mat, aren’t you? But people are slipping on your website every day. Because you don’t see them slip, you don’t see the problem. (When they slip, many of them reach for the Back button.)

It may be the Web, it may be computers, it may be technology, but it is still human beings who use the Web. Technology does not answer all the questions about your customers. Technology does not replace the need for good, old-fashioned human-to-human interaction.

Wal-Mart has embraced technology more than most companies. However, it has never lost sight of the need for a deep understanding of the customer. The more it has focused on self-service, the more Wal-Mart has realized that its management must—as its primary duty—be out with its customers.

“I never viewed computers as anything other than a necessary overhead. A computer is not—and will never be—a substitute for getting out in your stores and learning what’s going on,” Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, wrote in Made In America. “In other words, a computer can tell you down to the last dime what you’ve sold. But it can never tell you how much you could have sold.

“That’s why we at Wal-Mart are just absolute fanatics about our managers and buyers getting off their chairs here in Bentonville and getting out into those stores.”

Dell was one of the first companies to really make the Web work. How did it do that? By being relentlessly customer-focused. “I spend about 40 percent of my time with customers,” Michael Dell writes in his book Direct from Dell. “When people hear that, they often say, “Wow—that’s a lot of time to spend with customers.”I say, “I thought that was my job.”

There is a long-held belief within the IT industry that people are messy and code is pure. Many IT professionals believe that you are only doing ‘real’ work when you are installing big systems or purchasing new software or writing new code. Having to deal with people is a necessary evil, the thinking goes. Making things look pretty is sissy stuff. Real men don’t test with customers. They just have brilliant ideas and stay up all night coding.

The Web is self-service and successful self-service is all about having a deep understanding of customer behavior. If you are managing a website, understanding your customer is not just a part of your job; it is the essence of your job. There is simply nothing—nothing—more important than getting to know the needs of your customer in a detailed and scientific manner.

To know your customer you must be constantly with them, constantly around them, constantly observing them. This is what usability is all about. This is why usability is such a major trend in best practice web management. The best usability is about going to the source. Instead of bringing your customer to a lab and then watching how they use your website, go out to where they work and watch how they use your website as part of their daily activities.

“By spending time with your customers where they do business, you can learn more than by bringing them to where you do business,” Michael Dell writes. Great web managers get out of their offices and into the lives of their customers. They know that what their customers are saying to them has some value, but where the real value lies is in observing what customers are actually doing when they visit the website.

Looking at website logs will never tell you what you could have sold. It will rarely tell you why someone abandoned a webpage. It is the managers who know these sort of things that have a great future on the Web. Because the Web is maturing. For those who do it right, it is delivering more and more value. For those who do it wrong, it is wasting more and more money.

If you manage a website, being with your customers is not a luxury. It is the foundation upon which web success is built. Others on the team may well focus on the code, but unless management focuses on the customer, the end-result will always be inferior.

Wal-Mart managers spend at least three days a week out at the stores. A web manager for an intranet should be spending at least three days a week with staff. A web manager for a government website should be spending at least three days a week with citizens. A university web manager should be spending at least three days a week with students. A manager of an ecommerce website should be constantly observing customer behavior. What else is more important?