The Death of “Just in Case” Web Design

Just in CaseEver since the first web browsers were created in the mid 1990’s people have been endlessly debating on how to design a web site. Or more specifically their companies’ site. At first it was left to a small group of people to make the decisions, because it was probably a fad and why spend time there. Once the fad thing became the next big thing everyone wanted in on the gold rush. Opinions were as common as… Well, you know.

To see how far we’ve come, check out Evolution of the Web an interactive site that shows the progression of Internet technology and human adoption and integration in their everyday lives.

Usability science came along, disciplines were created and the work was put into trained hands. The problem lies in the fact that most corporate web sites, especially ones that are  C to C and have a significant traffic, must sometimes serve a dozen or more masters. That calls for scorecards, prioritization frameworks and, oh yes, a check back to what the objectives are.

I’ve sat in so many meetings where business partners want to put things in the interface “just in case” a user may be looking for it. They come up with all manner of wild use cases. They are very creative. Bring them back to reality. Search is what we use when we are looking for something. Navigation is for fast access to what you want or need to do during any given visit. Design is for connecting with a customer so they will want to know more.

The new design trend emerging, one of “Point Solution” is I think fantastic. It fills the digital canvas, is responsive to the device that beckons it to life and incorporates a storyscape of the functionality. It seamlessly combines high impact graphics, video, animation and interactive scrolling. When done well one doesn’t know if we are learning or accomplishing a task. And the doing becomes commerce, crossing an invisible line without being detected. It’s bulletproof for solving one or two use cases, but challenged when there are ten to twenty functions available for customers.

The “Just in Case” design is too broad and the “Point Solution” is too narrow. Designers with the help of business partners must find the middle way between the two. Uncovering the dark data hidden in the click stream married with back end analytics is critical. Start with eliminating all of the use cases that are remote, then progressively work your way toward the desired outcome. Oh yeah, you need really, really good designers.

It takes courage to avoid the “Just in Case” design trap and to stave it off you must have hard data showing it’s the right way to go. It’s best to be able to bring a design to life that has absolutely no hierarchy, only a flow of perfectly quilted content.

The poster child for “Point Design” is the Pencil 53 product site from the company Fifty-three. I love the site but loved the product even more. That helps. Their singular objective is to communicate everything about the Pencil 53. What it is, what it does, why it’s better. My review of the Pencil 53 is here.

Pencil 53 Screen shot

Apple is great example of incorporating “Point Design” when they want to be bold about a product, then shifting to a  more traditional design for product comparison, shopping and support. Sometimes you need to tell the story on a deeper level. For Apple’s 30th anniversary they created a time line of their products and the people behind them. They allowed a user to click on their first Mac and let Apple know what it meant to them. Emotive memories. They have always excelled at closing that last mile between a person and technology.

MAC 30 Time line

Microsoft is also getting in the game. They are simultaneously upgrading their product design as well as their sites. Their Surface experience is excellent and they are working hard to put the brand back on track after years of being completely lost.


Samsung has a very difficult design problem to crack. Parts of their site are absolutely on point while others appear archival but are probably effective at selling, so it may not matter. Remember the data. The Apps and Entertainment section is outstanding at showcasing a breadth of products and covers a lot of ground without being overwhelming.


We see people, read their stories, watch their videos and learn how technology works in their lives for convenience, efficiency and peace of mind.

Outside In: Forrester Customer Experience Forum 2012

Last week a steamy New York City hosted the Forrester Research Customer Experience Forum, Outside In: The Power Of Putting Customers At The Center Of Your Business. The forum content was carefully designed to support and provide real world examples connected to the upcoming book Outside In by Kerry Bodine and Harley Manning. I was stunned at the number of people in attendance. Certainly holding the event in New York contributed, but I think firms are beginning to understand the gravity of the situation. Speed, paradigm shift (sorry), mobile, social and big data are the beacons of change today. As with all Forrester Forums there was a a ton of information, case studies and technology solutions. No one could possibly attend every session, so I boiled down some nuggets that caught my attention.

Customer Experience Needs to be Unified

Consumers are  literally all over the map these days. Brands orchestrate platforms on devices and interfaces, but consumers ignore all that hyperbole. They just want to get things done.  In his talk, The Unified Customer Experience Imperative, Ron Rogowski (@ronrogowski) spoke about complex customer journeys and the even greater complex challenge it presents for brands to understand and deliver across this new landscape. Things used to be much simpler. He showed this chart that illustrates what brands need to consider.

Consistency has always been a critical path for success. Forrester has tweaked that term and now calls it unified. Unified but not uniform. This is a very important nuance to understand. We wrestle with this notion all the time, having spent a decade plus working the ever-expanding big canvas of a full site, we now must make tough decisions on what to do on handsets and tablets.

This means make it similar, not the same. In order to get better at this, the entire brand will need to begin to understand and inflect their work to meet this new challenge. It will be important to get everyone on board, or we will face a series of never-ending discussions across the organization each and every time we want to add content, features and functionality to interfaces that are not full site.

We will need to continue to listen, collect and categorize the voice of the customer in each channel, but find ways to do an experience mash-up VOC to help inform and guide how we design and deliver experiences in the future. Relevance and real time data should be our mantra.

There has been a lot of discussion about responsive design recently and this forum was no different. It is promising, but there are lots of challenges and some big decisions that must be made. I can’t imagine converting a massive web site to be all responsive, but it does make sense to begin to experiment and learn. Bottom line. Get moving and bring everyone along.

The World is Mobile

We hear it all the time, mobile first. Julie Ask (@JulieAsk) said it right at the outset of her talk on The Future of Mobile. It’s tricky, because if you are an established brand with millions of customers, your full site traffic and usage likely dwarfs your customers coming to you via mobile. Julie explains that designing mobile first doesn’t mean abandon full site or prioritize mobile above all else. It means your designers and CX people for mobile will need to be fully aligned with your full site team. I suggest you make them the same team, otherwise you risk an unhealthy diversion of experiences. Julie has a sharp eye and she trains it on the future. Phones will continue to get more powerful and bandwidth will improve. This will lead to a host of new technologies that will be mobile. She is careful to not restrict these new technology advances to handsets or tablets. They might extend to contact lenses or cardio stents.

No one can say with certainty exactly the order of advancement, but it’s clear that mobile will diverge even further from the PC experience and become the dominant device for service brand and shopping. The landscape will be a convergence of context, intelligence, contextual dimensions and completely new ways to navigate.

Design Still Matters

Understanding how consumers use interfaces is even more critical than ever. This used to be much easier than it is now and so expertise must be developed in house or contracted. It’s time to re-double our usability tools use to uncover struggles within interfaces as well as ensure that users can connect with your brand across devices no matter where they are. Bill Albert of Bentley University, provided one of the most concise summaries of UX tools and when to use them. Loved this chart.

Four years ago I wrote a post on neuromarketing. This is a set of emerging techniques allowing us to get at the physiology of consumers. By measuring heart rate, galvanic skin response, even body movement, we will get better data from consumers to help guide us through design. The equipment is getting better and the costs to field these studies is coming down. Add this to your big data chart.

Big Data is Really Big

Tim Suther of Acxiom laid out a nice summary of how they think about big data. Big data does not mean lots more data. There is already more data than we can mine. We all know what we need is more insights, but that is getting much harder to come by. Big data means new data sources at the most granular level that can be accessed through existing CRM systems and will be largely digital and behavioral in nature going forward. Segments are a thing of the past. People is where we need to go. How people use and interact with today’s social networking experiences must also be included.

No one signal consistently describes or predicts consumer behavior. Activate and evaluate these signals at scale with speed. – Tim Suther

Along with Tim, Richard Char of Citibank talked about their efforts to harness big data and deliver relevant offers. He spoke about Lifestyle Enabled Marketing (LEM) which he uses to push his company to gain a more compete view of the customer. He had a lot of interesting slides, but I think this sums up the shift we are trying to manage through. Somewhere where the arrows meet is where big data will be the most help.

It’s the Customer, Stupid

Amazing as it sounds, we are still learning how to deliver great customer experiences. It’s not that no one is trying, it’s that the customer won’t hold still, keeps getting smarter, more fickle and less loyal. Hard to blame them as they are constantly being tempted by the next shiny object and brands continue to stumble.

Forrester’s forthcoming book Outside In: The Power of Putting Customers at the Center of your Business offers lots of great information and practical approaches to better understand the evolving consumer. But perhaps more important, how to work inside your own company to shift the culture to be more customer focused, and therefore more successful.

They lay out six disciplines of customer experience; Strategy, Customer Understanding, Design, Measurement, Governance and Culture. They posit that getting customer experience right can add billions to the bottom line of businesses. This is challenging to measure and we all know how difficult attribution can be. But having finished this book in galleys this weekend, I’d have to say they have broken some new ground and provided us with a way to think differently, plan and act.

They speak of the rise of the Chief Customer Officer, and indeed this position is beginning to pop-up. I personally believe it will be some time before it’s a common job description and routine hire across corporate America. I do believe it will evolve, forced actually, as consumers become more independent, technology advances and competition changes battlefields from marketing to experiences.

Photo: Steve A Furman 

Improving the Customer Experience with Social Media

I have been thinking lately about how customers form their perceptions of brands and what we can do about influencing those memories. Brands and products can easily become look alike commodities, which makes gaining mind and wallet share more difficult. Brands want to be distinctive, stand out among the crowd and be noticed by consumers. The rise of social media has, in my opinion, provided more insight into consumer’s perceptions as well as opportunities to use listening tools and pay attention to one’s own social networks for a rich data set of clues. If done correctly, a brand can address issues and show gratitude to customers and create connective memories to that experience and ultimately the brand.

In my direct experience customers either start their conversation with a company using social media or turn to it as a last resort. Regardless, brands need to be watching these spaces closely and jumping in as soon as possible. It goes without saying that when I say jumping in I mean with trained professionals.

There’s a fascinating behavior economics principle called the peak-end rule. It was first suggested by Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner for Economic Sciences in 2002.

According to the peek-end rule we judge our experiences almost entirely on how they were at their peak (pleasant or unpleasant) and how they ended. Other information is not lost, but it is not used.

It could be fair to say that consumers who post on social media streams are at a peak with a brand. Skilled companies who engage these customers quickly, acknowledge their emotions and work to solve the problem will deliver an end that can leave the customer with a better perception. Ending on a high note means you have won half the battle.

Social media is potentially a new customer experience tool that can be employed to improve interactions on both sides and perhaps nudge the perceptions customers have of a brand. If your customer truly is at a peak, then we should do everything we can to end the event on a high note – if it has been unpleasant – or propel a good experience even further up the scale. Social, has the power to leverage immediacy, intimacy and interaction into a powerful generator of memories.

Image re-drawn from Greg Ness’s graphic

The Role of the Persona is Shifting

I have been a proponent of using Personas to assist in the design of digital interfaces since 2003. I still believe in them, but I think their role has shifted and has perhaps become a bit diminished. Personas are user archetypes, models of groups of users that help define features, requirements and messaging choices. They are invaluable. If you develop digital interfaces and you don’t use Personas, you are seriously behind most everyone.

The Persona’s rival has taken the stage and it’s the real customer. Voice of the customer tools have improved over the last few years and companies pay more attention to what customers say thanks to the rise of social media. Everyday I sit at the breakfast table and read yesterday’s voice of the customer stream that was written by customers directly on our web site. It’s sent to me via email unfiltered, except for blocking out any characters that appear to be account numbers or personal information. Then I navigate to our Facebook brand page and read that, then over to our Twitter stream and read that.

We have done a lot to shape and enrich our Personas over the years, by enhancing their stories and adding other attributes in an attempt to bring them to life and therefore more approachable for business partners. But still they are cardboard cutouts. It’s much more powerful to read words from your customer or see someone’s Avatar adjacent to their feedback.

Reading customer comments evokes a roller coaster of emotions. One comment is glowing with praise that brings a smile to my face and a sense of pride. The next one calls out something that is just, well, stupid of us. We take all these comments seriously, logging them, and then trying to evaluate where in the priority fix queue they should fall. It’s a real time customer focus group and it’s beginning to influence how I design and shape project work almost as much as Personas have done in the past.

Curious if others are having the same experience or have other opinions.

Images from Avizor and Meetin’Bytes

Inside Out or Outside In?

Working teams sometimes get locked in difficult battles when it comes to settling on a creative direction or execution. I’ve noticed that many of these encounters are caused by how the two sides, usually in heated debate, are either looking from the inside out or the outside in. Both are adamant that they are right, and in a way they are.

Inside Out

Brand people come at if from the inside out. They work extremely hard to craft the Brand essence, steward it along and look for ways to find an edge against the competition. This naturally drives them deeper and deeper down into the brand while the customer remains on the surface. Their strength is having a rich understanding of the Brand and how people might be drawn to or influenced by it. I said people, not necessarily customers. When they move to execution they struggle, because they know so much about the brand as well as what their competition is doing, and want to include much of it in the work. The result is often cluttered with not clearly connected phrases and symbols.

Outside In

On the other hand the Customer Experience folks suffer from the opposite syndrome. They frequently look down into the brand from the outside trying to solve a problem or accomplish a task for the customer. Their approach is often very rational and functional. It will get the job done quickly. Perhaps too quickly. Removing friction is their goal and in doing so they miss opportunity to create a bond with the customer and extract extra value.


Agencies or even other people within the company can play a role in helping to resolve the problems. Being a diplomat and brokering a compromise can work quite nicely. It’s tricky because there is a tendency to split the difference, which usually means you end up with One solution is to allow each side to put their work in market and let the customer decide. That is more expensive and takes longer. Another way is to look closely at the problem to be solved. In most cases one can spot which side of the field should get priority. Look again at the objectives, research or the creative brief. The nuggets should be there. Make that the tentpole and sprinkle (or hint) the other stuff around it. Mind you this method works best with messaging or communications like emails and landing pages. Once you are in functionality land, all bets are off. I’ve seen it be a very effective device for educating customers on complex features or benefits as well.

Try hard to be the one that steps through the door and looks back at the other view. It will enrich the experience, and it’s always good to take in new scenery.

Graphics: Rafaël Rozendaal

Start Small, Then Subtract

Addition or subtraction? It’s not a trick question (boxers or briefs?). It’s a legitimate question. Designing interfaces today is more challenging than ever. As servicing, marketing, branding, lines of businesses, channels and devices converge, it is more important to leverage data to make the right display choices. But there is so much data, and it’s not always conveniently available. We may not always have access to customer or transaction data, but project milestones must be met. In these cases there needs to be an informed decision about what to show users. By that I mean user input and a thorough inspection of web analytics that uncovers valuable clues to help connect the work to your firm’s KPI’s.

It’s very easy to pile on. Companies, particularly large firms really like the property of addition. Make a spreadsheet of all the things that can be done. Cram in as much as possible on the real estate of a web page (tougher with a handset isn’t it). It becomes a mess very quickly. I prefer another approach. My favorite mathematical property is subtraction. It’s harder to do because people look to see if their drivers are present in the design, and if not, push to put them in. Frequently four or five people are doing this. They always want more, I insist on less.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not one bit simpler.

This quote is attributed to Albert Einstein. Leave it to some brainiac to interrupt my simplicity post by adding complexity. Further proof that subtraction, when it comes to content and design is one of the hardest things to accomplish. So, how does one subtract? By making addition a lost art. Many designers now are starting the work on smartphone screens, perfecting them, then taking them to the desktop browser. This forces one to be extremely spartan and strict. I love that trend. Here are some approaches I use.

  • Make the objective, or job of the page, the hero
  • Put only elements that will advance the objectives on the canvas
  • Prioritize the elements by using data, preferably at run time, and bring those into sharp focus (mature)
  • Lay out the customer journey, including all touch points and entry points to the design
  • Use personas to validate the journey
  • Repeat after me, nothing else matters

Group think or org chart mentality will kill the effectiveness of a design for the user and the business. No one wins when in many cases both sides can realize gain. Leverage live user testing that when done right, illuminates the big problems and can put to rest feature creep or business driven design.

One of the biggest challenges now is labeling and navigation. On the desktop browser we still have a pretty good chunk of real estate to put tabs, buttons, links, etc., to guide the user. On mobile devices we are much more restricted. Plus, you have to make it work in portrait and landscape. In these instances grouping is required. How to group and what to call the group is the challenge.

We are now using social media tools and the social graph to help. We set up a card sort exercise on the web and Tweet out to our followers that we are looking for people to help us design the next generation mobile interface for our customers. We also post these notices on our Facebook page. It’s essentially free and another great way to leverage the wisdom of the crowd.

Tweet to followers

Here is what users see when they follow the link to the card sort.

Card sort interface

My advice. Start small and then make it smaller. Incorporate data to inflect the design for segment relevancy and you will see improved results. Remember the mantra of Expedient MEANS; abandon the comprehensive and abbreviated, and select only the essential.

Apples will Continue to Fall from Trees

It’s not so much that Steve Jobs has stepped down as the head of Apple that saddens me, it’s the reason why he is stepping down. Cancer invades so many people’s bodies and it’s a ruthless scourge. Regardless of which side of the technology war you are on, no one should be happy about the fate that has befallen Mr. Jobs. Go ahead and despise Apple, but keep Mr. Jobs on the good side of your thoughts. I had a brush with cancer a couple of years ago, but was one of the lucky ones. I am completely cancer free now and expect to remain that way for a very, very long time thank you.

With or without Steve, Apple will continue to grow and thrive. It’s not simply a computer manufacturer any longer. It has evolved well beyond the days when Macs were found in the occasional household. Apple has transformed the music industry and the personal computer industry, redefined the handset into a smartphone, remade retailing and introduced the tablet.

How did they do it? They broke with conventional wisdom and overcame the inertias that weigh down firms and industries. But the main ingredient of success in my opinion, is they made products that worked with people’s daily lives. Seamless integration and updates. No tribal language code. A near flawless user experience that are beautiful to look at. Not always plug and play, but pretty close. If you make products that people can use and fills a desire they have, you are more than halfway there. Apple actually went the full mile, closing the last 50% by making what they delivered emotional. They then amplified those products with superior positioning and marketing.

But most of all, they never gave up. No matter how dark the investor and pundit predictions were, or how large and dominant Microsoft became, they came in everyday and worked at it. Admirable.

Remember when no one wanted to copy Apple? Now everyone covets and races to copy them. Was this in large part the work of Super Steve? You bet. But there is no way he did this alone. It takes a village, and he has built a really big one.

Tim Cook, now the leader, did some amazing things. He got Apple’s on hand inventory down from months to days and is credited with being the supply chain wizard that allowed the firm to bring out so many products so often and quickly. Does he have the vision of a Jobs? No, no one does. But he does have a vision, and Steve is not walking out the door. He will be around and he will have more ideas and the wise folks in Cupertino will listen. His fingerprints will be on things for quite some time. It’s quite possible that not being CEO will give him even more time to be creative. That could actually accelerate Apple’s momentum. Perhaps he should have resigned sooner.

Don’t write off Apple or Mr. Jobs.

A Good Customer Experience is a Positive Company Outcome

Customer experience can have numerous meanings, mostly likely driven by where you work in a company. I have been polling people for a while now about what Good Customer Experience means, the other kind doesn’t much matter, and have distilled those replies into the following definition.

Good Customer Experience:  An engaging, differentiating, experience with the best possible outcome for the customer and the company that leads to repeat use and loyalty.

It’s not perfect, nothing ever is, but I think it gets at something that’s often missing when the discussion turns to customer experience. That’s the juxtaposition of customer and company in the same sentence, and the inclusion of best possible outcome. Let me stress that it’s not a balance between experience and profit. You can have both in the long run. Some transactions / interactions favor the customer, some favor the business. If you always leave out the customer you will not have as many of them as you want, and will lose them much faster. If you never include the company you won’t have enough profits to reinvest in your business. It’s lose / lose or as we called it in the ’90’s, zero-sum game. The trick is to always include both the customer and the company every time. If you begin using this lens, you will open up new ways of thinking and unlock approaches on how you might design products, services and interactions in the future.

I constructed this simple chart which took a life of it’s own and reminded me of what a daunting task it is to provide a good customer experience consistently.

It goes without saying that there are very few firms able to deliver in bristol fashion across the board. My experience is most do very well in some areas and very poorly in others with the balance being extremely unremarkable. If you tried to tackle all this at once you would probably be very frustrated. “Don’t boil the ocean” as the saying goes, but I highly recommend you be a steeping pot on the verge of boiling over, complete with a rattling top and an annoying whistle.

You will need to be a change agent. Find the places where your company is not as strong in the customer experience and be the catalyst for change.

It’s not what you do, it’s what you change that makes you successful.

It’s important to remember that you can’t change everything, but you don’t need to. Work with what you have. Change what’s changeable. Find like-minded people in your company and form a strong alliance. Above all, track and measure your results. The only way senior managers will buy in is if it will move the business. It will.

Say Goodbye to the Call Center

Earlier this week I attended the Customer Response Summit in Hollywood, Florida. It’s an In The Know event, a company that stays on the forefront of how corporations are dealing with customer care and customer experience in this rapidly evolving digital landscape. We used to call it Web 2.0, but that doesn’t capture what’s happening today. Now it’s mobile, social, video and audio. Consumers adopt new technologies quickly. Certainly not everyone is on the cutting edge, but the numbers  of people grow with each new cycle. They are the ones that demand firms adopt these new channels and they can no longer be ignored.

I was a speaker at the event and my topic was How to Turn Social Chaos into Valuable Brand Engagement. I shared my experiences, successes, and challenges of using Social Media to reach, engage and service customers. We operate using a very simple framework for social. Don’t over complicate it. Align it to your current business objectives, translate the tribal language into something more familiar, and prove it’s value.

I was impressed with the speaker lineup that included executives from FedEx, Time Warner Cable, General Motors, Disney, GoDaddy, ConAgra and others. I gleaned a number of takeaways:

  • Corporations are all working hard on how to improve the customer experience
  • Social Media and Mobile are moving much faster than corporate America
  • New customer care technologies will need to be considered and installed if firms wish to keep up with customers
  • There is no silver bullet; time to focus on weapons not ammunition
  • Everything you know is transferrable, but it will need to be re-interpreted
  • Data is still overwhelming insights
  • New silos have emerged (Great, more silos)
  • People are beginning to get it, proving value and taking steps
  • The call center of tomorrow will look very, very different (Think internal targeting, fewer phones, more direct contact with consumers on the web)
  • Consumers are gaining more and more power (That’s fine, just be gentle guys)
  • Embrace change, or risk being irrelevant some time soon
  • Call center managers are starting to shift their thinking from controlling cost to creating value
  • It’s very, very difficult to move away from “average handle time” (AHT) for hard core call center types
  • One of the most frequently asked questions for Disney is, “When time does the 3:00 parade start?”

What i’m seeing is the way we service customers is rapidly changing. Consumers operate in real time while firms operate in batch. There is a serious need for a centralized customer database that’s agile and can be easily shared by any of the marketing and service channels/departments that exist inside as well as outside a company.

Partnering is becoming even more important. If your company has an “It’s built better here” mentality, you are already falling dangerously behind. No one firm can keep up with what’s going on out there. Truth be told, they never could, but the pace of change was slow enough in the past to not be too damaging. Today that pace can cause fatalities.

The call center will evolve into a contact command center. More consumers will self-service through progressively easier to use interfaces and devices. Agents that answer the phone today will be transformed into agents that use their web browser to connect with consumers. Information will be pushed to their desktops by sophisticated listening devices constantly spidering the ether for immediate response. Proactive not reactive. Pre-service, like pre-crime from Minority Report. The agents of tomorrow will be more aligned with the business and more empowered than ever. This in turn will empower consumers and leave us all more time to focus on what’s really important.

The networking was the most valuable aspect of the event for me. I met some outstanding professionals and had some great conversations that I hope will continue. View some of the event videos here.

Can Customer Experience Drive Business Decisions?

Companies are getting more serious about delivering a better customer experience. Thanks to research firms, passionate consultants and champions inside company walls, senior executives are more aware of CX and willing to support staff and programs to improve it. So how far will they go? Right now it’s about making business decisions and then trying to wrap a better customer experience around how that decision plays out. This is a good start, but probably won’t be enough long term. More on this later.

Why the hesitation? Pretty simple. Senior execs are comfortable with the notion that a good customer experience will mean a positive brand experience in most cases, and they will even extend that thought to believing that this will cause a customer to be more loyal. But the data to support that is slippery. Not necessarily because it’s not there, but because it’s more difficult to track and prove. All of us need help here.

I respect and closely follow Bruce Temkin. He is a real customer experience transformist (his word) having spent time at Forrester Research and is now out on his own. He seems to have devoted his entire life to defining and championing great customer experience. In 2008 he set forth a collection of fundamental truths (according to him) about how customer experience operates. Here are his 6 Laws of CXP:

  1. Every interaction creates a personal reaction
  2. People are instinctively self-centered
  3. Customer familiarity breeds alignment
  4. Unengaged employees don’t create engaged customers
  5. Employees do what is measured, incented, and celebrated
  6. You can’t fake it

I would encourage you to read his blog, Customer Experience Matters on a regular basis to get first hand observations, research reports and opinions from a true professional in the CX space. There is no doubt that he has a guaranteed spot in CX Heaven, if there is such a place.

Back to the corporate world. Yes we must.

Some big companies are beginning to appoint a customer experience leader, give her authority, a budget and the ear of a very senior exec so there is bite to the bark. This is great, but it cannot be the “flavor of the month” or a “one year program.” Employees see right through this. They will play along, but will not seriously internalize it into their daily routine. You either make it part of what you do and how you do it, or not, long term. It’s that basic.

A great customer experience can be difficult to define, but everyone recognizes it when they see it. This is the core of CX and why data is so hard to come by. It’s at the whim of human interpretation. But it’s important to recognize that it’s not magic and not always emotional. It’s what’s right and people know when it’s right. I’m frequently tempted to say Human Experience, not Customer Experience. You heard it here first. People design the systems, functionality, rules, policies, and basic standards that a company creates on a daily basis. Empower your people to create what’s right and you will be well on your way.

How will you know when you are making progress? When you CEO or President or CMO comes to you and says something like, “I want to make business decisions based on how we can deliver a great customer experience.” The best strategy could be faxed to your arch rival and it would be useless to them because they either wouldn’t know what it meant or couldn’t possibly execute it themselves. Right now, today, if you had a real customer experience strategy you could fax it to  your competitor. That is if you could fax it.

Graphic courtesy of

Sonos: Rockin’ Good Time

I have written about Sonos in this space from time to time. Sonos is a wireless music system that can connect with the digital files on your computer and broadcasts them wherever you want in your home. You can play different tracks in different locations and effortlessly shift from your collection to Internet radio. The software is solid, the user experience elegant and the sound divine. Every few months or so they come out with another great feature. Today it was a version 3.2 of their  software. When one hears “upgrade” it properly elicits a grimace. “Am I going to have to carve out my Friday night to get this done?” Not with Sonos. This upgrade is a cinch. They have a one button process that takes care of everything, one step at a time. Imagine no interruptions to “accept the terms.” No “are you sure you want to do this?” It just does it. They add the new controls onto the touchscreen and update your music files so the new features can be used immediately. It all happened in less than five minutes for me and  I have over 12,000 songs in my Sonos library.

The newest cool feature is the ability to enable song crossfading. Essentially it eliminates the dead air between songs by fading one song out and fading in another song at the same time, as if it was being controlled by your favorite DJ. It works whether you are in you in your own iTunes library or on your favorite Pandora station. This will be great for parties because we all hate “radio silence” don’t we. That’s the awkward space when we actually have to talk to each other :). If you’ve got a big room and you use their S5 music player (built in speakers)  you can set-up two and pair them. One as the right channel and the other the left, for a bigger sonic experience. Kind of like Phil Spector’s wall of sound, but without the murder conviction.

In addition they’ve added lots of new, free radio stations, Pandora has been integrated for a while now, including news, sports, talk and of course traffic. They have an iPhone application which allows me to sit on my patio and program what’s playing without having another device with me (new software version is awaiting Apple approval). They have also given their alarms more power, with day by day customization. Now you can wake up to your favorite music at a different time each day. And just in case you need it, Sonos is now available in 9 languages.

I do have some suggestions. They haven’t worked as hard on categorizing the thousands of radio stations. It seems they rely on the provider to do that. For instance, RadioIO on the Sonos screen is the same as is used on the RadioIO site. But the site has more context and content surrounding the station to aid choices. Certainly this can’t be done on this small a device, but some more thought here could help. They have a search, but it requires typing, and it’s slow. I want my music now! The weather channel is choice after choice of NOAA weather stations without any geographic cues in the titles. Tough. Wonder if you guys could turn the Sonos into a SAME early warning weather device. That would be very cool.

All in all, if you are considering a music system for your home or apartment that works with your digital music library, look seriously at Sonos. I’m closing in on four years now and have never looked back. Yes, Sonos is premium priced, but in my opinion it’s worth it. From the products, to the service, to the seamless upgrades. They work hard at making it all come together.

Rock on.

Consumers Wield New Found Power – Is it Being Abused?

Power1I have always been an advocate for listening to the voice of the customer. In the eighties I was the GM for a bookstore chain. From time to time I would receive letters from customers who had an unpleasant experience with a staff member, or felt our practices, or title selection, was not acceptable. I would answer those letters personally and would spend time with the store manager discussing how an associate could be coached to ensure a better customer experience was waiting around the corner.

On one occasion someone went so far as to write a letter to the local newspaper to complain about certain magazine titles that were on display. The paper published the letter on their opinion page. I was a businessman and those magazines sold well so I didn’t want to give up that revenue. But the community got behind this person which meant I had to find a solution that worked for consumer as well as commerce. I instructed the store to remove the magazines from the rack and put up a sign that listed the titles available and informed the customers they could be purchased by asking any clerk at checkout. We did lose some sales, but I think that was more than made up in political capital with the community for seriously listening and taking action.

While in that store a short time later I overheard customers talking about the incident and noted what we had done in response. Their reaction was very positive. I immediately went back to my office and took it a step further by adopting this policy across the chain. Certainly many people did not have an issue, but it was a public store and as such, part of my job was to create an environment that was comfortable for as many people as possible. That was how community played out in the 1980’s. You wrote letters; yes on paper with envelopes and stamps. My customers taught me an invaluable lesson early on in my career; listen to them. A side note. That year we set a sales record and crushed the competitor, Walden Books, who had a much better location in the mall.

Fast forward to the digital age

One of the first things I do every morning these days is read customer comments submitted through the web site. I read them on my Blackberry at home while eating breakfast. I want to know what my customers are saying before I get to the office. It’s a sobering, enlightening, humbling, frustrating, humorous and an interesting experience. The Customer is Always Right is the classic phrase. Perhaps a more appropriate modern take is The Customer is the Customer. No ridiculous notions here. Businesses need customers, but consumers need and desire the products and services brands offer.

Enter Social Media

It has been perceived, in my opinion, that brands have enjoyed an advantage in the relationship with a consumer. Social media has for some consumers been a way to level that playing field. All well and good, but I have been observing some interesting data over the past few months directly related to all the talk about customers controlling brands and using social media as a bully pulpit to right the wrongs that businesses foist upon them. Just click on customer threads from almost any industry and you will see it. Customers want to tell the brand when they feel they’ve been wronged. Getting in touch with company people, not just the call center reps, is difficult and time consuming. Thanks to social media technology it’s much easier to write a blog post, comment on a conversation some one else has started or upload a photo. Consumers have expectations they expect brands to meet. I’m also a customer and couldn’t agree more. But if consumers decide to go public they need to exercise the same amount of care and honesty that they expected from the brand. If you don’t want your son to turn out like Bart Simpson, don’t parent like Homer. The visual below depicts how consumers move through the expectations / perceptions cycle in the world of social media, as well as what socially aware brands are doing in this new era.


Recent observations

Much of what I read from my customers is anonymous, but sometimes they identify themselves because they are looking for help. It’s fascinating what you find when you tie back detailed customer comments to their actual business records. What consumers write in public does not always reflect what’s on the private record. It’s not surprising. Anger and emotion can frequently  overwhelm calm, fact-based thinking. Especially when there have been repeated attempts to solve the problem. This puts the brand in a difficult position. They can’t call out the customer, or argue. The best they can do is apologize for problems and take the conversation off line. My point is that if you find yourself with a new power, use it wisely. Exercise the same honesty and genuineness that you expect from your brand.

Forrester Customer Experience Forum Delivers the Goods

On June 22nd and 23rd, Forrester Research held their first ever Customer Experience Forum at the Grand Hyatt in NYC with this timely theme; The Customer Experience Journey: Keeping Momentum in a Downturn. They work hard at keeping it real and relevant. First let’s get the Wordle thing out of the way. I took eight pages of notes during the event; single spaced and 9 point font. I deposited all eight pages into Wordle and got this map.

Forrester CXP 2009 Wordle

I always think long and hard about why I should attend a conference. In this climate you’ve got to make everything count, so I create a list of what I want to learn and questions I would like answered. I make it a point to meet at least three new people that I will follow up with after the event. I attended this forum in search of how to make customer experience more of a business driver for my company. I believe a good customer experience leads to additional product sales and loyalty, but in this downturn I need more and more empirical evidence for my senior managers. My approach when attending a conference is to do so as if I am required to give a summary to my CEO when I return.

I’ve been thinking about the forum for a week now. There was so much information presented that it takes a while for it all to settle into my brain. What I have arrived at is the following; customer experience is no longer a deck chairs moment. It’s real. Brands that get it will emerge from this downturn stronger than ever. Those that don’t; well let’s just say I wouldn’t want to be working for them. But their problems will be less about their employees and all about their customers.

The High Hard Ones

  • Consumers are in control. Technology advancements in social media have enabled and empowered consumers to crowd source ideas, opinions and advice. The bad news is frustrated consumers want to tell the world. The Good news is that happy consumers want to tell the world.
  • Government action focusing on regulation as a result of the recent economic issues is really about improving the customer experience. Specifically it’s about increasing confidence, trust and advocacy in brands and industries. Brands should seize this rare opportunity to align with this inevitable change.
  • People want to do business with people, not faceless, nameless organizations. People watch out for people. Companies watch out for shareholders. There needs to be more work done on how to connect these two areas and make it work for all. The corporate tension of today that’s been created by silos simply pushes the pendulum in the other direction. The result is consumers are constantly being whiplashed.
  • Businesses still need to turn a profit. Sales, revenues, efficiencies, etc. are alive and well in the C-Suite. Firms demonstrating leadership that can connect customer experience with a social overlay and deliver business results will rule.
  • More and more technology is playing an ever growing part on the stages once dominated by classic marketing, advertising and customer service. Integrated, multi-channel approaches are no longer nice to have, they are required.
  • Some companies are already doing this. They are winning. Are you one of them?

Day One

Keynote was given by Bruce Temkin; Charting Your Customer Experience Journey. In this very engaging presentation, Bruce brought us back to The Wizard of Oz with references to needing a heart, brains and courage to tackle this challenge.

  • Heart – Ensures you are practicing empathy for your customers
  • Brains – Makes you think about how to cut costs. Not a haircut exercise, but a thoughtful one that shifts funds appropriately
  • Courage – Look for the opportunities but trust in your initiatives

He presented some powerful slides that directly linked customer experience to the bottom line to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars for firms doing in excess of $10Bn. He reinforced his Experience-Based Differentiation model coined a couple of years ago. These require companies to follow these rules.

  • Obsess about your customer needs, not product features
  • Reinforce brand with every interaction, not just communications
  • Treat customer experiences as a competence, not a function

Bruce’s mother was in the audience and he recounted something she taught him as a young boy. If you make promises, keep them. This nicely sketched out his second rule of customer experience.

Making Keeping Promises
Reinforce brands with every interaction, not just with communications

He set out a five stages of customer experience maturity that companies will need to follow to arrive at their destination. Each stage has a corresponding focus and culture descriptio

  • InterestedFocus is explore opportunity. Culture is raise awareness
  • InvestedFocus is fix problems. Culture is get buy-in
  • CommittedFocus is redesign processes. Culture is solidify beliefs
  • EngagedFocus is on empowering employees. Culture is align HR systems (soft systems: hire, train, promote)
  • EmbeddedFocus and Culture are to Sustain customer-centric DNA

He closed with the following advice. Align all your customer experience efforts to business results. Use the voice of the customer to help. Provide clear leadership and governance.

Acxiom and Hearst Publications presented some fascinating concepts called Winning Elections in the Marketing Democracy. They say it’s all power to the people. Everyone can contribute and everyone has a voice.


Acxiom threw TV and other traditional advertising under the bus. I realize that’s popular, but not practical. At least not yet. The take home message was that consumers more and more are saying,

If your marketing is important enough, it will find me.

That’s a focusing fact to remind us we need to ensure there is a social overlay to our advertising and marketing campaigns.

Hearst moved away from the restrictive construct of iVillage and created their own online properties. Traffic has flourished and they discovered they have two audiences for the same product. Fewer than 30% of a specific magazine’s site visitors also read he newsstand version, while fewer than 2% of the magazine readers visited the same site online. Creates more overhead to maintain both, but also opens up lots of opportunities to monetize.

C. David Cush, CEO of Virgin America Airlines really delivered on how to execute brand differentiation with his speech, A Good Airline Experience is not an Oxymoron. Having spent many years at American, he gave a simple explanation on why airlines aren’t customer focused. Most airline CEOs come up through either finance or sales and they think about the customer as revenue. He talked about all the things Virgin America is doing on the planes for the customer, such as free wifi on all flights, and customers order food and drinks from their 9″ seat back touch screen, swipes their credit card and a team member brings them their order on a tray. No carts moving up and down aisles.

Customers sometimes Tweet to @virginamerica while in flight and make comments. If something goes wrong, Virgin sends a team member to meet the flight at the gate to address any issues when the customer deplanes. Wow. I wish they flew to Chicago.

When you look at the number of followers to airline Twitter streams here’s how it stacks up.

  • JetBlue – 712,234
  • Southwext – 109.261
  • Virgin – 20,748
  • United – 14,339
  • Delta – 5,344
  • American – 3,535
  • U.S.Airways – 1,390

Consumers like brands with personality who are challenging the standard ways and putting the customer first.

The tech showcase had a round-up of the usual suspects, but I did get to interact with a new interactive, touch screen Coke machine. Sapient had it at their booth and apparently it was battle tested during the Beijing Olympics last year. The screen real estate can be sectioned off to show video, or display ads. It can even go social, allowing consumers to write on the screen and share it in a community. It dispenses the new aluminum Coke bottle shaped cans.

An Interactive Coke Dispensing Machine

The day went from analyst speak to big brand case studies to a world class designer. Sohrab Vossoughi, President and Founder of Ziba Design said, Forget Customer Experience – Create Meaning.

He delivered an energetic and compelling case for creating authentic relationships with consumers. He talked about finding your brand’s DNA. That is it’s essence and character, the company culture, it’s authenticity, and finally, base it all on trust. He placed design at the center of creating a great customer experience and defined design as follows:

  • All about connection
  • The act of connection is the real power of design
  • Great designs connect people and connect with people
  • It’s centered around meaning and moments
  • Great design has meaning
  • Great design anticipates and creates great customer experience moments

Design should be used to understand, synthesize, connect, simplify the complex, make meaning and create. He then presented his Umpqua Bank case study, which is a poster child of design for customers.

Day Two

The final day keynote was given by Moria Dorsey of Forrester entitled, The Future of Online Experiences: Prepare Now for Recovery. She took us from ballet to automobiles to the future of the web in about 45 minutes. The Forrester analyst I follow the most is Bruce Temkin, but Moria Dorsey is now a close second if not in a virtual dead heat.

She led off with a history of the automobile and how it has taken 50 years for cars to find their true form and another 100 years to evolve to what we recognize them to be today. The web is essentially in the Model T stage, which means there is a mind numbing amount of change coming our way.

Moria Dorsey divining the future
Moria Dorsey divining the future

Ms. Dorsey was pushing us to think about the future and possibilities with her predictions. She boiled down the future online experience as follows.

  • Customized by the user
  • Aggregated for a broader view
  • Relevant at a given moment
  • Social will be fully embedded

She spoke about how the capability / mobility gap is closing while at the same time the number of interfaces and devices are multiplying. Consumers are being bombarded by new technology choices from all angles. They want to always be online, they visit social networking sites and more and more prefer richer interactions. These consumer preferences should guide our digital roadmaps. But it’s not all about devices. Cloud computing has ushered in a whole host of new players and interactions. The number of web sites continues to grow, all of this combines to make formidable competition to even the most well established brands.

All fine, but how does one get ready for this evolving world? Her advice is that brands need advanced techniques to deliver what the customer wants and be able to achieve business results. This can be accomplished by:

  • Creating and using multi-channel personas that reflect and include information to help design the experiences you are trying to create
  • Conduct virtual ethnographic research to inform scenarios and build a new kind of customer experience map
  • Atomize your content and functionality so it can meet the consumer where they are
  • Establish an incubation environment to rapid-cycle testing of new ideas with low risk
  • Build mad design skills. Think software development, not web page coding.

As we move into the Model-T era of the online space, design and create experiences not simply inside the window, but off the desktop and out to devices.

The main stage closed with Martin A. Nisenholtz, SVP of Digital Operations at The New York Times. He presented a cast study on Building an Online News Experience. His talk was professional and well crafted. Obviously an experienced newspaper man, but clearly one that has made a successful transition to digital media. It wasn’t a classic case study, but it did provide some interesting glimpses of how a brand as strong and old as The New York Times is in the analog world has tried to remake itself for the a new era.

It was a fascinating experience listening to Mr. Nisenholtz, because of his intellectual approach to the problem. They have tried to align customer experience with business model innovation. Advertising is their main source of revenue and although you don’t often see ad takeovers, they do rich media units on their home page. I’m a Mac, I’m a PC from Apple ads were showcased.

Building a new online news experience has been accomplished in their interactive graphic reporting and how they try to balance social web and narrative web. They are viewed as two sides of the same storytelling coin. Mr. Nisenholtz said that beaking news is not their value proposition, but the title bar when you load says Breaking News, World News & Mulitmedia. The content delivers deep analysis and serendipity, and has high appeal to long time readers who have a thirst for knowledge and a desire to get life long learning. They focus more on psychographics than demographics.

Martin Nisenholtz
Martin Nisenholtz of The New York Times

He did a very nice job of evoking old school journalism and translating it into digital terms. “Report the news without fear or favor” still holds today. It’s integrity, skill and craft that builds a real newspaper. He also hinted as to how their business model might change. He used the term fremmium (might have even coined it) that’s a combination of free and paid content. They don’t treat the models as binary, but try to do both. Mobility might be a good revenue avenue for paid subscriptions because it lacks a proven advertising structure right now.

During the Q&A he was asked about the growing social media tools like Twitter and did he see that as a threat. He very emphatically and I believe rightly so, said that Twitter is a very large feeder to, but it will never replace what’s published in The Times. The audience broke out in applause. Indeed many of us stopped Twittering to join in.

I have strong opinions on what’s happening with newspapers and express them here.

On both flight segments there were some amazing cloud formations. Was able to capture three different ones.


If you’ve never attended a Forrester Forum, I would highly recommend it. But go in looking for answers. Ask the analysts the hard questions and network as much as possible.

Read my post from the Forrester Marketing Forum held in April 2009 here.

Photos: Steve A Furman

Note to Consumers, Operators are Standing By

A growing number of consumers are posting comments about a product or experience they’ve had with a brand on a blog or Twitter and expecting the company to come right back that same day with a personalized message and solution. I’ve seen isolated incidents where some consumers return to the network within hours and remark that they have fired that brand for being ignored between lunch and dinner.


I’m concerned that the speed of social will cause consumers to think traditional communication channels are obsolete and have been disconnected from the grid. Big brands have spent millions of dollars staffing call centers and maintaining web sites to provide customer service. They won’t be chucking those investments any time soon. Folks… folks… Let’s get real. A single consumer will always be more agile than a large organization on almost everything. Companies have not promised, nor can they right now, monitor hundreds of millions of conversations and respond as part of their service contract.

As a consumer, if you have a problem with a product or service, there is nothing wrong with expressing your perspective using social media technology. I have done so numerous times in this very space. But you need to ask yourself why are you doing it? What’s your objective when you post out? Is it a test to see how quickly they will find you? Are you informing/warning the community about your experience? Unless you are a key influencer with a big following, posting on a blog is a little like shouting out in a crowded stadium. Almost no one will hear you. Certainly not the pitcher who just gave up that home run.

phoneI’ll bet you can find a web address or 800 number on the packaging coupled with an open invitation to call anytime you have a problem or question. So click on www or pick up the phone. After all you spent time and probably money on the product. What if your issue could be remedied with a 1 minute conversation or e-mail response? Isn’t that a better use of time?

Once you have gone through the channels a company has established to help you and still the issue isn’t resolved, then by all means, have at it in the community. The company deserves it. Firms will get better at monitoring the social graph. It’s a completely new concept and the velocity is overwhelming. It will take some more time.

Improving the Customer Experience Begins with Active Listening

This is an expanded version of a presentation I gave at the Customer Experience Summit on May 13, 2009 at The Art Institute of Chicago. The event was hosted by TeaLeaf and OpinionLab.

Feedback, Voice of the Customer, whatever you want to call it is not new. It was born with that first comment or letter to Customer Service, store manager or the President of the company expressing outrage or praise over a recent experience. Today most large firms have formal processes in place for collecting feedback across numerous channels. Collecting information is easy, organizing it is harder and making changes based on feedback sometimes requires Congress to act. We are seeing Voice of the customer getting more attention these days for a number of reasons.

  • Increasing use of the Internet by consumers
  • Renewed focus on digital marketing in this economic downturn
  • Explosive growth of social networking

As someone responsible for the online customer experience of a large site, I am very interested in customer feedback. We get bits of it through usability testing prior to launching features and functionality, but those events are spaced out over the course of the year and part of a specific feature of function of the site. It’s critical to monitor what customers are saying about their experience on your site on a more regular basis, like daily.

If it’s your site on the screen this young woman is confused about on her laptop then you very much need to know what she’s thinking.

Is this your site on this laptop?
Is your site on this laptop?

Your Customer is talking, so listen

You should be collecting customer voices from multiple channels across the company. This feedback falls in one of two classes:

  • Internal Voices
    • Ratings and comments submitted on the site
    • Inbound e-mails
    • Call center discussions
    • Mail / executive letters
    • Surveys / research
  • External Voices
    • Blogs
    • Video sharing networks
    • Twitter streams
    • Media sites

Within all that feedback are rich clues you can mine to improve the customer experience. But if you are a large company this will mean an overwhelming amount of data and pose collection and processing challenges. You must leverage technology to help you make sense of all this feedback and weed out the noise. There are dozens of firms that can help with this. Which one you choose will depend on your objectives.

Practice Active Listening

We’ve all heard about active listening through a psychology class, team building exercise or during one of those individual development discussions you’ve had with your manager. It’s half of effective communication. The SIER hierarchy of Active Listening was developed in the mid 1980’s by communications researchers Steil, Watson & Barker. They were responding to data that told them humans immediately forget 50% of what their are told and an additional 25% after two days.

SIER Hierarchiery of Active Listening
SIER hierarchy of Active Listening

By practicing active listening on your customer feedback you will be taking important first steps to improving your customer experience. I’m thinking about going so far as to changing the term customer feedback to active listening for my team. Here are techniques we use:

  • Collect Voice of the Customer on
    • Most visited pages
    • Highest business value pages
    • Most complex interactions
    • Customer service sections
    • Sensitive areas (pricing, policy, etc.)
  • Track and compare site sub-sections
    • Aggregate scores can be a false friend
  • Look for commonality in feedback across channels
  • Categorize feedback and link directly to a measured business value
  • Take action on changes you can make within your role
  • Recommend enhancements your partners can champion

This establishes a series of filters and brings into focus the most meaningful customer feedback. By meaningful I mean important to the customer and valuable to the business. You must demonstrate an intersection of customer feedback and business value. Without that no one will take you seriously and you will end up frustrated. But that’s only the beginning. From there you need to create a process that works in your organization with an end goal of actually making changes to your site, or marketing practices, even policy. Here is a simple, but very effective model.


You must speak your business partner’s language and invite them into the customer circle. By speaking their language I mean connecting customer feedback to what matters to your partner including the associated business value. If you run your web site you should know exactly how much money you save or revenue you create (or both) with each and every log in. Customer comments are easily rationalized away and marginalized without this monetary value attached to it. The The steps in the process are:

  • Collect: Leverage technology, automate communications and practice active listening
  • Connect: Link feedback to the customer experience (moments of truth) and monetize
  • Inform: Convene regular cross-functional meetings, report findings and make recommendations
  • Act: Translate recommendations into projects with associated business value

It will be tough going at first, which is why you need a process that ties back to business value. Once you make changes you will need to collect the feedback to demonstrate progress, again with business value attached. That reporting coupled with the tracked business results will take you places you never thought you could go. Your customers will thank you and you will be rewarded by the business.

Photo Credit:

Barnes and Making Progress

I know, I know, Amazon is where everyone goes to buy books, videos, even snow blowers. But for the pure book person, like me, Barnes and Noble is still the preferred destination. Clearly Amazon’s site has been ahead for years, but the in store experience is not available to Amazon customers. I don’t care what you say, nothing can trump holding a book in your hand or browsing a well organized store. The web site does a lot of things very well. Here’s a couple.

The Look Inside feature popularized by Amazon has always been problematic for me. The interface refreshed your browser and it was difficult to get back to the product page without repeatedly hitting your back button. They have recently provided a fix for that, but it’s emblematic of online pure plays, that they go out quickly with features then update. That’s a fine approach, but you can’t take a year to fix the usability problems.

Barnes and Noble See Inside feature was implemented properly from the start. It opens a new browser window and has the same look and feel of the site. A scroll bar at the bottom makes it easy to navigate to new pages, or you can select from a link stack on the left hand side. It preserves the book turning motif, which I would expect from real booksellers and appreciate. When you want to return to the product page, simply close the window.

Barnes & Noble's Online See Inside Feature

A feature that has that Amazon can’t is the pick-up in store option. When you find your item simply type in your zip code and a list of stores is returned showing availability. You can reserve it right there and an email is sent to you confirming that it’s on hold. The screen shows a photo of the that particular location storefront, a nice touch and an additional clue that you have reserved it at the right property.

Store Pick-up Screen for

They made one small misstep on this screen. The text says “We can place a copy of this book on hold…” I reserved a CD, not a book. Either dynamically populate the proper product category or change book to item. It’s a small detail, but hey, they are after quality. At any rate, they are doing a nice job of integrating the store and online experiences. As a book guy, I hope Barnes and Noble can weather the current economic environment and sharpen their online skills so they can continue to compete with Amazon.

American Airlines Charges $15 to Send an E-mail!

I booked a flight for myself and family to visit my mother and sister during the holidays. The tickets were pretty expensive so we elected to use miles. The day before the flight, while I was making a car service reservation, I discovered that my outbound flight was no longer listed. I logged onto to check my reservation and sure enough, they had changed the flight number and departure time for later that day.

I didn’t recall getting any communication from American on this change, so I called. They indicted they had sent my wife an e-mail with the change information a couple of weeks back. She didn’t remember getting that e-mail, and a search through her Outlook revealed a number of communications from American for vacation packages and fare sales, but nothing about our flight change. When I asked the agent to resend the confirmation she indicated that it was American’s policy to charge $15 for sending a second confirmation e-mail, once they ascertained the correct e-mail address was on file and the message had been successfully sent. Of course it’s entirely possible that my wife missed the message, or there was some other glitch, but I wasn’t asking them to do a lot of heavy lifting.

I was aghast! As someone who has been in the digital space since 1994, has been responsible for service and marketing e-mail programs, and works in a service heavy industry, I know that it costs less than one penny to send an e-mail. E-mail is a great service tool that firms can employ that is significantly less costly than a phone call, and provides the consumer with a record and peace of mind. I can’t imagine how American or anyone else for that matter could justify this policy based on actual cost to the company. The e-mail may deflect a call later down the life-cycle of the purchase. As a customer, it felt like yet another way for desperate carriers to seize any opportunity to collect revenue.

I very clearly expressed my displeasure to the agent and informed her of my professional experience in this area—sending an e-mail doesn’t cost $15. She then offered to send it without the fee. That supports my belief that they are preying on consumers who would not know better. American should be ashamed. Do they really know why we fly?

Last and Final from the Forrester Consumer Forum 2008

Wagons west

As mentioned in the last episode, this post will skip the Forrester speakers and customer presentations and cover one of the “outsiders.” Forrester always places a strong speaker at the end of the second day in an attempt to help keep their attendees on site. It usually thins out anyway, but for those who stay they are richly rewarded. The forum theme was Keeping Ahead of Tomorrow’s Customer. You can catch up on my first two installments here and here.

The forum keynotes closed with the animated Paco Underhill, an environmental psychologist and founder of Envirosell, a firm that specializes in studying how people interact with retail and service environments. He is also the author of Why we Buy and Call of the Mall. He had very few slides, instead he told his story using actual footage captured while in the field. His talk, Shopping as the Dipstick of Social Change, was more like being in a meeting with him vs. listening to a presentation. Of all the sessions I attended, I took more notes in this one than any other by a factor of at least 3. Here are some of my favorite sound bites.

  • The world is designed by men but experienced by women. The men should ask the question, what makes my product or service female friendly?
  • Do you feel more time poor or money poor? Most answer time poor.
  • Online is about saving time.
  • As you design something think about how someone will use it the 12th time just as much as you think about how they will use it the first time.
  • Run your company like a global firm, but relate on a local level.
  • Convergence is the collision of online, mobile and bricks & mortar.
  • Shopping will transform more in the next 10 years than it has in the previous 50.
  • The best technology is the least technology.
  • Tech needs must be better engaged with culture needs
  • Stop thinking sitting down (meetings, excel, word, PPT)
  • The word for the 20th century was strategy, in the 21st century it will be tactics. Get a tactical grasp on your strategy.
  • Amenability is linked to profitability.
  • Health care is the only growth industry we have today.
Paco Underhill on stage

He showed clip after clip of how humans shop and voice tracked how that behavior was a barometer for a social change taking place across the globe. He didn’t neatly tie up the loose ends in a nice tidy Forrester-style theme, but he accomplished something just as important. He got me to think and think deeply about many of the things I have been working on.

A few weeks ago one of my agency partners came to town for a typical meeting. She was not on the iPhone train yet, and watched me use mine. I let her make a call and as she put it to her ear the first thing she said was, “How do I look?” What an insight I had. Cell phone stores should put up mirrors right by the phone displays. Their sales would go up. It underscored what Mr. Underhill had been saying. A man asks himself a very different question when he tries out a technology device. And sure enough Paco mentioned that phone retailers should have mirrors by their displays. Once again, great minds think alike ;).

He also put forth his hypothesis of why Social Media has grown so quickly. It is in large part do to the number of consumers who reside in the suburbs and live a much more lonely existence vs. their urban counterparts.

In summary the big ideas I took away from the forum were:

  • Tune into your online customer
  • Create value by making change
  • Nail down a multi-customer point of view
  • Empower your customers by embracing Social Media
  • Challenge your current organizational structure to prepare for the customer of tomorrow

There were some very helpful take aways for for all of us as we work to weather the current economic climate, Thanks Forrester for another helpful forum.

I’m Going to Stop Messin’ with Texas

texasI’ll admit it, I have never been a fan of Texas. There’s a lot of baggage there for me; Oil, JFK, Bush, free use of the death penalty. But I’m softening my position on Texas. Why? I attended a conference there for four days last week and I couldn’t say where I was ever treated with as much courtesy, friendliness and hospitality as on that trip. From the moment I landed until I boarded my flight back to Chicago, and every touchpoint along the way, everyone was very nice and respectful. Not sure I am scoping out a new place to live, but will definitely tone down my criticism and tune up my attitude. Thanks Texas.

Forrester Consumer Forum 2008: Maslow is Dead – First in a Series

I attended the Forrester Consumer Forum in Dallas earlier this week. It was my 16th Forrester event which speaks volumes about how I respect the company, value their people and study their work. It’s a day and a half of data, insights and big thinking with a sprinkling of small track sessions scaled down to snack size bites. They are also the consummate hosts. This year’s anthem was Keeping Ahead of Tomorrow’s Customers. An interesting theme, since most of the attendees (including me) were dialing back growth to match a briskly receding consumer. But Forrester did a great job at keeping things upbeat while recognizing the current economic climate and giving us some weapons we could take back and use.

One of the things that has been missing for me during the big top presentations as of late has been bold predictions. The research is still top notch, the analysts are smart, “wicked smart” as Carrie Johnson would say in her Boston accent, and they are frequently ahead of almost everyone. But some of the edge has dulled. I entered the main ballroom wondering if I would get something provocative, forward looking and passionate. My take? I got more stick your neck out than usual, and I was really excited about it.

James McQuivey, Ph.D. began with a talk called Satisfy Consumers for the Next Decade (and Beyond). He brought long lost relatives to life on the stage in an effective manner illustrating his story about why some consumers adopt early, and others late. His theme was: People share a set of universal needs. Satisfy those needs and you will win. He was really getting me to lean in until… Until he trashed Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. He said.

Maslow’s needs are not ordered, not orderly, and in fact they’re messy.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs - Graphic: Wikipedia

As I said, I was looking for provocative statements and guts, and I got both. As a formally trained psychologist I take umbrage to disparaging Maslow. He had sound methods and studied some of the most actualized people he could find to help him create this classic pyramid. I don’t claim it’s perfect, that would not be remotely possible in psychology. But it is a storied framework that has stood the test of time and is to be respected. I don’t believe Maslow intended his concepts to be the basis for business sales, but Mr. McQuivey made a strong case for how the current social media trend should cause us to rethink many things. He then laid out his own take at people’s universal needs.

  • Connection
  • Uniqueness
  • Comfort
  • Variety

According to Mr. McQuivey, everyone has all four, but they vary in importance by individual, can shift over time due to changing circumstances and people will ultimately trade off one need against another. These are interesting to ponder and even more so as he lays them out in a Needs Profile designed to help marketers target consumers better.

Forrester Research
Copyright © 2008 Forrester Research

He built his next section on the idea of a Convenience Quotient that can be found in research released earlier in the year. A Convenience Quotient (CQ) tells you how you compare with competitors as well as with other ways to meet the same needs. It applies to products as well as services.

I went from upset to inquisitive to interested by the time he wrapped up. At a high level it made sense, but I didn’t really know how to reliably arrive at a CQ for any of my products or services. Seemed very manufacturing focused. Will need to go back and ponder some more. Perhaps I’ll give him a call.

The event was held at the Gaylord Texan. Essentially it was like being in The Truman Show. A space the size of a city block enclosed in glass and steel. It looked more like a movie set than a resort. Perfectly manicured and very comfortable. We affectionately began calling it “The Bubble.”

Fellow Tweets Amy & Jayne
Tweeters Amy & Jayne

P.S. I attended my first TweetUp in Dallas. It was really a fantastic experience. Twitters send out Tweets and before you know it over 50 people descended on a BBQ restaurant in Grapevine, TX. All kinds of genuine, creative and fun people. Everyone is relaxed and talking about social media, politics, their start up efforts, etc. I felt so comfortable. You can get a better feel for what a TweetUp is by watching this video shot by Top Tweet and an amazing Forresterite Jeremiah Owyang. Check out his insightful and content packed blog here.

More to come on the Forrester Consumer Forum.