Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Making change in the customer experience good, and how well-intended change can be anything but

Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on June 30, 2010

Change in product or service can be good. It can create new markets and open up new business possibilities, and it can move a business from just being a member of the herd to holding a position of marketplace leadership. And it can do all of this by creating value that the customer and potential customer will want. At the same time, change can turn away customers and it can erode customer loyalty. It can be disastrous and the history of business is as richly punctuated by big name failures stemming from inopportune change as it is by successes coming from effective, market creating change. New Coke comes to mind as an immediate example from the negative side of this, though for a more recent and online example I could also cite Facebook’s recent foray into change in its user profile settings (see Facebook and the Importance of Respecting Social Contracts.)

The core issue I seek to address here with this posting is so fundamental that I cannot help but think of it as holding real potential for drifting into the trite, but as real world examples from large and successful businesses continue to show, it is anything but.

How do well organized and run companies with solid track records of success in their marketplaces fall into the trap of investing their time, effort, finances and reputation in change that the public in general and their customers will hate?

I do not pretend to offer a complete best practices based formulaic approach to addressing these problem situations when they arise, and more to the point I readily admit I cannot offer a quick, easy axiomatic answer for preventing this from happening, and for always optimizing change to address real need and customer-perceived need in the marketplace. There are, however, some basic observations I can and will share that may help indicate when a change would work and when it would simply indicate that the wheels are leaving the road and that a cliff edge is approaching. And I start with the fundamentals and with alignment of strategy and operational processes, and vision and mission.

• The problem I write of here does not happen because of failure to align strategy and operational processes, and vision and mission with each other or with a failure to set goals and priorities that connect into them.
• This problem arises when a business makes that most fundamental disconnect of all, and that is a failure to actively and even proactively connect these internal facets to its organization and functioning to its outside context, and to its real world customers in its real world current and potential market space. This is fundamentally a result of disconnecting from the people who ultimately pay the bills by providing the revenue stream.

If you fail to keep your business aligned with your market and at the fundamental levels of strategy and operations you risk falling into inefficiency in meeting real world customer needs. Your goals and priorities will drift off-target.

If you fail to keep the basic assumptions and understanding that you hold as to what you offer in alignment with the realities of your actual customer base you risk real and perhaps even catastrophic failure. Though the more likely result, at least long term would be a long slow drift into irrelevancy.

But this posting is about change and not about remaining constant while the world changes around you, for their product and service preferences and for what they require in the marketplace they would make their purchases in. And I bring this into focus considering the very restrictive example range of the online user interface.

Web design when viewed from at least one of its more significant angles, is a process of organizing functionality and content that would meet the web site owner’s needs into a layout and form that will meet the site visitor’s needs. That constitutes an ongoing flow of compromise decisions and its goal is to find and offer the best web site for both user and provider. Operationally this means making and keeping the site fresh and interesting, within the constraints of branding requirements, while avoiding the landmines of change that would confuse and add complications to the user experience.

Ideally any change made to the web site would make the user experience easier and more direct, and even enjoyable. Though I add the greatest enjoyment from a good user interface per se is transparency. The best web site in this regard would be one where the site visitor could navigate around it, finding the information they need so they can carry out the activities they would go to that site for and without having to think at all about the web site per se – only focusing on what made them go online to find a site like yours in the first place.

Above all web design sins, people hate to see the basic functionality of a site changed in new and unexpected ways where they in effect have to learn how to use a web browser again and just for your one site. Mystery links and mysterious information architecture, where it is difficult to find things on the site that are needed now hurt and constitute bad change. As a specific example, consider an online store where internally motivated conceptions of cutting edge design and web site appearance make it harder for customers to find the information they need to see in making an online purchasing decision and where the links they would use are hard to find even when they are on the page that is open.

Effective change is always solidly grounded in a deep and even profound understanding of the customer and their needs and preferences.
Great change goes beyond the immediate here and now in this that your competition is also addressing, to identify new opportunities in unmet and emerging customer needs and preferences.
Bad change happens when the basic orientation shifts and priority is placed on meeting internal to the company needs and vision. I will add that sloppy customer-facing research added as a fig leaf cover to this type of internal focus does not improve things and can only make them worse. Consider either the New Coke or Facebook examples here that I cited at the top of this posting in this regard.

I made an observation in the above posting that I will pick up on as a separate posting tomorrow and it is:
“Web design when viewed from at least one of its more significant angles, is a process of organizing functionality and content that would meet the web site owner’s needs into a layout and form that will meet the site visitor’s needs.”

The next day I will post a next installment in my ongoing series on new job and probationary period best practices for building and advancing a career (see the Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development, postings 73 through 82 for the first ten installments in that.)

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  1. […] Posted in strategy and planning by Timothy Platt on July 1, 2010 Yesterday, I posted an entry: Making Change in the Customer Experience Good, and How Well-Intended Change Can Be Anything But, and in the course of writing it I made an observation that I want to follow up on and […]

  2. […] recently posted Making Change in the Customer Experience Good, and How Well-Intended Change can be Anything But and I received a comment from an “online tips” site that I want to comment on, and as a […]

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