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Everyone Is A Customer
(April 10, 2001) We drew an incredibly bleak picture of customer service in our industry in yesterday's article. To be effective, customer service, from the usability of a website or software application to the management of the complaint desk, needs to be built into the product or service from its conception. Managed as an afterthought, customer service will always be atrocious. Managed in the design process, it can be the hallmark of a company's market success.

Much of the energy invested in customer satisfaction is focused on "usability" or the 'customer experience' of a web site or software interface. We think the focus on interface and customer experience is critical. But, customer satisfaction begins well before an interface is designed or a product is shipped.

Any product or service is a blend of training, documentation, technical support, the product or service itself, maintenance (on the part of the user and the provider), the actual fit of the product to the customer's needs, the expectations set by marketing and advertising, reliability, and the vendors ability to sustain these things over time. As we've seen recently, business viability is a hypercritical aspect of customer experience. (All other aspects of a customer's experience pale beside the failure of the provider to exist.)

Very little is written on the subject of integrating these factors in a disciplined way. The web, with its heightened emphasis on the integration of marketing into a product or service, is a particularly difficult environment in which to practice the disciplined development of a full spectrum customer experience.

The reason that the customer service experience is so bleak is that most of the technical departments in our industry are run by amateurs. Even the best technical departments are managed by leaders with no real experience in the codevelopment of training, documentation and troubleshooting. We grimace each time we meet an entrepreneur who assures us that their technical people are the best in the industry. So far, none of them has described a Systems Engineering process that included customer advocacy at the core of the enterprise. For the most part, our industry has a sea of overlapping technical operations composed of high-end hackers who are specifically unconcerned about the impact of their products on customers.

Large enterprise operations (like Peoplesoft) make their profits from the fact that their tools are unusable by actual customers. The gleam in the eyes of the entrepreneurs who think that they are redefining the enterprise software business comes from the profits associated with legions of consultants. In other words, the basic role models for technical excellence are businesses that succeed because of the failure of their software design.

It's possible to design software that actually meets customer requirements, has low service costs and delights end users. It's easier to forget about quality and focus exclusively on cost and budget. In this uncertain little economic moment, be certain that the software you end up using doesn't cost more to use than it does to license.

Usable Web provides a huge array of resources for interface design. Although the interface is a secondary problem, Usable Web is a good starting place.

- John Sumser © TwoColorHat. All Rights Reserved.

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