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Who Are You Calling Stupid?

  |  September 25, 2002   |  Comments

Don't blame the customer for the failure of your message.

In my last article, I described how I had inadvertently run up a huge phone bill at a Los Angeles hotel.

I had failed to read the "small print" on one of the pieces of paper in my room, and had logged onto the Internet using, I thought, a local phone number. I ended up paying hundreds of dollars more than I anticipated.

I used this story to underline the importance of being very clear when it comes to communicating key pieces of information on your site.

My point was that there is little benefit to making one sale, if that sale results in a very upset customer who will never return.

A number of readers took issue with my position. Of all the comments I received, one in particular made me want to take another look at the subject.

This reader wrote, "There are always some people that are stupid and will miss it."

It seems I was too stupid to understand the hotel phone policy, and the world is filled with people who are too stupid to use our Web sites.

This kind of thinking has me climbing the walls with frustration. It drives me crazy for a number of reasons.

First, there is a terrible arrogance implicit in the thought that people are too stupid to use our sites "correctly."

"Stupidity" depends so much on context and environment. Put me in a blue-collar bar in the Bronx late on a Saturday night, and I'll appear pretty stupid. Not because I have a lack of brain cells, but because I'd be a fish out of water.

And that's fine.

But if you build a Web site, want me as a customer, and create an environment I find hard to understand or to navigate -- don't call me stupid.

Writing good copy requires a great deal of empathy. You really do need to feel and understand the lives and needs of your audience members. You need to be able to close your eyes and put yourself in the position of a first-time visitor to your site.

If you don't know whom you are talking to, how on earth can you know what to say? And if you don't feel any respect for people, how can you say anything that they will connect with and feel comfortable with?

When people don't read important messages on your site, it's not because they are dumb. It's because you have failed them. You have failed to create an environment in which they are comfortable. You have created a blue-collar bar for a middle-class visitor, or vice versa.

Unlike the manager of the hotel where I stayed, you need to be open to learning from every "mistake" your visitors make.

If someone had a poor experience at your site because she didn't read some crucial message, don't put it down to her being stupid. See that moment for what it really is: your failure to build an environment that works for that person.

To come full circle, a couple of weeks ago I stayed at a different hotel, Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. While registering, the assistant explained, verbally, exactly what the hotel's phone policies and costs were.

I imagine the hotel had been on the receiving end of the complaints of guests like me, who had failed to read those little slips of paper in their rooms. Those guests had likely become more than a little upset with their bills.

How smart of Caesar's Palace. How smart to avoid blaming the guest, but instead to find a way of communicating that information in a way that every guest would hear and understand.

That's the attitude to take with important messages on your site. Don't call your visitors stupid. Instead, present those messages in a place and in a way that everyone will read and understand.

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Nick Usborne

Nick Usborne speaks, writes, and consults on strategic copy issues for business online. For Web sites, e-mails and newsletters, he crafts messages that drive results. He is the author of the critically acclaimed bookNet Words - Creating High-Impact Online Copy.

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