Taking the WE Out of WEB

The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer. – Theodore Levitt, “Marketing and the Corporate Purpose”

A common event occurs when I sit with new clients and begin the process of establishing goals and developing core strategies for helping them move their business, business processes, and front- and back-end business services onto the Internet. As we sit across the conference table, company executives and strategy teams begin to lay out for me the corporate vision for their Net initiative.

“We want a site,” they tell me, “that does this, we want a site that does that, we want our site to do some other thing…” and so on. It doesn’t really matter what form “this,” “that” and the “other thing” take. It may be a site that presents invoices, helps sell product, presents product information, helps distribute newsletters, provides online customer support…

You all know the list.

I listen carefully. I never interrupt. I take notes. This is, after all, important information to serving the needs of my clients. It is, in fact, perhaps the second most important information I need to know before I begin to help architect a Net presence that achieves their goals.

Yeah… the second.

Because when they’re done telling me what they want on their web site and on their back-end Net, I lean back, put my glasses on the table and my fingers to my chin, and seeking to look as benignly professorial as I can, I respond.

“The thing that strikes me here,” I say, making this sort of wry thoughtful face that usually has my wife running to get me Pepto Bismol, “is that you have basically laid out in a lot of detail what you want on your web site.

“But tell me… what do your customers want on your web site?”

That usually puts one of those great you-could-cut-it-with-a-knife pauses in the conversation.

The first thing my clients do at this point is try to “interpret” what their customers want. That usually ends up in a kind of stab-in-the-dark brainstorming session where everyone has a different point of view (like the three blind men feeling different parts of the elephant).

And indeed, if you go around the table at your company and ask individual departments what your customers want, I daresay you’ll get very different answers too (this is what I call “traffic-accident marketing,” where everyone sees a different thing).

Ask Manufacturing and they will tell you that customers want better-built products. Ask Accounting and they will tell you they want more informative invoices. Ask Sales and they will tell you they want more up-to-date product information and faster deliveries.

What I say at this point is that the truth of the matter is twofold. One, everyone at the table is exactly right – the customer wants all those things. But two, and more important, I tell them that everyone at the table – CEOs, sales VPs, CIOs – is exactly the wrong person to ask what the customer wants.

I take a beat and watch the unsettled look on their faces. Then I say the magic words:

“Have you asked your customers what they want?”

That’s pause number two – the you-would-have-to-cut-it-with-a-chain-saw pause. And it usually begins the process of getting my clients to begin to think of what the web is really supposed to do, and more importantly, who it’s supposed to do it for.

You see, your web presence has nothing to do with you – it has everything to do with your customers. From better delivery of front-end services to more efficient back-end business processes, the web will help you create better products for your customers and provide better services for your customers at more competitive prices for your customers than ever before.

And there’s one way, and one way only, of finding out what your customers want. You have to ask them.

Because the raw facts of the matter are: When the browser meets the server it’s still all about what Professor Levitt wrote nearly 25 years ago – creating and keeping customers.

OK: Now it’s your turn in the web barrel. Have you asked your customers what they want to see on your web site, and what they want from the Net-enabled business relationship with you?

No?

Enough, I think, said.

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