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Grow Your Business Sales & Marketing

The Customer as King is Dead, Long Live the User


The reign of the customer is over, says Aaron Shapiro, the CEO of digital marketing agency Huge.  Today it's the user who sits in the catbird's seat. If you're not thinking about users, Shapiro says, you'll soon be out of business. To succeed in the digital marketplace, you have to be a user-first company.

Users are the customers, employees, job candidates, business prospects and partners, brand fans, members of the media and other influencers who interact with a company through digital media and technology. What unites them is that they all want the same thing: simplicity.

In his new book, "Users, Not Customers: Who Really Determines the Success of Your Business" (Portfolio, 2011), Shapiro shows why usability is today’s most critical driver of business success. Keep users happy, he believes, and customers follow.

Shapiro explained to BusinessNewsDaily how a user-first framework can help create a high-performing organization that's in tune with how people want to do business.

BND: Is the difference between a "user" and a "customer" as important for small businesses as it is for large enterprises?

Shapiro: It’s important for all businesses. First of all, in this day and age, small businesses often compete directly with large enterprises. Consider Google Shopping: Search for a product and small sellers come up right next to the likes of Wal-Mart and Sears. Same thing happens when you search for a product on Amazon: Independent booksellers come up right next to books that Amazon sells directly. Search for architecture firms and businesses big and small, local and national will show up in the search results. Everyone is competing for the same dollar, and it's users making those purchasing decisions . Users are the people who interact with businesses through digital media and technology, and often these interactions precede any decision to buy.

BND:  Can a successful business have both users and customers?

Shapiro: A successful business in the digital age has users who are customers, as customers who aren’t users are a significantly shrinking consumer base. A user becomes a customer once they have completed their online research and made a purchase. Attracting users who are customers comes down to understanding core user needs and providing users with experiences that help them meet these needs, as they pertain to your specific business, quickly and easily. No user wants to waste time wondering how to navigate a website, distracted by an irrelevant ad, or waiting for a page to load.

BND: What do you recommend for companies with limited physical and financial resources?

Shapiro: Becoming a user-first business doesn’t take a lot of money. Millions of dollars would help, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not essential. One strategy can be to hire a small number of digital-savvy staffers – people with experience programming, designing user-friendly experiences and managing digitally driven projects – to create a digital infrastructure for the company. This infrastructure should empower the larger team to use digital media to achieve their goals while structuring the external experience so outside users always get a pleasurable experience. If this is too big of an order, rest assured many valuable tools are available for free.



BND:  Is the distinction between user and customer more important in some industries than in others?

Shapiro: Users are essential to businesses in every sector. The majority of people today – whether they’re hunting for jobs, looking for new business partners or researching a million-dollar enterprise purchase – are users. Make it hard for a job hunter to apply to your company online, a new business prospect to learn about you, a procurement executive to understand your product, the further behind you’ll be.

BND: What are the key ingredients in a user-centric approach to business?

Shapiro: This is going to sound hokey, but the number one ingredient is love. If you make something that you really care about and really love, users will love it, too. Think about the experiences online that you love to use: You like them because of all of the little things that make them simple, intuitive and great.

BND:  Where do you begin?

Shapiro: You get (or train yourself to be) a great user-centric manager, someone who uses research and market insights to develop frictionless interactions between the company and its users. This job requires someone who has strong project management skills, an understanding of technology enough to evaluate expert recommendations and manage expectations, and the pragmatism to get the job done but the charisma and evangelism to rally the company around the initiative. What’s more, they must be able to influence the organization at large, not just the digital department; user-centric businesses think about users in everything from product design, marketing, sales and customer service as well as its own internal organizational structure and technology purchases.

BND: How do you create a culture that supports digital transformation and a shift in focus from customer to user?

Shapiro: The number one thing a business needs to create a culture that supports a user-first digital transformation is clear and present support from the absolute highest levels of management. This signals to digital talent that the company is serious about changing and therefore listening to their advice and implementing their work, and it signals to other employees that they need to play along.

BND:  What traits should you look for in recruiting future leadership? How do those skills and attitudes compare with traits that were desirable in the past?

Shapiro: Leadership as much as possible should value digital media and technology to the point that they understand how the Internet works, what is and isn’t technically possible or feasible for the company, what steps are necessary in creating a user-first digital experience, and how digital products are maintained. For example, take maintenance. Consumer behavior , especially when it comes to expectations of technology, changes fast. However, leadership often approves lump sum influxes of cash every couple of years for finite large projects. But if the website isn’t constantly monitored and iteratively improved throughout its lifetime, it grows increasingly out of date and irrelevant, leaving room for the better-managed sites of competitors to gain user affinity. Digital initiatives need a constant flow of funding to be successful. This is the type of knowledge leaders need to know—in addition, of course, to the core business expertise that brought them to the C-suite in the first place.

Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at nsmith@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.

Ned Smith

Ned was senior writer at Sweeney Vesty, an international consulting firm, and was Vice President of communications for iQuest Analytics. Before that, he has been a web editor and managed the Internet and intranet sites for Citizens Communications. He began his journalism career as a police reporter with the Roanoke (Va.) Times, and was managing editor of American Way magazine and senior editor of Us. He was a Captain in the U.S. Air Force and has a masters in journalism from the University of Arizona.