Being successful today means being with the customer. The closer you are to the customer the more power and influence you have. 

I used to know an editor of a specialist magazine. He spent four days of every week with his readers. He talked to them, listened to them, observed them. Only on Fridays did he come into the office. He was a very successful editor.

I met him years later. He had been excited by the web and had taken a job as a web editor for a large website. But he wasn’t excited when I met him. He was frustrated and a bit depressed. Now, Monday to Friday he was in the office. He hadn’t seen a reader (customer) in a year.

The result? A bloated, ego-driven website, full of vain content and lots of unnecessary and hard-to-use features. A website that was really hard to navigate, almost impossible to search and pretty useless overall. And he knew it. He used to be an editor, refusing far more than he published because he knew exactly what his readers wanted from the four days a week he spent with them.

Now, he was a web professional. Another term for a web professional is a put-it-upper (from the Latin put-it-uppo). He was very good at putting stuff up.

This is a story I started telling around the year 2000. I didn’t think it would still be relevant in 2014. But unfortunately, it is.

For a great many web professionals the customer remains invisible. Of all the conferences and workshops I have done over the years, I can’t remember meeting a single web professional who spends four days of every week with customers. Not a single one.

Whatever culture web teams have it is rarely a culture centered on the customer. We must change that. Developing a culture of the customer is vital to our success. How to do that? First, we must develop a genuine will and desire to regularly interact with our customers. We need to hire people who are highly empathic and curious about people. We need less content people, less design people, less technology people and more people people.

But even when we develop the desire there will be barriers. Often, the organization doesn’t want the web team interacting too much with the customer. “Corporate design leaders have not typically grown up with that sort of power,” Robert Fabricant writes. “They are more diplomats than enforcers. Typically they need a strong partner in the exec suite to open the doors to key customers.”

Often, when web teams don’t have access to customers they invent personas. I worked with personas for years, and one day it struck me that I had never seen an ugly persona. Wherever there were pictures associated with personas, they were all beautiful people. Mythical people, fictional people, perfect customers -- who didn’t exist except in the minds of the web teams.

Personas increase the risk of feature bloat, according to Mike Long. He states that they are developed because:

  • The customer is missing or does not actually exist
  • The organizations has a preference for analyzing personas through the myopia of roles, job titles and demographics
  • The organization is unreasonably paranoid about engineers making decisions without empathy for customers

There is no substitute for regular interaction with real customers. When it comes to customers, you can’t beat the real thing.