The organization is a tribe and the customer is a stranger. That's why it's so hard to be customer-centric.

Some years ago, HSBC Hong Kong had what they thought was a reasonably straightforward mortgage inquiry form. It had 17 fields requesting:

  • " Property information (address, price)
  • " Applicant information (name, occupation)
  • " Loan information (amount, repayment period, etc.)

They were getting 2 enquiries a week through the form. They felt that they could do better. They turned to Brett King, a friend of mine, who has just published an excellent book called Bank 2.0. Brett and his team convinced them to radically simplify the form.

They reduced the number of fields from 17 to 3: Name, Email and Phone number. The simplification process met some resistance. People said that the old form gathered data that integrated well into the internal system. People felt that the new form would encourage frivolous enquiries from the likes of Donald Duck and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

They finally launched the new form. There was no publicity or special promotion, so the basic number of visitors to the mortgage pages remained the same. However, enquires jumped from 2 per week to 180 per week. And yes, they did indeed get mortgage requests from Arnie. Despite such frivolous enquires, new mortgage business directly connected with the new, simpler online form reached $20 million in the first quarter after its release. With the old form they were doing less than $1 million a quarter.

The HSBC team then thought they should tackle travel insurance. 2% of travel insurance applications at this time were coming through the web channel; they wanted to double that. So they looked at the application form. It took just 2 weeks to redesign the website into a single 1-page application form. It took 4 months to get the compliance and legal department to sign off on the change, because they didn't like the simple approach -- it lacked the detail they were used to. So how did that go? HSBC now receives more than 75% of their applications for travel insurance online.

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The essential challenge of the Web is to become customer-centric. To truly succeed on the Web the organization must shape itself around the customer. This is very difficult for any organization to do because at heart all organizations are tribes. And the one thing a tribe does not like to do is shape itself around the stranger, the outsider.

The customer is a stranger, an outsider, and the customer is more in charge on the Web than the organization is. This is the essential shift in power and control that organizations must embrace if they are to thrive on the Web. The customer isn't just king anymore. The customer is dictator. Impatient and always in a hurry.

If you simplify things for the customer then they will respond positively. That's easier said than done because simplifying for the customer requires creating extra complexity for the organization. Nobody likes to have their job made more complex. What is even more problematic is when something you do to make life easier for your customers makes life harder for one of your colleagues. That makes you unpopular within the tribe.

I once overheard a Starbucks regional manager berate a server. Seemingly the server was handing out lattes that weren't fully foamed up to the top. The manager pointed out that people paid a lot for their lattes and expected them to be perfect every time. "Why did you not hand it back and request that it be properly filled up," the manager asked? "Did you think that you would become unpopular with your colleagues? Always, always remember, the customer is out there, outside the counter, not in here, inside the counter."