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5 Habits of Customer-Obsessed Companies

There's a reason ESPN, Google, and Zynga lead their industries. They're relentless about understanding their users. Here's how you can be too.
Zynga headquarters in San Francisco
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Companies that place a high value on digital user experience dominate their markets. I'm talking about companies like Intuit, ESPN, Facebook, eBay, LinkedIn, Zynga, Google, PayPal, FedEx, and Harley Davidson. I have seen first-hand how user-experience-obsessed companies operate—In consulting with these companies through my user experience research firm, AnswerLab. Here's how you can practice the same top five habits.

1.     Constantly learn about your customers and innovate

Companies that are focused on customer experience keep a constant eye and ear open to opportunities for innovation. They directly observe research sessions with their customers, where groundbreaking ideas can spring from the simplest of customer comments. They are relentless in seeking new research methods and techniques that ensure that they get a holistic perspective of their users' experiences. And, they are acutely aware of the competitive landscape, evaluating what already exists so that they can build something better. Innovation requires a constant willingness to be open to opportunity that reveals itself through research.

2.     Eliminate risk

You are just about to launch your new digital product, but you want to make sure there are no showstoppers. If this is when you are starting your user experience research, it is too late in the development cycle to make anything but cosmetic changes. Customer experience detractors found at this stage may result in lost conversion opportunities or worse—high costs of fixing problems so late in development.

Many user-experience-obsessed companies eliminate risk by learning about their customers at every stage of the development cycle. They employ a user-centered design process. Before anything is built, they find out what their customers need, determine how they can use their concepts and prototypes, and validate that their products and services meet expectations and improve customer perception.

3.     Spend a lot of time with your top customers, in particular

The most important way to eliminate risk from your development process is to understand everything possible about your customers, particularly your top customers. User-focused companies watch their customers in the wild—in their natural environments—to see how customers use their products and how their lives could be made better.

For example, a major e-commerce company, relies on a continuous monthly program to spend time with its top 100 customers to learn how they work, how the site fits into their workflow, and how the site could improve their processes. This isn't episodic or just when the company needs a particular question answered. It learns about its customers all the time.

This time with your top customers provides many benefits:

  • You get an opportunity to strengthen or repair your most valuable relationships. Even the most disgruntled customers are often surprised and delighted that a business attempts to understand their needs through direct interaction with them.
  • You gain visibility into the cutting edge of your business. Your top customers are often the first to embrace new trends and technologies, and they will be the first to hear about any innovations, competitive threats, or emerging strategies of which you should be aware.
  • You learn how to help the rest of your customers. These top customers got to where they are because they were able to seize opportunities, devise workarounds, or take advantage of resources that other customers did not. Understanding the history of your top customers can lead to insights that have an impact on all of your customers.

4.     Doggedly study the competition

To build the best digital experiences for your customers, you must know how and where they are setting their expectations for your products and services. Customers' expectations are constantly evolving based on other encounters they have on apps, tablets, mobile devices, and the web. As users come across other experiences, they will switch to the product or service that offers the best one.

User-experience-obsessed companies understand the fickle nature of their customers, and they constantly research user reactions to competitors' digital offerings. One of the largest credit-reporting firms in the United States worked with AnswerLab to study its competitors and learn how to build a better user experience than it already had. The research led to changes that resulted in a 240 percent increase in conversion and a 268 percent increase in average order size.

5.     Validate your concept before you build it

Some digital products are extremely expensive and resource intensive to build or redesign. They can cost millions of dollars and require one- to two-year development cycles. With investments of this magnitude, it is critical to first validate that your concept or idea will fly.

One of AnswerLab's user-experience-obsessed clients, a major bank, hypothesized that a new user experience would increase adoption of online bill payment. After conducting experimental user research to check the hypothesis, the bank learned that while the new version of the site would retain existing customers, the new interface did not drive adoption among those who had never used online bill payment. These customers' barriers to usage had little to do with the interface itself but rather the value proposition of paying bills online directly with the bank. As a result, while the bank moved forward with the redesign for existing customers, they developed alternative messaging for non-users to improve the perceived value. User-experience-obsessed companies know that when you invest a lot in development, you need to make sure your concept will solve the right problems for your customers.

Next week, check back for five more habits of customer-obsessed companies.

IMAGE: GMWDesign/Flickr
Last updated: Mar 2, 2012

AMY BUCKNER CHOWDHRY | Columnist

Amy is CEO of AnswerLab, a digital experience consultancy based in San Francisco and New York.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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