If you’re still managing by the adage “the customer is king,” you’re already falling behind. Before today’s consumers open their wallets to become customers, they’re users—people who interact with businesses through digital media. Prior to making a purchase, they visit your site and your competitors’ sites to compare prices and shipping fees; they research product details and read user reviews and blogs. They get advice from their Facebook friends. They see if there’s a Groupon or LivingSocial deal that satisfies their need. For items spanning groceries to electronics, jewelry to legal needs, consumers are no longer reflexively reaching out to local stores and service providers. Even ads take them only as far as the company’s homepage or Facebook page.
In 2012, 50% of all US retail sales will be influenced by or transacted through digital media, according to Forrester Research. By 2014, this number is expected to increase to 53%. It will only rise higher as young people, who have never lived without the conveniences of Google Shopping, Amazon, and smart phones, grow up to earn plentiful incomes, manage family finances, and become the mainstream consumers in the country. If you’re not there ready and waiting to meet user needs when they start typing and tapping, you’ve lost the sale.
It’s no longer about meeting your customer needs above all else. First and foremost, you have to satisfy your users. To thrive in the digital age, companies must let go of their customer-centric management strategy and embrace user-centric management.
User-centric management is the natural evolution of a customer-centric management style, but optimized for the digital age. As a customer-centric manager listens to customers, understands their needs, and then develops products and messages accordingly, a user-centric manager executes this process in the digital sphere. Like a customer-centric manager puts customers first in all decision making, a user-centric manager puts users first.
Procter & Gamble has begun this shift. A. G. Lafley, the top leader at P&G throughout most of the 2000s, famously led with the motto “The Consumer Is Boss.” Accordingly, P&G’s investment in market research is unmatched. But when Lafley left the helm, P&G was struggling. Current chairman and CEO Bob McDonald looked to improve fortunes by aggressively pursuing an increased presence in digital media. In his 2010 letter to shareholders he pledged to make P&G “the most digitally enabled company in the world.” He wanted to connect with consumers on a one-to-one basis through digital media. In other words, he wanted the company to prioritize users.
Since this mandate, P&G has launched a number of notable digital initiatives that tap into user sensibilities. Perhaps most well-known is its 2010 effort to advertise Old Spice body wash. The campaign featuring the Old Spice man “the man your man could smell like” started as a funny TV commercial but culminated with the production of hundreds of short videos responding to user questions in real time over just a few days. This effort generated more than two billion media impressions. P&G also knows users want convenience. To that end, the company has begun selling its products directly through its own e-store.
The first step in any company’s transformation is to understand that fundamentally users want one thing: frictionless experiences. They don’t want to wonder where to click next, how to buy, or how long the page will take to load. They want to complete the task they set out to accomplish quickly and effortlessly. It’s the way this frictionless experience comes to life that must be tailored to the specific business. User-centric managers ask: What do users want from my company? To answer this question, they rely on extensive qualitative and quantitative user research as well as market insights.
Often this research reveals myriad areas ripe for improvement and growth. In addition, as employees from departments like sales, marketing, and human resources learn of the initiative, they will often request specific features that will better their department’s performance. A good user-centric manager has the discipline and pragmatism to decide which user needs should be prioritized and which to scrap. You can’t please them all.
Generally the best products are those that focus on one key user need and have simple features that meet that one need. Fewer features mean the ability to focus on making each one really great—and not overwhelming the project scope or users. The principal user need must also compliment business goals. This isn’t always an easy negotiation; user needs regularly conflict with business goals. For example, users want everything to be free, but businesses need to be profitable. The right user goal supports business goals rather than sacrificing them.
So far I’ve discussed two sides of what I call the User-Centric Management Triangle. User goals are on one side; business goals are another; and technical feasibility is on the third. When these three levers are properly balanced the area inside the triangle, profitability, is maximized.
User-centric managers must by definition launch digital initiatives. If the business decides to meet every user need or business goal at the expense of what’s technically feasible, nothing gets accomplished. A good idea is not enough; it must be able to be executed within budget and with available resources. Recognizing what is technically feasible is perhaps one of the greatest differences between a user-centric and customer-centric manager. User-centric managers must know enough about technology to be able to critically evaluate the recommendations of technicians and to be able to effectively manage the project. Without this expertise, the result is decision-making that’s disconnected from reality.
The best user-centric managers are charismatic evangelists of digital media—they get everyone in the company excited about what’s possible—but they only propose ideas that can be realized. Evangelism must be joined with pragmatism in order to build consensus among stakeholders—even those accustomed to customer-centric, brick-and-mortar strategies of yesterday.