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Ask for help from your critics

I’m still in the middle of reading Outside-in Software Development, which reminded me that one of the easiest ways to improve a software product is to involve customers who hate the one you sold them already. Certainly you need to listen to other kinds of customers also, but you might be surprised at how eagerly your worst critics will drop everything when they think you are listening.

This technique works for Web sites, too—for both your real customers and the other folks in your company whom your Web site must please. Often, you’ll know that your Web site isn’t working for a major constituent group—you’ve heard the complaints. It might be an important group of customers, or perhaps it’s an internal stakeholder group (such as the product managers for your top-selling product line).
The natural behavior for a lot of us in that situation is to be defensive (not you or me, of course—other people). We say, “Well, the site is working for everyone else—you’re the only ones complaining.” Or, “If we did exactly what you want, then it would break the experience for everyone else.” Or (my personal favorite), “If you think this job is so easy, then maybe you should try doing it for awhile.”
These rejoinders might make us feel self-righteous. They might even successfully push the critics away (for a while), but they don’t serve to make things any better. They don’t open up true dialogue to figure out what to do. They keep the discussion in terms of what happened or why it happended instead of the crucial, “What do we do now?”
Instead of defensiveness, we need to admit that everything we do is somewhat wrong. Nothing is ever perfect, much as we wish it was. When someone takes the time to criticize what we do, it means what we do is important to them—otherwise they wouldn’t bother. And we have the opportunity to listen and draw out more feedback, and maybe even get a few ideas.
Now, if all that was required was listening, your job would be rather easy. I realize that if you lined up all your customers end-to-end, that they would all point in different directions. So there’s no way to listen to everyone and do exactly what each one asks for—their needs conflict with each other and with your internal needs.
But how about involving the biggest critics in the ongoing work to improve your Web site? Why not show them early versions of what you are working on? Why not explain to them which ideas of theirs you tried, showing them the tests that worked and did not work?
I find that few critics turn down the opportunity of more involvement. Not all critics turn out to be useful in improving your design, but at the very least you diffuse some of their ire, because at least they know they have your ear. (I think I just discovered the “ear or ire” principle of customer relations.)
It’s more work to operate this way, but you might find that you get better ideas and happier customers. In the long run, you might even have fewer critics.

Mike Moran

Mike Moran is a Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also served as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website,, most recently as the Manager of Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He was a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research and is now a Senior Fellow of The Conference Board. A Certified Speaking Professional, Mike regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide

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