Your Customers Don't Care About What's Wrong With Your Technology

Apr 18, 2012

Imagine you offer a service to the public over the Internet. Users push a button on a website to get or start whatever you want them to eventually pay for. It takes 10 seconds or more before anything comes back. Frustrated with you they go to a competitor and they deliver less but do it in under a second. Who gets the business?

Now they complain in emails, tweets and comments about how crappy your service was. So you tell your CEO when he/she asks why: "Our servers are too slow; our caching systems aren't aggressive enough; the mainframe can't keep up with traffic; our database needs tuning; our software is too old".

You know what, the users could care less! They want service and you offer great (and maybe even truthful) excuses. Your competitors take advantage and you look like a chump.

Face it, no matter what the reason is someone who wants to do business with you isn't the slightest bit interested in what is making your service slow, or lack functionality, be unreliable or maybe even be unavailable. Even if you (as in whoever supports/creates/runs the show) have no control over anything, someone somewhere in your organization does. They had better get with it and make things work or find someone who can or customers will simply go elsewhere.

No matter how great you think you are it doesn't matter a bit if your customers (or likely ex-customers) disagree.

Now it is possible your competitors are all in the same boat so you think you are safe. Forget it, technological businesses that suck are ripe targets for new competitors who don't make excuses and give your customers what they want. Even one of your competitors might see the light and make major improvements or try better approaches. If all you have is excuses you will get run over. It's guaranteed.

Today everyone is so used to going to Google, typing a few words and getting immediate results. The results even proudly mention the search took "0.17 seconds". How well would Google have done if they started off taking 10 seconds and didn't get any faster? Nowhere. Yet I see lots of places where results come back in 10, 15 or even 20 seconds. On the internet if I as a user push a button and it takes longer than 1 second (assuming the network is fast) I start to get antsy. 10 seconds and I go to Google and find somewhere else. 20 seconds and I grow cobwebs.

Imagine if Amazon took 20 seconds to return a search? Would they be so big today? What if an Amazon search only returned results 90% of the time? Would you shop there?

Sure there are excuses for your systems and some of them are valid like you have no control over anything and all your data comes from elsewhere. Still, someone somewhere in your organization needs to care. I know it's easy in large companies (especially banks and insurance companies) where there are giant disconnects between those who face the public and those who control the data or systems or whatever backs what you are providing. If whoever runs the place doesn't care then someday you will be out of a job.

Steve Jobs never allowed anyone to make excuses and Apple's success is a direct result. The buck stopped with him and if he felt the end result (customer satisfaction and loyalty) was compromised the buck likely wound up upside your head. He made people think creatively to solve seemingly intractable problems. I'm sure people hated being yelled at for offering what seemed like a reasonable excuse for why something wasn't fast enough or smooth enough or even doable. He knew perfectly well that anti-gravity feature wasn't possible but he wanted people to find solutions that they would otherwise have never considered.

Sadly most companies don't have leadership that sees the bad, hears why but encourages or demands every possible solution to make things work better. What usually happens is lethargy, politics, ego or even fear keeps slow, unreliable or unusable services or products available to the public. If you are lucky no competitor is any better. But that never lasts for long.

Look at the phone industry circa 2006. Crappy phones cheaply made and ineptly marketed. Enter one iPhone. All of the market leaders from 2006 are now dead, dying or sold for pennies. Huge well known companies who assumed the competition was never going to change and no one would be able to do anything different. Good night, ladies.

For me, anything I do on the internet that isn't as fast as Google is a problem that has to be fixed. People expect internet time and don't care why they can't get it. Nothing you tell them will ever change that.

Anything I use I want to function reliably. I don't care that you back up your database on Friday night because that's when the admin has time and all the web apps start throwing random exceptions because they don't want to be bothered shutting them down (I worked there). I don't care your searches are terribly slow because some moronic security guy insists that your Oracle database servers should run anti-virus software (worked there, same place!). I pay you to process my data today, not tomorrow because your apps leak like a sieve and you have to restart them many times a day so it takes 26 hours to process it every 24 hours (I worked there and pointed out the leak but you wouldn't fix it because it might make you look bad). I want to give you money for your service but I can't because your system is so old it won't let me order the new features (I worked there briefly and many years later you still haven't figured out how to do it). I could go on.

I might know what's wrong, I might understand your reasons, I might even sympathize with the pain, but most users don't understand, don't care and will voice their displeasure or more likely go elsewhere. It's your business and someone there needs to realize that if you don't fix what's wrong, the user's business and money and attention will go elsewhere. Technology waits for no one. Ask Kodak. Ask Nortel. Without Steve Jobs you could have asked Apple in 1998.

Take a look at your internet, software or other product offerings and see if they are insanely great compared to every competitor you have. Imagine a weakness and a new competitor who will kick your butt over it and go there first. Fight excuses with imagination. Fight politics with whatever you can muster. Remember customers and users have money and you want some of it but know they won't give you any if someone else pleases them more. Losing money to smarter and more nimble competitors can be a mighty big club. Apple didn't become the world's most valuable company by playing it safe and being just as good as everyone else.

So the next time you read a customer complaint about how slow you service is, how unreliable things are or why things don't work, send them a detailed set of excuses. I can guarantee they will still think you suck.