freewheeling about the customer in the flesh and online


Have you ever been put off shopping by an over-zealous assistant? If you have, then have you considered how you feel when that over-zealous assistant is not flesh-and-bone but instead only in digital form? Some people find the analogue version an irritant; yet others groan at the digital equivalent. And so that brings me to Customer Rule #1: Don’t hassle me while I’m just looking; not unless I ask you for help.




This does not mean that store assistants are unwanted. In fact they provide a really worthwhile function, as long as they know useful stuff about the store: where you go to find stuff; where you can try stuff, test stuff, compare stuff; how you buy; how you pay; how you take delivery; anything and everything. But only when you want it. I think of store assistants as analogue equivalents of search boxes, and often nicer to deal with. But I wouldn’t want the search engine in my face except at my behest. And this brings me to Customer Rule #2: When I ask for help, please make sure you’re in a position to help. Especially if you’re a search box. Too often I visit the search function of a site and it can’t find zip. Even though what I’m looking for is on the site.




If you’re in the business of selling stuff, then people who come and browse till the cows come home and never buy anything can be the bane of your life. And so there are a bunch of ways you can get your own back on the customer. You can leave fragile things in easy-to-knock-into places, under a big sign that says if you break it you pay for it. You can seal things so that they’re hard to inspect. You can place them “behind glass”. You can even try and get people to pay for browsing, with a “just looking” fee. These are all excellent techniques to use … if your goal is to frustrate the customer. We’ve all felt this pain in the real world: the harder you make it for me to find something, to get to something, the less likely it is that I’ll buy something. And so we have Customer Rule #3: Make sure there is a good reason for putting your products and services “behind glass”.


It’s not just the products and services that get put behind glass. Sometimes it’s the doors and entryways. Businesses love their customers so much that they put them through some sort of benighted IQ test before they can buy stuff. Want to enter our site? Prove you’re not a machine. [Alan Turing would have found that interesting, the idea of a human having to prove he’s human via a test]. I love the way Randall Munroe makes that point in his excellent xkcd webcomic:




Think about this: how many telephone numbers do you remember “by heart” right now? And how many did you know twenty years ago? We used to have to memorise lots of numbers at one time; now we don’t have to any more. When we want someone’s number, we look up the person’s name. Nothing complicated about it. And, most of the time, we don’t even need to see that number, we just click and away we go. That’s what we started doing when mobile devices started getting smarter.

So the next time you ask a customer to remember twelve or sixteen digits as a prerequisite for her doing business with you, think about what you’re doing. Why not ask them to recite pi to 16 digits before she is “allowed” to buy something from you, or, heaven forfend, try and pay a bill….. try and pay you some money? Which leads me to Customer Rule #4: Try not asking customers to memorise stuff about you; instead, try to remember stuff about them.



I can’t remember the number of times I’ve walked in to a shop, both online as well as off-, only to be put off by all the stuff I have to do before I can actually buy something. Most of the time I’ve had one reaction. A predictable reaction. I’ve just walked away and found somewhere else to go about my business. Registration should be something lightweight and simple. Time for Customer Rule #5: If you make it hard for customers to do business with you, don’t be surprised if they fail in the attempt.
People have done business with each other for centuries, even millennia. They buy from each other, they sell to each other. They do so principally because they trust each other, because they’ve bothered to invest in a relationship between each other, because they have some understanding and some respect for each other.

Over those millennia, they’ve evolved ways of doing this simply and effectively. For some reason, we seem to think we can treat people differently in digital space.

Maybe we can. Maybe for some people it doesn’t matter. For me it matters. I want people to make it simple and convenient for me to do business with them. And if they don’t, I will find people who do.

How about you? Do you agree with what I’ve said? Does it match with your experience and expectation? Let me know. Your comments will determine whether I write a follow-up post on queueing time and baskets and trolleys and payment and delivery and all that….. or not, as the case may be.


12 thoughts on “freewheeling about the customer in the flesh and online”

  1. Becoming even more important in the digital market place. KISS is the keyword. Customers will return to easy sites with current information.
    Not that there is any rush, so many still can’t get a decent connection.

  2. I agree, especially with #5. I think people mostly been doing business with each other over the last few hundred years, so we are still looking for good ways to replicate the ways of trusting each other online.
    For example the good old looking in the eye or asking for a reference from someone I already trust works well in a small community, but is more prone to fraud online. Digitally it’s hard to know – or trust – that I’m really dealing with the person who is whom he says he is.
    Also, when I find a way that seems to be ‘good enough’ (not pisses that many people off and technologically viable at the time) I start using it, then it becomes trusted (‘we’ve been doing it for a while’) and inertia takes care of the rest.

  3. Thanks for writing and sharing this piece JP.
    My take is that nearly all businesses are still built inside-out, and are based on the principle that the customer appears in the businesses processes, rather than vice-versa. If this is where people are starting from then it’s no wonder that the customer’s experience isn’t great.

  4. Great post JP, I agree 100% — you should make it easy for your customers to do business with you and continue that relationship all through the product lifecycle. If the customer is evaluating your product for purchase, give them all the help they need at the touch of their fingertips to fall in love with what you are selling. As soon as they buy the product, continue that relationship and make it easy to own the product. For example, give them help installing it or using it. And of course continue to help them if they have a customer service issue. Help them all along the way.

  5. Duncan Hart’s comment is spot on!

    And usually the bigger the company the further away from the frontline are those departments or employees tasked with setting up the online or offline experiences for customers.

    No wonder those companies that are already recognising they’re doing it wrong are turning their heads into the fields of user experience and design thinking to develop new approaches and internal mindsets.

  6. I have to agree, but would add that it is often service that engenders trust, and bmost traditional commercial encounters involve some level of service, even purchases of tangible products like cars, and books. The shop assistant adds a key service element to the tangible product sold, in addition to warranties, delivery, wrapping etc. This is less true of internet shopping, which is often still reduced to a commoditised comparison exercise albeit with delivery rolled in. You won’t get far just by making it easy to do business, you need to add enough service value to offset the inevitable transaction cost. Don’t confuse low transaction cost with high service either.

  7. taking out frictions and latencies is irrelevant unless you keep/improve product and service quality at the same time. make shoes, not money.

  8. Developing freewheeling customer online sites is hard because platforms for horizontal businesses are few and far between. Leaving brands to roll their own and reinvent the wheel over (and over) again on nearly every aspect. Registration, search, shopping basket, fulfillment logistics, privacy.

    Unless you’re a small business and want to use Amazon or eBay (and give up your brand). Also good luck integrating in vertically your ERP. And, double good luck integrating in horizontally with your business partners ERP.

    I’ve come to believe we need one fundamental architectural change. Replacing business systems (even current online systems), with personal clouds as the primary abstraction for both people and businesses. “pcloud” will allow us to scale horizontally and vertically without reinventing the wheel, without having to play games with customer lock-in, or serve up crappy user experiences because we spent all our development resources on online basics.

Let me know what you think

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