Be the Customer

BAAPutting yourself in your customer’s place is the key to good product planning, design, development, and also, marketing. If you cannot see your product and its marketing from a customer’s perspective, it is likely to not go very far. However, I think just seeing your products by putting yourself in the shoes of your customers, probably doesn’t go far enough. You should actually be the customer. What do I mean with that? Let’s use a few examples to illustrate this.

I am a frequent traveller at several of the UK airports. There are so many things wrong with these airports. Most of these problems are probably very easy to fix and would cost little money. But they still persist. Examples are:

  • No screens displaying departure status where people actually sit. Examples are the sitting areas in Heathrow and in Gatwick airport. Essentially, there are few screens where there are seats and where there are screens there are few seats. What is that good for?
  • Total lack of clarity surrounding what is to be done at the X-ray machines. Laptop in the bag or out? What about liquids? Do I need to take off my belt? How about my shoes? So, why are there no big boards that explain it to people? Why do different lanes operate different procedures?
  • Why are the drugstores selling only bottles that are larger than 100ml when you are not allowed to take them on the plane on your return trip? Why should I buy a 250ml bottle of shampoo just to throw it away two days later? Particularly when all customers are continuously looking for smaller bottles and asking for them?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining about the airports. These are just examples I am using to make a point. Let’s use another, completely different example.

When Lou Gerstner joined IBM as CEO in 1993, the company was in huge trouble. It was at some point probably only a few quarters away from being either broken up or going bankrupt. You can read this very interesting story in Lou Gerstner’s book: “Who says Elephants can’t dance? Eventually, the company got turned around and today is very successful again. There are a number of important steps that were taken to get to that point. Read them up in the book. What is interesting for this article not what these steps were, but why these steps were implemented.

The major reason for why the company was turned around was that Lou Gerstner came to the company as an IBM customer. He didn’t actually understand the technology. Or the industry. Or the company itself. But he had been a senior executive at American Express for a long time and there, he was a very significant IBM customer. He actually understood what customers wanted because he was one. Using his experience as a customer, he turned the company around by refocusing IBM on customer needs. He basically rebuild the company in a way that he as a customer would have been happy with it.

So, the point of this article is not just to say that companies need to be customer focused. Of course they need to be and I also believe that most companies are customer focussed. The point I am making is that in order to be able to execute this, the people that operate the company have to have the customer experience themselves. They need to be the customers.

The easiest way to put yourself in your customers’ shoes is to be a customer.

I am sure that if BAA executives travelled just like their customers do, then their airports would be much better. I am also sure that if the people who worked at the airport used it as their customers do, the airport would work better. It took a customer of IBM to arrive to fix the company. Let’s hope BAA management fix the airports before that needs to happen.

Update: Heathrow Terminal 5 has opened today. Here are some impressions of the first users. I just love the comment about the Terminal not being very user friendly.

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2 thoughts on “Be the Customer

  1. I completely agree about the value of walking in your customers shoes but I’m not sure looking at airports is a clear example. BAA’s primary customers are the airlines, but they also spend a lot of time and money addressing government security requirements. Most of the security requirements don’t align with airline or customer interests and are arguably politically driven. Any thoughts about how you can ‘be the customer’ when the there are multiple customers and their needs are divergent?

  2. Hi Scott,

    yes, this is a good point. You always have a much more difficult life when you are dealing with multiple customer/user/stakeholder groups. For example, when you are a newspaper, you have the advertisers, the readers and your sources (for stories) that you need to deal with.

    I actually disagree with the airports being a bad example. Obviously, I don’t have the faintest idea of what the airlines want from the airport. But my guess would be that they would like to have low costs, ability to board passenger with maximum speed, few delays, etc. Beyond that, the airport needs to obviously cater to the passengers’ needs, because otherwise, they won’t fly with that airline from that airport.

    For example, Heathrow is just opening Terminal 5. I am wondering: “How do I travel there?” So I go to their website. It says: “Here is a link to website where you can see how the Underground connects to Terminal 5”. So I go to this website, but they don’t have Terminal 5. They only have 1, 2, 3, and 4.

    I am not quite sure whether this is good enough. So, if either the airlines (BA in this example) or BAA viewed this whole experience from my perspective and if they really cared, then this wouldn’t happen.

    The only way in which they could actually figure this out, however, would be to become an actual ‘customer’. They would actually have to do all the things that customers do to really understand what the airport could do better.

    For example, BAA could take three staff that they second to work at airlines, for example or to travel as passengers, so they can see all the stuff that doesn’t work from the other side. Preferably, these people only do this for a short period of time, so when new people come in, they have a different perspective. I guess this would save them so much cost, that three people’s salary is nothing by comparison.

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