The Customer Is Sometimes Right

As part of the consultancy work I do, I have the great pleasure and privilege to work with most important, high-profile clients, sometimes to conduct product review processes on their behalf. On a couple of recent projects, an understanding of the status quo was required, combined with an appreciation of the ways in which the products are used and will, most likely, be so in the future. These were to be analysed and measured against industry trends and perceptions and converted into strategic plans for their evolution. The projects were conducted well, I believe and clear directions, pointing out potential risks and challenges, were submitted. Reasonably obvious methodologies to assist in defining and understanding user needs were by way of direct customer contact, using structured forms of questioning to elicit responses and opinions on the matters in issue. 

It might be considered intuitive that to develop an existing or new plan, it would be the height of arrogance and stupidity not to speak to customers. Indeed, in those particular cases in question, such processes were employed successfully.That said, I cannot help but wonder if we, as consumers, always have the answers and, by implication, are absolutely certain as to what’s best for us.

There are so many areas in which I neither know nor care about details or methodologies behind the production of goods and services that I value. However, I do expect others to know and be obsessed by them and to deliver them optimally to me. This might be the case in relation to some aspects and outputs of legal and professional publishers. It would not surprise me if, for the most part, the industry’s clients, such as librarians, professional advisers, corporate officers, academics and students, have better things to think about than ponder on the tactics and strategies behind their tools of knowledge. Certainly, for some such customers, such as practising lawyers, accountants and tax advisers, it might be downright irresponsible for them to spend too much of their thinking and writing time worrying about their publications, online services and workflow tools. The job of managing billable hours and advising wealthy clients is so much more profitable and something about which they are more likely to have some useful expertise. Conversely, one might imagine that no one knows more about and is more focused on the minutia of their trade than the experts from within who dedicate their careers to competing successfully, for so long as that remains possible, for growth and profit. These are the people who have the most to gain or lose from success or failure and who have nothing better to do than address it. Yet, the received wisdom is that it’s better to find ten or a hundred people who don’t know the first thing about it and act on their views.

Of course, one mustn’t go to extremes and it would be wrong to suggest that customers should be ignored and shunned (some legal publishers find and take many other opportunities to do that!). It is insightful to view Wolters Kluwer’s current CEO speak on having “navigated the journey” and engaging with customers for purposes of product development ( Communication, feedback and the testing of ideas are usually good in principle, so long as it is not forgotten where the responsibility lies to produce and deliver the innovative products and services in question. Furthermore, in my experience, I have rarely seen structured customer product or service feedback that is enormously incisive, shocking or surprising. For the most part it tends to be predictable and ought to have been predicted by those who have the task of publishing for a particular market. For example, one doesn’t need to question customers to discover that the compact disk or DVD are delivery media that have not much of a future, as was the case with loose-leaf some years ago. If one asks the question, one will learn those truths and that for the immediate future, the only effective delivery medium is online. One will discover that appropriate and relevant added value is critical but in every aspect, not just functionality and search engine optimisation and that commoditised content is no longer thought to carry significant financial value, with customers can increasingly expecting online services to deliver a mix of content, documentation, workflow tools and guidance. Simple logic dictates that if one asks existing customers what they think of one’s products and services, most will express satisfaction or else they would have found another supplier, a corollary of which is that most like what they are receiving and can’t think of much to change about it. If asked the question, most sane people would say that in the future they would prefer to pay less or the same rather than more and that they don’t want to pay for what they don’t use or want. They are likely to confirm that more is better than less, frequent better than infrequent but not necessarily at significantly greater cost and that in most cases, uncomplicated and clear is better than over-complicated and obscure. Least surprising of all is that customers, if asked, will confess that they value intelligence (where it can be found), honesty, integrity, clarity, value for money, quality and speed, together with having warm sentiments in favour of parenthood and fruit-based pâtisserie.

It seems to me that if I have to ask my customers what I should do next, I might be accused of not knowing what I’m doing. More important, by working with customers and understanding their needs and objectives, is to know what they do now and will be doing next and then calculate how to be able to intervene in there activities and help them achieve their goals optimally and more profitably. For such purposes, there is no doubt that the customer needs to be courted and consulted quite intensively. Much has been written about the thought processes and vision behind such innovations in their respective days as tablet computers, social media sites, minivans/MPVs and hula hoops and how no focus group would have any part to play in their invention. That (or if) John Burke of Sweet and Maxwell in 1947 allegedly created Current Law in order to give himself something to do while watching cricket, mixing business with pleasure, would be testimony to the fact that great ideas emerge for all sorts of reasons. Likewise, the next product or service that will astound us is being developed now by people who are much more reliant on their own vision and expertise than on accommodating the compromises of historical experience, for all its great worth. Just by way of example, whether or not this agrees with or differs from the statement from Wolters Kluwer, from the video cited above, in which, perhaps supporting their statement that they don’t have to create new content, it is said “we now have more software engineers at Wolters Kluwer than we have editors and in our world editors were kind of the kings of the kingdom, certainly for many years”, might make for debate.

Arguably, one of the enigmas we face is the conceptual clash between the easy access to and availability of opinions and advice from every conceivable source, especially with (often excellent) blogging opportunities on many web sites. A risk is that there is a great deal of noise that can create a degree of power without responsibility. So, while it’s interesting to know what everybody else thinks, advises and has to say, sometimes an informed decision simply has to be taken and executed.


  1. David Johnston

    Nice piece Rob

    I found a concept from military strategy useful in these circumstances:
    “no plan ever survives first contact”.
    Or in other words once the bullets start flying SNAFU usually becomes the order of the day.
    Service and product development – and on up to business strategy – and then on to corporate strategy always has to bear this in mind.

    Our job was and is always to make sure that the ‘lines of communication’ are not too stretched, or where they have to be, they are resourced adequately, skilled up and trained to the hilt. The hard bit is almost always having to do this ‘off plan’ ie with no resources, support, cash or encouragement… in the dark, tired, hungry and under threat.
    Twas ever thus I guess.

    But I pity the masters graduates who still come up, fresh faced as Candide, expecting their spreadsheet to mean a damn.

    Customers are the reward when you finally get things close enough to ‘brilliant’ – aka ‘bleeding obvious’ for the cash to flow. You do have to include them in the deliberations and plans, but they are often the first ones to turn tail and behave oddly when the muck and bullets are flying.

    It’s hard – always has been.
    Never more so than now.


  2. Many thanks David. Much appreciated.

    Trust you, of course, to go for the military metaphors- take the boy out of Belfast etc. – but, more of a peacenik, I do agree that when you see the customers numbers reducing, which is frequently the case, it ought to be an indicator of something unpleasant. It becomes a bit too late to ask them to complete a questionnaire at that stage.

    I’m about to submit a Slaw column entitled “CDs and DVDs Going in the Way of Loose-leaf Services”. It amazes me how the publishers cling to their old, redundant technology for so long to milk the cash cows and then wonder why the customers have deserted them.

    Just don’t shoot them would be a good starting point, I guess!