Editors Note: Lessons from listening to the customer

November 6, 2011

You can learn a great deal from your customers. Here at Capital Business, we get unsolicited advice all the time.

A couple weeks ago a reader asked if we could alphabetize our listings of federal contracts.

Duh! Why didn’t we think of that?

The next week, presto, we made the change. We even did our reader one better and alphabetized our weekly rundown of appointments and promotions as well.

A simple fix perhaps, but the episode taught an important lesson: It is not enough to just provide lists; if you want people to read them, to value them, make them accessible.

Another example: Before we published our first issue of Capital Business, we prepared a mock-up and circulated it around. We also sat behind a two-way mirror to watch and listen to people as they appraised the material.

We made lots of changes based on their feedback. Out went the cheesy society photos; in came more news and we beefed up coverage of nonprofits.

I tell these stories, not to pat myself on the back, but to acknowledge that I actually thought people liked cheesy society photos.

After all, a page full of grip-and-grins has long been a staple of business publications. Why not ours? It’s easy to get fixated on the competition.

So part of me can sympathize with Netflix and Bank of America and countless other companies that seemingly walk into trouble they could have avoided had they only consulted with the people who pay their bills.

Netflix ultimately decided to reverse its unpopular decision to separate its DVD business from its online movie streaming business, but not before watching thousands quit the service.

Bank of America, meanwhile, dropped plans for a debit card fee, along with several other major banks.

“We have listened to our customers very closely over the last few weeks and recognize their concern with our proposed debit usage fee,” said David Darnell, co-chief operating officer at Bank of America, according to a story on the company’s about-face by Washington Post staff writer Ylan Mui.

Put another way: The customer is always right.

Dan Beyers is the founding editor of Capital Business, The Washington Post’s go-to source for news about the region’s business community.
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