Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Tension around the "customer"

My apologies for being absent lately. A bike accident (I hit a pedestrian while pumping home late one night) and the flu (down and out for half a week) left me scrambling to catch up. Nearing the end of the winter quarter, papers and projects are due.

One of my recent assignments delivered an entrepreneurial-minded quote that I thought was important to modern news organizations. It came from Shai Agassi, head of software development for SAP, the third largest software company in the world, based out of Germany. He's the Palo Alto office, and likely the future head of SAP worldwide. So in Silicon Valley, he's hot stuff.

Agassi emphasizes the customer's experience. If SAP can make the "end-user's" experience wonderful, that's a good, competitive thing to accomplish.

Here's the quote:
Sandhill.com: Do you have advice to share with other software executives?

Agassi: It is important to think "out-of-the-box" as much as possible. By that I mean, software executives need to always bring in the perspective of the customer and remember that our business is about what the customer wants to consume, not what we are trying to build. You need to picture what the customer sees when he opens the box - not what you put into it. Think about what you can do to simplify consumption of your product - that is the best thing you can do for your customers.

Creating a good customer experience is pivotal. The competitive climate demands it. Newspapers can benefit from some of this entrepreneurial thinking, by seeing themselves as their customers see them. Do your customers find you useful, necessary, compelling? Or boring, static and not enough? What are they telling you about their user experience?

For sure, newspaper Websites have to be user-friendly, fast-loading, intuitive to navigate, the very best in the business. But what those pages contain is more critical than just an excellent user interface.

News organizations have to find a way to give their customers what they don't know they want. Or even think they don't want, like eat-your-peas public policy reporting. It's a sophisticated and strategic calling.

Watching the Frontline's News War is sobering. I'm thinking here of the interview with the head of ABC News as he defends the kinds of titillating stories Dateline has turned to -- moms and their teen daughters learning to pole dance, or the hunt for sexual predators. Lowest common denominators, for sure; information evaluated as entertainment. If customers get to define news, does it mean 24/7 of Anna Nicole Smith, as cable recently delivered?

Of course there's a higher calling to news; we've always known that. It takes leadership and commitment to get there, and in this ultra-entrepreneurial era, commercial success.

I just got a copy of "News Values: Ideas for an information age" by Jack Fuller. It was written in 1996, and we're still asking the questions he posed in his introduction:
How much should newspapers reflect the beliefs of the communities they serve? How much should they provide moral leadership? What is the proper relationship between journalism and marketing? Journalism and profit-making?

Like our software entrepreneur, Fuller's pragmatically paying attention to the customer:
For the most part I have tried to locate the news values in the desires and interests of the American audience.

But he sees a big difference, a big danger.
It is often said that a society gets the press it deserves. I am not sure about that. But I know that in the end it gets a press no better than it wants. ... If the public is led to accept shoddy or dangerous goods, the public will prevail. So it is up to the newspapers to make news values compelling enough that people will see in them their deeper interests.

"Shoddy and dangerous goods." That's a scary and disturbing description, a catalyst to keep pushing for quality in these uncertain times.
The danger is that newspapers will patronize their customers, or assume their classic and now outdated role of information "gatekeeper." Here's where the concept of a new partnership with the customer might take hold -- a joint definition of needs.
I'm gonna keep reading Fuller's book, and promise to share what I learn there. I hope he has convincing guidance on where to go from here.

3 comments:

Palm Springs Savant said...

hey there...enjoyed reading your blog. btw- I had the flu last week...wiped me out!

stop by and say hi sometime
www.rickrockhill.blogspot.com

Peter said...

Tell us when you hit Anna Nicole on your bike, and then get a celebrity lawyer.

Pete D-S

Vindu said...

Kathleen,

I think we have to give the public what it wants, but what it wants most of all is great story-telling.

Sure, there's a voyeuristic interest in the lives of celebrities. But people also like the human tales of individuals triumphing against adversity. They like dramatic political tales of chicanery and courage. And they like the quirky stuff. And they like to learn new things.

The trick always -- and it's never easy in our business -- is to tell those stories in a compelling way.

Nice job on the blog, by the way. I'm glad you're being productive on your fellowship!

Vindu Goel
Editorial Writer & Blogger
San Jose Mercury News
http://www.mercextra.com/blogs/vindu