A friend told me once that as he gets older, he becomes less certain about many things, but more certain about a few things. I’m increasingly feeling the same way, especially on a day – like today – that marks a milestone.
Eighteen years ago today, I started Creative Good.
I was living just outside New York City in a small apartment where I sat down at a desk – actually the same desk I’m using as I type this today – and began writing. Most websites were too hard for people to use, and I intended to help companies improve. I had almost no money, almost no business experience, and very little idea of what I was doing – beyond a belief that companies could perform better if they paid more attention to their customers.
Now 18 years, two boom-and-bust cycles, and several hundred projects later, I can say confidently: we’ve done good work helping companies include their customers. But most companies still, urgently, need to improve.
I’ll admit that questions sometimes gnaw at me: am I sure we’ve been right? Is the customer experience really as important as I’ve always said? Is it possible that looking at things from the customers’ perspective is just a sideshow, a nice-to-have diversion, a secondary detail to the real work of generating profits?
Take, for example, JetBlue’s recent changes. The famously customer-friendly airline – exceptional in an industry dominated by not-so-customer-friendly giants – is bringing in a new CEO, and a new direction. The changes come amidst Wall Street complaints saying that – get this – JetBlue is “an overly brand-conscious and customer-focused airline.” Wow. Overly customer-focused.
The problem, apparently, is that JetBlue could extract more profit from customers by treating them poorly – much like some of their competitors. Tim Wu, writing for the New Yorker, explained “why airlines want to make you suffer,” nailing it with this conclusion: “When an airline like JetBlue is punished for merely trying to treat all of its passengers decently, something isn’t right.”
Of course, market forces in the airline industry are a lot more complicated than some kind of simple battle between good and evil. For one thing, customers themselves play a part in these developments by shopping primarily for the lowest base fare. Expedia, Travelocity and the rest tend to arrange their results to spotlight the lowest fare – which, in turn, is the decision of a product manager trying to give customers what they want. Cheap but uncomfortable seating is what customer behavior might indicate that people want (bringing to mind the old adage, “voters get the politicians they deserve”). It’s complicated.
And yet. This is not the first time customers have played a part in what ends up being a customer-hostile system. Think back to how smartphones, before the iPhone, used to be designed and sold. Manufacturers sold shiny devices with complicated, hard-to-use interfaces because that’s what buying behavior seemed to indicate customers wanted. Until the iPhone was designed (which I write about in my book). If you enjoy using an iPhone, you’re holding proof that there is always, always, room for a company with a long-term approach: giving customers something better than what’s available today, something customers deserve more than the standard poor treatment coming from short-term competitors, something that customers will want, and buy, even if they don’t explicitly ask for it beforehand.
So I still believe in my founding vision of Creative Good. The better that companies treat customers – as fellow human beings who deserve a good customer experience, as we would want for ourselves – the better those companies will perform, over the long run. I have staked my career on this belief, which is why I wrote a book on the idea, why I run a conference spotlighting people who do it right (coming up again in April!), and why my team helps companies put this idea into practice.
And after 18 years, I thank you for being a part of it.