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Click. There goes your customer

I’m always curious about the world, and so I have always been a news junkie. When I was growing up in Kenya, the only source of news was the daily newspaper. I would wait outside my father’s door for it every morning. How else would I know what was happening in the world?

Later, we got a television, but with a single local channel only. And so sitting down with parents and grandparents at 9.00 pm every evening to watch the day’s news became a ritual.

Then came the international weekly newsmagazines. I read and reread Time, Newsweek and the Reader’s Digest every week, wherever I could find them. I was a loyal customer for years and years.

That, however, was very much then. Today is completely different. I notice my son has never asked for a newspaper or newsmagazine, ever. Nor does he ever watch news on TV. But that’s not surprising. I barely do those things myself any more.

When I first discovered news apps on the mobile phone, I went for the big, established names: The Guardian, The New York Times. But their early apps were lame (as my son would say). The Telegraph, however, had a much better app at the time. It was easy to read on a mobile screen; looked good; loaded fast. And so I was gone, in a click. I ditched my lifelong news companions for a paper I had never touched as a print product.

But The Guardian and the NYT bounced back. They fixed their apps, made them elegant, easy to use, and affordable. And so I was back, in a click. Bye bye Telegraph. It was fun while it lasted, but it didn’t last.

Next, I discovered the news aggregator apps. Flipboard was brilliant. It gathered all the news in one place. It did it elegantly. It allowed you to customize your sources. It adjusted according to your usage. Brilliant. Click. I was in.

And then I came across Zite. It was even better at learning your behaviour and tailoring the news you saw. Importantly, it offered local news sources, not just global ones. Click. I was a Zite guy now. But then Flipboard saw the threat, and bought Zite. Now, it’s shutting Zite down. Damn. Flipboard claims to have learned how Zite customizes the news experience, and says it will use this technology to improve Flipboard. So far, I can’t see it. So I’m looking to jump again.

Along comes Apple. The great usurper of industries, the company that brings beautiful usability to every product it creates. I thought Apple News would be the one. But it isn’t. It’s ugly and opaque, and keeps offering me news I really don’t want. Click. I may love many Apple products, but I won’t use Apple News unless they fix it. Bye.

I trust you’re getting the point? The world of the online consumer is frighteningly unforgiving. The mobile user is extremely impatient with poor user experiences, and very quick to jump to better ones. A click is all it takes- solo ads, etc. A digital offering, therefore, simply cannot rest on its laurels. It must be in continuous improvement mode. It must continue to stand out, because the old, entrenched loyalties no longer exist.

You may be consoling yourself with the thought that you sell real products, not digital ones. Thank God. But do you? No matter what you make or sell, you’re going to go digital very fast now. How you run your internal processes; how you market and sell; how you manage distribution; how you receive payments; how you brand and get noticed: all these things will go digital, if they haven’t already. And when they do, you’re a click away from obscurity.

Don’t forget: the customers who come to buy bread or beer or bicycles from you increasingly buy their other stuff online. They get used to wanting things to be excellent and prompt, all the time. They get used to switching when sellers don’t come up to scratch. A mindset is being created. Click. And it will bite you right in your real-world posterior, no matter how analogue your products are today.

The trick, of course, is to bond deeply with your customers, wherever you encounter them. Those who will survive the fickleness of the digital customer are those who keep the user experience easy and elegant. Those who respond rapidly to complaints. Those who listen and adjust. Those who don’t sit back. Those who keep improving.

If that’s you, you may be spared the click. For now.

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