Working at the world’s largest all-distributed company taught me a lot about the efficacy of text for communication and its inclusive nature when working globally. It also taught me how important it was to consciously live in the non-text world of the many digital immigrants making their way every day across the digital divide. Because whenever we failed to meet a customer need, I noted that it happened because we hadn’t fully invested in knowing our customers’ problems — because our biases were implicit in how we worked 100% distributed with high-end computers, lots of bandwidth, and across ultra-large display screens.
Luckily CEO Hajj Flemings appeared in my life at the exact moment I joined Automattic — he had a vision in Detroit to bring local small businesses across the digital divide. And I was fortunate to head into Detroit neighborhoods with Hajj to learn how (and how not) a website could add value to their worlds. We even brought an entire product, eng, and design team to Detroit to go deep in understanding customer needs. What was the biggest takeaway? It wasn’t about building the actual website with our technology — it was instead getting to hear what the shopkeepers hoped to do with their websites. Ultimately, knowing their WHY is what got everyone excited because it is so easy to get fixated on our own WHAT or HOW.
This direct collaboration with customers to learn their WHY led to a shared vision of bringing a new payment feature to the Automattic universe called Simple Payments. But naturally the energy and enthusiasm of the Detroit trip quickly subsided as everyone’s day-to-day work crept back into the foreground. However, I managed to rekindle empathy and excitement to tackle the shared vision with a slew of prompts — including my open offer to personally buy a beer or piece of cake for anyone who would try out our then existing feature (which could take a few hours). Nobody can resist a free beer or piece of cake, so I was happy to see the motivation to take payments come through even more clearly when felt personally. It was fun to track organic adoption of the feature over time — and all as the result of our listening to and working with our customers.
Sounds simple? Well, like all simple stories they have a complex narrative arc behind them. If you notice that the original Simple Payments customer support video below is made by yours truly, that should indicate to you that hard work sometimes pays off. I find it always easiest to work hard when you empathize with your customer’s challenges in-person and up-close. —JM
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