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Insights / Press

The “Our Users” Syndrome

September 25, 2015
Alain VeuveAlain VeuveManaging Director, AOE Switzerland

It appears to be a diffuse, mysterious malady. Time and time again I can observe clients exhibiting it. Clients of varying backgrounds – be it their origin, gender or skin color. Whether in large or small companies. And regardless of country – Germany, France, Italy or Switzerland. I’ve seen it everywhere, the “Our Users” Syndrome.

Hardship cases

The most distinct case I ever witnessed was a small business, which I advised in E-Commerce matters. After completeing a setup project for an online shop, first orders had arrived, and we had conducted a workshop to analyze first figures using our analytics tool, I presented my recommendations regarding optimizing the product portfolio as well as improving product presentation.

Now, I am used to customers who resist your every bit of advice, and – as a rule – can handle stubbornness by clients pretty well. I remain tenacious and repeatedly explain the facts we have collected, and try to let the customers arrive at the correction solution by themselves. In this case, however, this approach didn’t even come close to working. My client flatly refused to even consider any of the possible improvements I suggested. Measures which, I may note, were absolutely logical, e.g. moving call-to-action elements into the viewport in the order process.

Once my client ran out of objective arguments, I was presented with the number-one killer argument: “Our users don’t want it this way.” As coach and consultant you are trapped. Either you cave in, and thus don’t really take your assignment seriously or you object, indirectly saying that your client knows less about his or her customers than you do. To refrain from stating this that directly has something to do with decency, too. Customers who deliberately play this card (because they do not want change for some reason – for example, due to corporate politics), are very well aware of this fact. 1:0.

They really believe it

In another case the customer didn’t want to pitch prices in the newsletter, even though he was extremely dependent on orders. “Our users don’t want this, they want to be inspired. Such base product advertising will only scare them away.” At first glance this appears to be a valid argument, but for the fact that we had already conducted a survey to collect input on the topic by nearly 20 percent of newsletter subscribers. Eighty percent of those polled wanted specific offers every month. The trite comment by my customer: “You only surveyed 20 percent, and probably the wrong ones.” (frustration)

What really lies behind it?

Many consultants first reaction would be to end the business partnership immediately. This is far less than the ideal situation as neither party progresses with this solution. Interestingly enought, this experience (unfortunately, often repeated – and usually in slightly modified form) fascinated me in some way.

How can one simply negate the facts? For a long time I had no idea. Until I noticed that my clients used themselves as a benchmark for other people’s behavior almost all of the time.

The “Our Users” Syndrome has a little brother, the “I can already observe that with me” effect.

It's far too often that clients draw conclusions about the needs of their users based on their own requirements. You will hear statements such as, “No one will read this content on a mobile device, I can see that in my own behavior, I would never do that”, or “These replacement parts won’t be ordered online, I can see that with me, for me ordering on the phone is much eaiser.” The problem here is that one’s own behavior rarely dovetails with that of the majority.

In some way, one’s own preferences and habits are reflected back to the customers. Thus, they are once again confirmed by the person one trusts the most, oneself.

Trying to stop change

But, it is shortsighted to argue based on such popular psychology. I can confidently state that this syndrome is more common in older clients. This does seem rather logical to me: Those who have spent a decade or more with their user base on a professional level, are logically less capable of accepting change in exactly this user base. It's quite handy then if some consultant crony comes along with a lot of numbers, curve charts and diagrams. Let him survie ten years in my business.

Strategies to solve the dilemma

Despite everything; I’ve also come up with a strategy that can help ease the syndrome’s symptoms. The following four items usually help:

  • Don’t become angry – it’s part of the game and a consultant’s job to consult, even if the customer has the feeling that things are currently headed in the wrong direction
  • Take the customer seriously – First of all, just listen, even if you know the results of analytics and surveys. Consultancy is also a people business, 50 percent of the time at the very least
  • Suggest a deal – test both options using an A/B arrangement. One can usually get quite far with concrete results, especially whenever money is involved
  • If nothing else works – and the customer can’t decide on using the winning option – declare both the A and B solutions as equally viable. This one-is-as-good-as-the-other compromise is surely not the best possible solution, professionally speaking. But, if you consider the entire situation, including your customer’s mindset, it’s probably the best result you can hope for. It’s no secret, after all, that nobody can be forced to accept their own good fortune.

I can only hope that more and more customers will base their decisions first and foremost on data and available insights. There are still enough areas remaining where no objective information is available, and where intuition and experience come into play. This applies to all things Web as well. It would be great if we could focus our energy on it.