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Thin-Slicing, Me, You, & Your Customers

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You can thin-slice your way, and I’ll probably keep on thin-slicing in my way. What’s not in dispute is that I, you, and your customers will all continue to do so. (So will your friends, relatives, investors, and the police.)

Looking back at the absolute worst business experiences I’ve had, it makes no particular sense to draw universal conclusions, because some bad stuff can’t be predicted.

However, some headway can be made. In online marketing services, in terms of predicting which customers – which *individuals* – will probably turn out to be toxic, there are some really strong signals. They can be boiled down to how contemporary the business owner is, or their willingness to at least be guided towards creating a “contemporary” online experience that will lead to better business outcomes. Maybe it comes down to listening, and dialogue, rather than assertions without data, targets set without reasons. I see this on a sliding scale. No one’s perfect, but if you’re below the 20th percentile of reasonable, you’re a toxic business accident waiting to happen.

Just now I ran across a reminder of perhaps one of the most toxic I’ve ever met. And I thought: what might we have noticed that would have filtered this guy out?

In the current environment of online retail, a vendor of high-ticket products whose contempt for the user runs so deep that it includes a refusal to even consider simple site improvements (image quality, professional design, etc.), is eventually going to neglect customers in other ways. That’s what I should have twigged on immediately, but at the time, I knew that a lot of ugly sites needed fixing were actually good customers for me, because they were in need of services. Some of these fixed it, got better, and moved ahead. That’s why they needed us!

At the time I missed a key difference: willingness to consider optimization (in the broadest sense of the term) suggestions. Someone who realizes that there are broken parts of the website and poorly optimized images and wants to fix and optimize the user experience as much as possible; vs. the one who disagrees, changes the subject, and uses a combination of profanity and sarcasm in his next anecdote, to further confuse the issue.

In retrospect, that should have been easy to see. If you’re rigid like that, prospects won’t buy from you as often as they should. It doesn’t appear that you *want* them to buy from you. Not only won’t we succeed in advertising to them, we’re probably going to wind up on the wrong end of one of those sarcastic tirades at some point.

Sarcasm and profanity aside: what are your customers thinking? How are they thin-slicing? I’m a firm believer that they’re doing it. They’re judging you on your overall web credibility and your place in the business universe. Sure, they might judge you “small” no matter what, if you really are small, but what are your chances if they judge you “small and hopeless”?

Within reason, what is terribly hideously awful or broken needs to be fixed. Other shortcomings need to be at least on a schedule for improvement, so you acknowledge that they are indeed shortcomings.

Moving onto a second type of thin-slicing. Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t. Certain technologies and familiarity with them – and willingness to show up in certain locations (virtually speaking) – can be a powerful symbol, to others you seek to work with, of “getting it.” Personally, when I scan the list of companies posting job listings at the 37Signals Job Board, I immediately think: “that’s a company that probably understands a lot about the future of the Web, and user experiences, and how to build them.” If I was thinking about their likelihood of satisfying customers as well as employees, I’d say “high, or at least they’re not ignorant of factors that might need to be considered.”

A lot of people who disagree with me will say that this type of snap judgment is trendy. (I received a 1,100 word, no less, critique of a 40-word job ad I posted there once! Someone’s ideas must have been threatened.) But we thin-slice all the time, and we’re likely to continue to do so. Perhaps the best type of thin-slicing nonetheless points towards business fundamentals; it’s not about what brand of eyeglasses you wear. That’s why an MBA can immediately work for you or against you, depending on who is doing the hiring.

There’s obviously a tension inherent in all of this: a passion for “direct marketing” or “no nonsense bottom line results” or “cutting through the mumbo jumbo” or “hard work” or “fundamentals”, as opposed to “giving off the right signals, of letting like minded people know that you think the way they do, of conveying success and upbeat attitudes to the world.” It’s not about one or the other, but understanding and weighing (rather than dismissing) forms of signaling that seem irrational but in fact are highly rational in their contexts, and highly effective sometimes in that they are often reasonably true representations of what they’re purported to represent. Dismissing the “peacock mating ritual” (signaling as described in Seth Godin’s Survival is Not Enough: Zooming, Evolution, and the Future of Your Company) as frivolous – if you were a peacock – could be to doom your species to extinction. Also, a demand for familiarity with Ruby on Rails, or “road experience with web services frameworks & methodologies (SOAP, XML-RPC, REST), knowledge of open source frameworks & tools” is not merely a request for pretty feathers: it might actually get some really important stuff done.

The marketplace, ultimately, will decide whether it did. In the meantime, the signaling required to bring like-minded stakeholders together is unpredictable and uncertain, but nearly indispensable.

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Andrew Goodman is Principal of Page Zero Media, a marketing consultancy which focuses on maximizing clients’ paid search marketing campaigns.

In 1999 Andrew co-founded Traffick.com, an acclaimed “guide to portals” which foresaw the rise of trends such as paid search and semantic analysis.

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