The Customer is Always Right, Well Sort of…

by Jon Lin on March 29, 2009 · 0 comments

in martindale.com

A little over two weeks ago, Facebook launched its much maligned redesign to their home page to position itself better in the fight against current social media darling Twitter. Facebook’s design tries to mimic Twitter’s constant stream of thoughts. The result: Facebook users have revolted. A staggering 94% gave the new design a thumbs down according to a public poll app.

Regardless of whether Facebook made the right or wrong decision, Martindale-Hubbell Connected has recently faced its own criticism for its authentication process and for not listening to user feedback. In particular, we are being questioned on why we decided to build an authenticated network for lawyers and legal professionals vs. an open and broad business network or technology platform for legal networking.

We went down this path not because we just felt like it. It would certainly make the lives of me and our team much easier if we did not have to worry about authentication. We did this because it’s what lawyers told us they wanted. In virtually all of our discussions on the subject with hundreds of lawyers around the world, most expressed a clear desire for a private community where users are authenticated to ensure they are who they say they are. This means a user name and password are not enough to register – we heard loud and clear the need protect you and the community from those claiming they are “Bob Ambrogi” or “Bill Gates” – everyone can pretend online.

Broad networks requiring no authentication for members already exist and are used by those in the legal profession. We are not simply trying to replicate what LinkedIn/Facebook/Twitter has done. Rather, the purpose of Connected is to create an alternative, safe place where lawyers can go to connect, interact and collaborate with trusted peers on substantive legal and business topics.

Lawyers we talked to prior to developing Martindale-Hubbell Connected did value an open network for some uses.  That is why we signed an agreement with LinkedIn last July which allows our users to leverage their LinkedIn network to see how they can connect with someone they see on martindale.com and Connected through their broader network.  The combination of a specific network for lawyers with Connected and direct access to a major broad network like LinkedIn provides users with a great combination of resources to get the most out of their online networking. We anticipate our level of integration to grow with LinkedIn over time for these reasons.

We take user feedback very seriously (see John Lipsey’s post who summarized some our activities). We released Connected in a private beta last summer with a small group of 20 founding corporate counsel members, a first for a company that has little to no history on having beta releases. Since then, we’ve used members’ feedback to drive many of our decisions and priorities, resulting in over 100 enhancements to Connected, some small, but some quite large. Related to authentication, we got feedback that the process is too confusing – so we’re changing it while still protecting the needs of the community. Minor changes were released last week and development on a major revamp will begin next week. To assume that we have not sought or listened to user feedback marginalizes valuable feedback we have gotten along the way from all of our members (now nearing 3000).

As much as we like and want feedback, let’s be clear however, listening to feedback does NOT mean we implement everything we hear from users. Some feedback, of course, directly conflicts with each other (e.g. to authenticate or not). More importantly though, listening too closely to your customers is what has led many great companies to failure. This is the central thesis of innovation expert and Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christiansen in his groundbreaking book The Innovator’s Dilemma.
Tech writers are providing similar advice to Facebook.  Blogger Robert Scoble puts it bluntly, “all those who are saying the new design sucks should NOT be listened to.”

Non-techie folks who may not be familiar with the above names will perhaps appreciate a quote from from a great innovator from a century past, Henry Ford.  He is attributed with once saying, “If I had spoken to customers, they’d have asked for a faster horse.”  With Connected, we are not trying to build another Facebook.

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