Do you know who your customers are?
That might seem like a silly question—I hope it does, or else your business is in trouble. But when I started in this business more than 20 years ago, it was pretty hard for journalists to answer yes. Our customers—the readers—were largely invisible and anonymous. Sure, they wrote the rare letter to the editor, or, even more rarely, called reporters and editors to berate them for something they'd published.
But for the most part, our readers were an abstract concept, a silent mass out there on the receiving end. And since it's human nature to play to an audience you can see and hear, journalists sometimes ended up writing for people we interacted with more regularly: our sources and our colleagues in the industry. In that sense, we were no different from any other business that falls into the traps of getting too cozy with suppliers or of focusing obsessively on competitors. Is it any wonder that the press is held in such low regard by the public these days? In our own recent survey on leadership, for example, the media came in dead last when we asked about integrity, behind such typical targets of popular ire as big corporations, and even (gasp!) government.
Fortunately, magazines, like most other businesses, are a lot closer to their customers these days thanks to email and blogs, among other things. And Fast Company has always enjoyed an extraordinarily intimate connection with its audience. When we please you, you let us know; Fast Company is the only publication I've ever worked for that gets love letters from readers. And when we anger you or disappoint you, you let us know, too—boy, do you let us know.
I note all this by way of saying that this month's cover package—an eyeful and a mind-full on the winners of our second-annual Customers First Awards and how they're mastering the art of customer service—strikes a real chord with us here at Fast Company. This magazine has had its share of upheaval in the past few years, and especially the past few months—changes of ownership, changes of management, changes of editors. But one thing has remained constant: our focus on serving you, the reader. And that will never change. In fact, I promise that we will redouble our efforts to bring you thought-provoking stories about cutting-edge people, companies, and ideas—stories that are fascinating, beautifully presented, and useful.
You will see some of the effects of that redoubling in the magazine you now hold in your hands. There are changes, some subtle and some not so subtle, throughout this issue, with many more still to come. A magazine is more a process than a product: It has to evolve and improve all the time. Our team of reporters, editors, and artists is constantly thinking, constantly imagining, constantly stretching to make Fast Company even better.
And because we're ultimately all about you, the reader, I'd like to invite you into the process that is Fast Company. We're forming a special advisory panel of our readers, and I hope you'll sign up. If you're interested, please email me at the address below. I'll send a copy of a new book by Fast Company's editors and writers, The Rules of Business: 55 Essential Ideas to Help Smart People (and Organizations) Perform at Their Best, to the first 100 people to volunteer. We'll ask you to respond to occasional brief questionnaires and surveys, but this is more than just a market-research tool. I'll turn to the members of this advisory panel to serve as a sort of brain trust for feedback, advice, and ideas as we work to make Fast Company an even better magazine. In this, I hope to emulate the winners of our Customers First Awards, who understand that listening well speaks volumes.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.