You finished what you think is the hard part of establishing yourself in the startup community: you launched your company. Now, you believe you’re ready to write “entrepreneur” on forms that ask for your occupation. But before you call it a day, consider your next step. How will you make this company a success? Frankly, merely having a vision for your product or technology is insufficient. And your plans for a vibrant company culture are irrelevant. The true measure of success lies with the only people who really determine your company’s future: your customers.
This is not to say vision and culture are to be ignored; they’re valuable pieces of the puzzle and deserve your consideration. However, they aren’t nearly as valuable as your customers. Your ideas could be phenomenal, but if your customers are happy with their current options and have no interest in or appreciation for your new variety, your brilliant idea won’t have much of a future. You need to put your customers’ perspectives and needs far ahead of your own to give your company a fighting chance.
Here are a few tips to do just that.
1. Make sure whoever is selling your product understands your customer.
For many organizations, particularly those in the midmarket with limited resources, individual employees wear a number of hats. Take that into consideration if these multitaskers are your target customers.
Let’s say you’re selling an IT solution. Are you doing a demo for someone in a well-defined IT role, or are you speaking with someone who is really more comfortable in business development but also found himself covering IT because no one else was available? These nuances make all the difference in ensuring the customer feels understood.
The same goes for when your sales team isn’t involved in the actual selling. If you’re working through channel partners, it should be because they’re the trusted technology advisors to the customers and have a longstanding relationship that translates to understanding their whole business, not just their technology requirements. Leverage that connection whenever possible.
2. Recognize that it’s never too early to incorporate customer feedback.
When my co-founder and I were in the early stage of launching our company, potential customers were right there with us. We were speaking with end users at the same time that we were trying to get our first round of funding. Before we had even begun to define the sharp edges of our product, we were asking the people who would actually be using it what they thought.
Your customers’ opinions are more important than your own when it comes to shaping the details of your offering. Bring them in from Day 0 and make their perspectives part of the founding principles.
Watch how they engage with the product or solution, and then adapt your direction around what they do and don’t believe to solve problems they care about.
This kind of ground-floor assessment will not only ensure your business starts down the right path, but it will get you accustomed to absorbing that kind of valuable advice from the right audience – a process that will serve you well over time.
3. Use your customer base as an extension of your hiring team.
When you’re hiring sales and marketing staff, who can guide you better than the types of customers those people will ultimately be targeting? If you’re looking for the team members that will be charged with attracting new customers and closing deals for your business, investigate people who were selling to a similar target market in past positions, and then use those former customers as the first references you call. Learn what these hiring prospects did right and what they did wrong, and then decide how they can fit into your lineup. Your future customers will appreciate that early effort to consider their perspectives when they’re dealing with your well-qualified sales staff down the road.
4. Understand there is no detail too small for your attention.
As an entrepreneur, you’ll find yourself getting pulled in different directions throughout the day, and there are certain areas in which it’s crucial to delegate responsibility. However, establishing the proper company dynamic when it comes to customer experience is an initiative you can never afford to neglect.
I attended a customer meeting once with two individuals from my company and at the start of the meeting I noticed that rather than personally handing their business cards to our contact, they slid the cards across the table. This gave the impression of a lack of personal touch, which is not a trait I’m ever willing to have my team convey. These details matter; they are an extension of your brand,and your brand’s reputation is what keeps customers happy and secure in their working relationship with you and your company. Don’t hesitate to point it out when you see an action take place that could impact your customers’ perception of what your company has to offer.
In addition, it’s not uncommon for senior leaders to get involved in a customer situation to ensure proper care during a support call or other technical inquiry. Your customers will remember this level of service for years and remind you of it when they meet you again in your next company.
5. Never skimp on training new team members.
Your team members will only get one chance to make a first impression with a customer. If you let them enter that situation unprepared or lacking in understanding, you’re doing your company a disservice. Our new hires shadow existing employees for as long as it takes to be sure they’re ready to properly represent our technology, our processes and our values. Within the first 60 seconds of a meeting, a customer will figure out if the salesperson is credible or not. Put the time in from an employee’s first days on the job to make sure he or she can navigate that initial introduction in a way that will only increase your customer’s confidence in your business and your product. That includes training and accompanied visits in the field. You really want to get the approach right.
While you as the founder and leader will always control the direction of your business, it’s critical to recognize from the start that you’re really only the conduit for the direction chosen by your target customers. The sooner you can prioritize your customer’s point of view and create products and experiences that reflect their needs, the more successful everyone will be.