A few weeks after starting my job at a very small, very new software startup, the whole company got together for some team building. The company was only a few months old, and, being fully distributed, many of us had never met. So, all 12 of us got together and went rappelling. Someone that we had just met moments before hooked us to a rope and told us to jump off a cliff. “Everything would be fine”, he promised. And we did it.
A few weeks later, I went on my first sales call, and in many ways it was very similar to that rappelling experience. We were asking potential customers to believe that the very basic beginnings of a product that we were showing them, and the promise of great things to come, was reason enough for them to believe that “everything would be fine”, even though we had no real references or success stories. And they did.
Within a few months of our startup hiring its first employee, we were in serious talks with three Fortune 100 companies. I was initially surprised that they would be willing to engage with us, but it quickly became apparent why they were so interested. Obviously, our product filled a need for them, but more than that, they believed in us. They genuinely believed that we were going to build the product that they wanted to buy, rather than trying to sell them the product that we wanted to build. The reason that they believed was almost entirely due to the people at our company they had interacted with – our expertise in the problem space, our level of technical proficiency, and a genuine empathy for the customer’s need to solve a very complex problem won them over.
It’s trite to say that that your company is “customer focused” or that “the customer comes first”, but as a small startup, being customer focused is your best chance for survival. Fortunately, our founders insisted on this from the first day the company opened for business. Customer focus is a key tenet in every decision that we make. Are you a brilliant engineer, but unable to speak in front of a customer to explain what you are working on to both technical and non-technical people? You won’t make the cut here. Our engineers are encouraged and expected to be customer-facing whenever their input will enhance a conversation with a prospect or customer, which is frequently.
Another important aspect of being customer focused, which is often overlooked, or just avoided outright by young companies, is transparency. You don’t have to know the answer to every question that a customer asks, and your product doesn’t need to include every feature that a customer requests. Being transparent is key in winning a customer’s trust. Responding with, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out”, and then following through on your promise, helps to reinforce the customer’s confidence in you. It also provides you with a great opportunity to put one of your well-spoken engineers in front of the customer to demonstrate the level of technical expertise on your staff. It’s tempting to talk around a question that you can’t answer, or promise a feature that you can’t deliver, just to try and get a deal done, but this will erode a customer’s confidence far more quickly than just an honest “I don’t know” or “we can’t do that yet”.
The company is far different now than it was when I started a little over a year ago. We have more than tripled in size. We have a real, enterprise-class product to sell, and we have real customers. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the customer focus. If anything, it’s more strongly embedded in our company culture than ever. More often than not, our engineers will have provided input, suggestions and follow-up actions on customer tickets before the Support Engineer has even had a chance to start troubleshooting. If a customer needs technical guidance, or wants to discuss long term architectural plans, it’s business as usual for us to get one of our founders on site with a customer to spend the day answering their questions.
A couple of months ago, we got the whole company together again for some all-hands meetings and team building. For three straight days (not including time spent horseback riding or skeet shooting), we met as a company and with our individual teams, to discuss nothing but how we could make the company even more customer focused. Everyone from the CEO to employees who had just started the day before, shared their insights and experiences. We came away with some fantastic ideas that have already been incorporated into our business processes. Among the ideas that have already been implemented was a suggestion to reduce the percentage of time that our engineers focus just on coding, so that they can spend more time working directly with customers. I’ve worked at a lot of other startups, and all of them have focused on how to minimize engineer’s exposure to customers so that they have more time to code.
Our company is only 18 months old, but we already have a great product, a great team and customers that think of us more as partners than vendors. I believe that what enabled us to be successful so quickly was not just talking about being a customer-focused company, but rather, making that the foundation of everything that we do. Give it a try; it just might work for you. It also makes this a pretty fantastic place to work, and we’re hiring!