Connecting With Customers Key to Building Stronger Startups

Someone asked me recently to name one thing I wish I knew before I went into business, and I had trouble whittling down my list. Experience teaches entrepreneurs the most valuable lessons, and successful founders know that their learning process never stops. There are plenty of things I wish I knew 20 years ago – things I have since learned about scaling a business with confidence, hiring the right senior leadership team to inspire greatness, and staying agile and flexible. Perhaps most importantly, experience has taught me the supreme importance of focusing on the customer. Any early entrepreneur needs to learn this truth quickly.

Customers reward businesses that deliver excellent service, and they penalize businesses that fail to do so. That’s why I make sure I spend at least 80 percent of my time focusing through a customer-service lens. Whether a founder is primarily absorbed with product engineering, business development, sales and marketing strategy, or some other element critical to launching a startup, he must still view it from the customer’s perspective.  Will this product feature make the IT user a hero to his business colleagues? Will a channel strategy get prospects the tools they need most quickly? Will these marketing messages reflect the biggest pain points of our target customer? A customer-focused entrepreneur must always ask these questions and be willing to look at the answers – both positive and negative – in a forthright manner.

At EqualLogic, we took tremendous pride in our 98 percent customer satisfaction rating. However, I learned that as important as knowing what satisfied the vast majority of our customers about their buying experiences and the post-sale use of the devices we manufactured, listening to what the two percent had to say was what was really vital. That lesson has stuck with me over the ensuing years.

That’s why I believe that all executives of a startup have to try to make connections with their customers. They need to know which questions to ask of those customers, and they need to understand what the likely answers will be. The only way this can be achieved is through continual, direct communication with customers. I want to know what users have to say about what’s working for them, what isn’t, what they want to see next and how else we can make them more successful at solving difficult data storage and intelligence problems. In the past, I often did this through customer surveys. Today, I’ll often pick up the phone and talk directly to DataGravity early access customers and partners to hear that feedback. In some cases, I will call our support people and chat with inside sales. I might even register for a marketing event so that I can see and hear what our customers are experiencing, and even more importantly, hear what our employees are telling them to ensure a high quality experience with the company, even if it’s a tire kicking exercise or a drive by. Ask yourself, would you buy something from this company? Do you respect what it is offering you?

It would be great if startup founders could start their careers already knowing everything they’ll eventually learn during decades in business. Experience is the best teacher, but tips from seasoned entrepreneurs can help, too. This is the guidance I give most often: connect with your customers. Don’t wait for the sales team to patch calls through to you. Don’t rely on reports from managers. Talk to customers yourself, talk to them often and funnel their feedback into growing a successful, customer-centric business.

Want to talk with John Joseph about how to connect with your customers? Tweet him at @JohnPJoseph_.

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John Joseph

John Joseph

President and co-founder of DataGravity, John Joseph leads company’s sales, marketing, operations and customer initiatives. John previously served as vice president of marketing and product management at EqualLogic, leading these functions from the company's initial launch through the successful acquisition by Dell in 2008. He subsequently served as vice president of enterprise solutions, marketing at Dell for three years after the acquisition.