Startups: Your Customers Are Not Ignorant, Selfish, Control Freaks

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Startups: Your Customers Are Not Ignorant, Selfish, Control Freaks


Imagine you’re having some big, high falutin’ meeting.  Perhaps it’s a board meeting.  Or, if you don’t have a board, perhaps it’s a management team meeting.  Or, if you don’t have a team, perhaps it’s just you talking to yourself at 3:00 a.m. in the morning.  Whatever mechanism it is you have to talk about important issues and make decisions, imagine that meeting.  Are you imagining it?  Good.onstartups boardroom

Now, imagine that same meeting with one important change:  One of your smart, savvy, customers is at the table.  And, she has an actual voice.  She’s a peer. She makes arguments, some of which are wrong and misguided, just like you and the rest of your team.  If the customer were there, I think you’d have better meetings.

Practically speaking, you probably can't actually put a customer in all your meetings.  If that’s the case, you should act as if she’s there.  Pretend like she’s sitting in the room.  In the past, I’ve actually designated an empty chair in the meeting as being where the customer is, and looking in that direction while asking “what does the customer have to say?” (yes, I’m weird).  When you’re trying to make an important decision, and you’re sort of divided on the issue, ask yourself:  If the customer were here, what would she say?  You don’t actually have to do everything she says, but it’s useful to at least factor in her point of view.

Now, you might argue that you’re already factoring in customers in all of your decision-making.  And, I’m going to argue that you’re wrong.  You’re making decisions all the time where the customer’s voice is either absent or too weak.  Just think back on the last five debates you had, and the decisions you made.  Perhaps it was a pricing decision.  Or a funding decision.  Or an office space decision.  Did the customer really have a voice?  Was it as loud as everyone else’s?  Probably not.

You might then further argue that you have someone “representing” the customer (your head of customer support, perhaps).  I’d argue that that’s different.  Yes, your head of customer support is solving for your customers’ well-being, but that’s not the same thing.  Imagine if you were running a hospital.  You’d have operations, and finance and marketing and all sorts of other groups.  In your big hospital meeting, you might think that the doctors represented the patient’s interest (because they are looking to solve the patient’s problem), but if you’ve ever been a patient, you know that’s not the same thing.  Your hospital management meetings would be very different if there was a patient in the room.  Your startup is no different.  The decisions would be better if there was a customer in the room.

Finally, you might have the most insidious set of fears of all:  First, that your customers are ignorant (they don’t understand industry trends or technology).  Second, that they’re selfish (all they care about is getting the lowest price and extracting the most value from you).  Third, that they’re control-freaks and just want to run your business.  All of these are simply not trueYour customers are not ignorant, selfish, control-freaks.  Of course, there’s a distribution curve at work here.  You might rightfully argue that some of your customers manifest one or more of these attributes.  But, that misses the point.  I’m not asking you to visualize those customers at your meetings.  Visualize the smart, savvy and benevolent customer that wants you to succeed and has no intention of running your company.  You have some of those customers.  If you don’t, then go get some

That kind of customer is exceptionally useful.  They feel pain with your product that you’re likely not going to feel.  They can empathize with your other customers in a way that you can’t.  And, in the long term, even though they may not have as loud of a voice or be able to debate as passionately as you, they have a decent chance of being right.  Imagine if you were keeping meeting minutes from these meetings and noted her side of the story and her “vote”.  If you looked back a year or two later, you might say something like “Hey, you know what, in that meeting, she was right.  We would have been better off if we had just listened to her.”  Maybe you and your team are way more insightful than average, but I’ve said this to myself many times.

So, the next tiime you have a big, high falutin’ meeting and are attempting to make a big decision, try to give your customer a seat at the tableI think you might make a better decision.

What do you think?  How would you make sure the customer has a real voice in your company?

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Mon, Jul 12, 2010


Excellent article, thank you for the contribution.

posted on Monday, July 12, 2010 at 10:36 AM by Philip Bateman

What an awesome practice. I would literally look to do this if I was at the point where any regular meetings were help. Literally leave a seat open, put a little place card or something and label that seat for your customer...bringing constant attention to the those who you are selling to, marketing to, solving problems for...will always be a good thing. Awesome.

posted on Monday, July 12, 2010 at 10:40 AM by Rob

always a good idea to keep the customers as close to the decision-making process as possible. if they're involved, they'll be that much more likely to be out evangelizing 
we're setting up a VIP listserv for our best contributors & most active users on so that they can feel like they're a part of the team, and helping us grow it from the ground up. i'd highly recommend others utilize a similar tactic :)

posted on Monday, July 12, 2010 at 10:55 AM by adam wexler

When I did product development work at a midwestern bank holding company, we involved the customer at several points of the process. First, we would take a single page concept statement to several customers before any serious development work was initiated. We would ask board members who to survey. 
Second, we involved any customers with serious interest in the design review.  
Finally, we took the prototype and surveyed customers and prospects for both qualitative and quantitative feedback. It always improved our process and outcomes.

posted on Monday, July 12, 2010 at 10:57 AM by Sean Hession

Great customer-focused ideas. The way we make sure our clients' customers have a real voice in their company is to do an Open Mind session prior to creating any communications or sales materials (including websites) ... we get a room full of actual potential customers and do not show them any ideas but rather ask them how they want to be "told and sold". They tell us their pain points and how we can address them. There is nothing more powerful than that reaction...except of course, listening to it and then using it in communications materials. It not only increases an already good relationship with your customers, but improves return on investment much more quickly and at a higher % point. We've proved this several times with start up companies we've worked with, and product launches.

posted on Monday, July 12, 2010 at 10:57 AM by Sandra Holtzman

Perhaps Dharmesh has an answer to the above comment by Stephern!

posted on Monday, July 12, 2010 at 10:57 AM by Hefrey

P.S. This customer feedback was valued by executive management / board, if not always acted upon.

posted on Monday, July 12, 2010 at 10:58 AM by Sean Hession

Great, unique article! Thanks!

posted on Monday, July 12, 2010 at 10:58 AM by Blue Horizon VC

Congratulations, good, I will apply my management 
Excellent article and its way of seeing the client. Very good, I will apply my management. 
Thaks, very much. 

posted on Monday, July 12, 2010 at 11:00 AM by Ignácio

great article, sound common sense much needed. 
I would add, avoid over engineering product before talking to customers - avoid producing the green orange that nobody wants to buy.

posted on Monday, July 12, 2010 at 11:12 AM by Zebedee

Great article and perspective! Without customers, we have nothing! It only makes sense to bring them into the decision making process!

posted on Monday, July 12, 2010 at 11:13 AM by Danielle

Excellent points. In the recent shift from business as usual to the information age, our customers have many more choices than ever. If we don't honestly pay attention with genuine resolve to meet their needs someone else will - as often we are only a click away.

posted on Monday, July 12, 2010 at 11:15 AM by Greg Gaskill

@Hefrey, I don't see why it's worthwhile to answer Stephen's comment. He completely missed the point of the article. Stephen seems to be one of the control-freaks on the far end of the distribution curve trying to run the company.

posted on Monday, July 12, 2010 at 11:19 AM by Michael Chui

Sandra Holtzman's got it! Customers love to be involved and many will happily sit in on your meetings. As I state in my forthcoming book, there have even been examples of marketing people moving in to domestic customers' houses for a few days. Ideal for observing the context of usage for your product.

posted on Monday, July 12, 2010 at 11:47 AM by Ciaran Walsh

A great way to get inside the users head and really feel their needs is to be the one to answer customer email and phone calls. Don't get a distilled version from the head of the customer service team, actually be the one to reply and answer the users questions. 
As a software developer, when you do this for a while, you *really* want to fix the problems, no matter where the issue sits in the queue. 
And, it's much nicer to hear a "thank you" than a "why haven't you fixed this in 5 months?"

posted on Monday, July 12, 2010 at 12:20 PM by Mark S

@stephen: That's a fair criticism of HubSpot. I don't think we do exceptionally well with this (yet). 
Having said that, we're struggling, just like many startups do, with prioritizing our backlog of ideas (which is literally over a thousand items long). We've doubled the size of our product development team, but it's still impossible to work on all the good ideas (even if they're small).  
But, we do need to do a better job of listening and empathizing (I give us about a 6/10 on that right now). We're working on that, and it *will* get better.

posted on Monday, July 12, 2010 at 12:27 PM by Dharmesh Shah

In construction, especially hard bid construction, I've yet to meet a customer that isn't trying to beat as much money as possible out of the contractor. I'm sorry, but why would they care if your company succeeds? It's tough out there.

posted on Monday, July 12, 2010 at 12:32 PM by John

Love this! I have seen the concerns of the customers dismissed in executive discussions many times. I've seen products overdone, with too many features and too much complexity, while the customers continued to ask for simple. The dev team wanted to make something "cool", the sales team wanted to sell something "cool", and they just assumed the customers would like it when they got it. They were wrong, and when something uncool but easy to use showed up ... the customers jumped at it. 

posted on Monday, July 12, 2010 at 12:44 PM by Sharon Morgan

I would have to argue that the internal people are the worst to represent the customer anyway. All you ever hear from is that very vocal minority who ARE control freaks who want everything for free. You would need to actively go search for the quiet ones to get an honest opinion that covers more of your users. 
Don't fall into the trap of thinking that vocal minority IS the customer.

posted on Monday, July 12, 2010 at 12:50 PM by Jason Short

Remember the customer. She/he is the reason we exist in the first place. It's cute you called yourself weird in your post, when, in fact, my guess is you're naturally empathetic and your empty chair is a concrete way to cultivate empathy in your team - which makes you smart and empathetic. :)

posted on Monday, July 12, 2010 at 1:13 PM by Catherine Lockey

Dharmesh, i recently read your book. I bought two copies for others to read. And the company I'm doing interim work for has just today signed up for your services. Looking good!! 

posted on Monday, July 12, 2010 at 2:28 PM by Desmond Pieri

I thought all company decisions were made by the corporate computer. (Seems like it!) 
Great article.

posted on Monday, July 12, 2010 at 3:20 PM by Rich Snow

How easily we forget the critical importance of the customer and the role a customer should play in every decision we make about our product or service. 
Thanks for the reminder...I'm going to pass this on to others in my company as well as to friends who are business owners and perhaps need this kind of a reminder as well!

posted on Monday, July 12, 2010 at 3:41 PM by Jari King

The empty chair is a good way to remember business can only survive by solving the customer's problem. So choose your most profitable customers to help you solve their problems.

posted on Monday, July 12, 2010 at 6:04 PM by Philip Allen

Hi Dharmesh 
Interesting article no doubt! But sadly I cant think of one company in India that actually follows is sad and I feel that it is a far far cry! 

posted on Monday, July 12, 2010 at 10:58 PM by Sharad Kumar

Great post! I have worked at several startups where upper management claimed they always "knew" what customers wanted and were amazed when they came in contact with a *real* customer who wanted something else.  
I echo some other comments that emphasize the need to listen to a *real, cross-section* of customers, not just very vocal, very sophisticated or "pet" clients that will provide skewed feedback. While polls, customer visits and other means are essential, maintaining a low-stress way for your front line sales, service and customer support personnel to share information they glean from their contacts is one of the fastest ways to build an understanding of the customer.

posted on Monday, July 12, 2010 at 11:16 PM by Kris Childress

Excellent article. Thank you

posted on Tuesday, July 13, 2010 at 12:24 AM by Mindy

Great article - thought provoking and well written. 
I often use three pairs of shoes in meetings and workshops to denote different stakeholders within customer organisations - the individual contributor, the manager and the sponsoring executive. 
Then to hear the customer voice, all participants are asked to step into each pair of shoes and imagine the world from that particular perspective. 
Initially, people think I'm weird, but then they see the value of visualising the different customer stakeholder perspectives and it drives a higher quality output from the meeting. 
I like the customer seat at the table approach as this also creates an important visual cue to shift the perspective of the attendees.

posted on Tuesday, July 13, 2010 at 3:13 AM by John Tabeart

Very interesting indeed! Every exit is an entry somewhere!

posted on Tuesday, July 13, 2010 at 11:06 AM by Paul Alexander

"That kind of customer is exceptionally useful.". "I think you might make a better decision.". It always made a big difference and that's the success mantra of outperforming companies where the customer inputs produced outstanding success and success is always relative ;). Superb post!

posted on Wednesday, July 14, 2010 at 7:45 AM by Sannidhi

I can think of one very high-end hardware manufacturer who could benefit from this practice. Recently they told their customers they were wrong to hold a phone in a particular way. Then, instead of offering a free sleeve to fix the problem, they asked the customer to purchase one for several dollars. Had this been my company, every person who purchased the device would have received a free sleeve until the engineering problem was fixed.

posted on Wednesday, July 14, 2010 at 8:06 AM by Tom

Tom's comment brings to mind Apple's inelegant solution to the connectivity problem with their latest i Phone release. It makes me wonder if the had customers field testing. Given how sleak their designs are, this is a "two-fer" hit for them.

posted on Wednesday, July 14, 2010 at 8:22 AM by Sean Hession

Awesome article. Thanks

posted on Wednesday, July 14, 2010 at 8:42 AM by Arch

I fully agree, nice article .

posted on Wednesday, July 14, 2010 at 9:02 AM by Cjay

Dharmesh, Great post!  
A quality product is a function of how well we talk, no, listen to our customers. Too often we get carried away in our hallucinations on what customers need. Having an empty chair is a good way to visualize and acknowledge their priorities. 
We are like the chef-in-the-kitchen. You cannot tell thy customer; sorry you are overweight and can only have a salad, no-dressing, coz I know better. Get real! Give them what they want – steak and fries. As chef’s we love to show off our skills in tossing pizza dough and have fancy tools like all-clad cookware, but do they matter? A good chef will walk around, every so often, taking feedback from his patrons and improvise his menu, based on the evolving needs of his customers. This will get his place secured in Zagat or Yelp. That results in revenue and profits. 

posted on Thursday, July 15, 2010 at 1:20 AM by Ramesh Elaiyavalli

@Mark S. 
Hubspot have had many thank yous from me.  
I am a software developer. We develop code that modifies other code as it runs - very tough. We have a smaller staff and a smaller budget than hubspot and yet we typically get improvements into the hands of customers within days of customers suggesting them (provided they are worth doing). Hence my frustration at the pace of development.

posted on Thursday, July 15, 2010 at 3:39 AM by Stephen Kellett

I really enjoyed your post. People need to consider the customers perspective more often. When raising capital I have found that investors try to act like the customer, but often overcompensate. Any thoughts on this matter?

posted on Thursday, July 15, 2010 at 9:00 AM by Jason Biondo

"If the customer were here, what would she say?" 
This still means you are assuming you know what they would say. It's not as impractical as it sounds to actually involve your customers.. 
Service guru Ron Kaufman lists out these 8 simple ways to actually ensure the voice of your customer is heard.

posted on Friday, July 16, 2010 at 3:55 AM by Shyam Kumar

Great post, some all too often overlooked points

posted on Monday, July 19, 2010 at 9:05 AM by BFMatt

Comments have been closed for this article.