Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Customers are a terrible thing!

If you have the fortune of being in a startup type of company, you have the luxury of probably not having any customers yet. You might have some strong possibilities that you’re talking to, but nobody has formally paid you money yet (other than your investors!). You also don’t have any type of product on the market. That means no support headaches. Nobody screaming at you to fix anything. Nobody telling you that they have to have some particular thing as soon as freaking possible. You are free to focus your attention on getting together the initial version of whatever product or service you intend to offer.

Fast forward a few months – you’re now officially “in business.” You’ve started selling to those long-sought-after customers and the money is starting to flow. Unfortunately, so are the headaches. Now you’ve got folks out there who are actually relying on your product or service. They paid good money, and they expect everything to be perfect. And they also feel that they have the right to dictate your future direction. Not that that is a bad thing, but it is a distracting thing.

So, now, all that wonderful focus you were able to have at the beginning is getting diluted by the problems and suggestions of your newfound customer base. Hence, “customers are a terrible thing” – they make you focus on and do things that you might rather not. It’s frustrating having to divert so much time to these tasks, especially if you still have a long list of stuff you wish you had done the first time around.

You have two choices here. One, do the best possible job in the first pass at whatever product or service you’re planning to offer so that you’ll be able to avoid most of the requests and complaints. Good luck with that. Of course, you may never get to market, ever, probably resulting in running out of funds before a good revenue flow gets going.

Or, two, appreciate your customers for what they’re doing – telling you exactly what you need to do to provide more value to them. By fixing problems and providing things they specifically request, you are helping them, providing more value for what they’re paying, all while you are increasing your company’s value as well. Everybody wins.

In fact, the key point here is to include some of your likely customers early in the process. Even if you are a well-established company, this applies if you’re beginning work on some new product as well. Get those customers into your shop and pick their brains clean to the nub. But don’t stop there. Bring them in as often as you can (even if via phone or video conference) to see the work in progress and offer fine-tuning to your ideas as you go.

That will prevent you from marching down completely invalid paths, providing overly complex solutions, or adding things that “get in the way” rather than adding true value. Development of your solution will not take longer than it otherwise would. Indeed, by saving all the backtracking, false starts, and duplicated efforts, you will save – significantly – in the long run.

Having 100% of your customers be satisfied 100% of the time is impossible, so accept the fact that you’ll have to speak with a few of the peeved ones occasionally. Do not avoid these interactions – unpleasant as they might sound. On the surface, these situations appear to have all the excitement of a good rope burn. But, handled deftly, you have the opportunity to turn them around and transform a customer from miserable to delighted.

More on that next time.

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