It’s Not Too Late for New Years Resolutions as Long as You Resolve to Follow Them

Whether your startup is as young as a New Year’s baby, or approaching its first (or fifth, for that matter) birthday, there are few more important things a startup CEO can do on the first quasi-official workday of 2014 than set, or reset, the company culture around customer feedback.

Lots of startups do this with simple rules, such as:

  • Every member of the leadership team must talk voice-to-voice with a customer proactively every day (not  just handling gripes, but reaching out for unstructured “discovery” conversations)
  • Everyone in the company should get face-to-face with one (or two or five) customers or prospects a week
  • the first 15 (or 30 or 5) minutes of every key meeting should begin with “what I learned from customers”
  • A wall of the office should be devoted to jumbo post-its featuring the week’s best/worst customer comments

If this isn’t part of the culture, your customer development efforts are just about sunk.  And the first full week of the New Year is a great time to cast in concrete the role of customer conversations as a key ingredient in the company’s day-to-day operations.

Some of the best learning comes from “non customers,” including several groups where the learning’s most powerful:

  • People who visited your site once or several times but didn’t buy or engage
  • Customers who started out like balls of fire but have since abandoned
  • Customers who’ve never referred you to another customer
  • Those who have reduced their visit/purchase/engagement frequency

As long as you structure these calls in the most positive, dialog-oriented way possible, your learning can be immense. To do so, follow these simple rules:

  1. NO SELLING…promise the person you’re not calling to win them back, just calling to learn
  2. START WITH EMAIL…lay out the reasons why you are eager for a ten minute chat with the abandoner. Assure him/her that this is not a “win back” call, just a learning call. And…
  3. OFFER AN EXPLICIT BARGAIN, like “if you’ll take ten minutes on the phone with me, I’ll send you a (Starbucks/Amazon/company) gift card to thank you for your time.

There are few more powerful lessons than those we learn from our customers. But if you don’t ask, you don’t learn.  And, no, this is not a good task for the CEO to assign to others, unless she’s sitting right next to them, smiling and dialing along with the rest of the team!

Bob Dorf speaks with, coaches and trains startups in lean customer development all over the world. He blogs at and tweets @bobdorf.


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