For startups, it’s never too early to prioritize customers

Even in the best of times, most startups struggle to be successful. The external factors are well documented, such as poorly thought-out market need, a surprise competitor popping up, or issues raising capital. One element that is less discussed, and often ignored completely, is how quickly a customer success strategy was executed. As startups tend to focus on growth and scale, their leadership often forgets about what keeps the lights on for the long term – satisfied, repeat customers.

Rather than wait until its too late, your startup must focus on customer success as early as possible. Even with all the other ingredients in place – a great idea, an experienced leadership team, and sound investments – many companies fail because they try to go too big, too fast. Without a strong base of happy customers, any momentum you have will inevitably shrivel up.

Planning your customer success roadmap

The key to customer success is to never treat them as an afterthought or believe that solving their issues is a reactive necessity rather than planned change management. In the initial stages of a company, developing the products and market awareness tends to be the largest portion of budget allocation. However, as soon as licenses start being delivered to your first customers, your development team should be ready and trained to address their issues. Why development? At this stage, they are the only ones that are most familiar with the product and know where to look to make customer-facing updates.

As your company and product matures, plan to hire and run a success team that can take the load off development and provide a dedicated problem resolution path for customers. Ideally, this team is already in place before pursuing customers at a large scale and featured as a key differentiator of your offering.

It’s also important to ensure that all customer-facing processes are well documented. Every startup is more likely to have process debt versus technical debt, as the team runs hard to be the first to market. This approach is short sighted and inevitably leads to problems later. While the effort to document how things are done may seem like a burden at first, having well-structured and documented processes are critical to keeping existing customers happy and sustaining new ones.

As important as it is to have people managing external growth, there also needs to be a focus on the internals, someone who looks after important processes from creation to documentation and ensuring that they scale along with the company. Its also worth having all new hires document the processes they put into place, including both their transactional and strategic activities. Whether it’s a few months or years later, these documents provide invaluable guidance to new employees, ensure consistency across teams, and may even be called upon for due diligence activities by investors.

Empowering your team to treat customers well

A golden rule for any organization, startup or otherwise, is that when a customer has a problem, even if its not your problem, it’s your problem to solve. Without fail, customers want the reliability of a large-scale organization while also valuing the attention, care, and empathy of a personal relationship. Every individual on your customer success team should have the power and resources to take ownership of every situation. This helps the customer genuinely feel that the person supporting them is their advocate and has the ability to make things right. To do so, your success team must know that they have the flexibility to address issues and the freedom to experiment when fulfilling customers’ expectations.

At startup scale, this means that triaging and resolving issues cannot involve several layers of communication and approvals. If every customer question or complaint is coming to an executive’s desk, because they want a “hands-on” approach to managing relationships, it’s a recipe for failure. It’s not possible to run a company if leadership must know everything, and it pays to take a page out of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s method of time management. He used to say, “What is important is seldom urgent, and what is urgent is seldom important.” Unless something exhibits both criteria, the executive doesn’t need to hear about it. “If it’s urgent but not important, you can give it to someone else,” Eisenhower said. “If it’s important and not urgent, it can wait. These are the things that you try to portray to your management team and the people underneath them.”

To summarize the key strategies in building out a customer success team for startups:

  • Whether its your problem or not, your success team must own all customer issues
  • Empower your success team with the ability to solve issues themselves, with minimal management overhead
  • Ensure that all customer-facing processes are documented, and that someone is responsible for making it happen
  • Plan for it up front, and build the team as early as possible

A satisfied customer isn’t just a loyal one, they are also the foundation upon which a company’s success is built. By creating a culture that recognizes customers as a priority, as much as growth, you are fueling the engine to scale and success.

About the Author

Eli Fathi is the CEO at MindBridge Ai is a serial entrepreneur with several successful exits launching innovative technologies in North America that served a global customer base. By defining ambitious goals and empowering teams to take on the challenges and accomplish them, Eli founded or co-founded companies that currently employs over 300 people and have generated over $500 Million in salaries and other benefits to the economy since their inception.

He is passionate about personal growth, challenging yourself and others to be held to a higher standard and scaling up businesses around world class products that solve real world problems.

I always make time to help other emerging leaders and entrepreneurs, including by sharing my experiences in business on my blog at : www.mytakeonbusiness.com. I co-authored a book on Software project management & had 12 publications.

Specialties: Leadership, SaaS, Mentoring, Scaling up and Strategic thinking

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