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Why startups need to constantly communicate with their customers

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Originally published on Oct 17, 2013 on TNW

A lot of entrepreneurs talk about optimizing their products so they run faster, look better, go viral – but it’s important to remember that none of this can happen unless you are constantly getting feedback from your most valuable asset: Your customers.

During Seedcamp’s recent U.S. trip, we met with many companies like Return Path, Erply, Zemanta, Percolate, OneFineStay, BarkBox, GrabCad, Pinterest, Airbnb, and RunKeeper, to name a few. The consensus from these conversations is that you must continually talk to your customers. Without doing so, you won’t be able to focus on what’s most important: Providing them the value you promised.

In concept, customer communication seems relatively straightforward. But in practice, everyone we spoke with shared that they all experienced varying degrees of difficulty.

Here are the two main reasons why it can be tough to continue listening.

1. It’s hard to tell who you should really please

As a startup, you have the pressure of fundraising and needing to articulate to potential investors a “big vision,” which in many ways can be an extension of your original value proposition. However, that can sometimes lead to an over-extension in order to give the appearance of not thinking too small.

The problem is that unless your customers validate your assumptions shortly after your successful fundraise, you may find yourself going down the wrong path to keep up an “appearance” rather than refocusing on what you know to be the real value to your customer. This may, in turn, burn valuable resources along the way.

It’s a tough call to make, but it is one that could literally cost you your startup if made too late.

2. Not everyone’s needs can be addressed

When you personally believe a product feature or functionality is what will provide value, you may suffer from self-confirmation bias rather than resorting to a real understanding of the needs of the customer. This could result in creating too many features that were requested by your customers (or yourself), thus distracting you from building on the core proposition.

When turning down feature requests from customers, you don’t always have to coldly reject the critique with a big “No.” Rather, as Jason Jacobs, CEO and founder of Boston-based startup Runkeeper suggests, think about whether their comments can be useful in the future, and tell your customers,”Not yet.”

But you still must focus on customer conversations

Continuing to listen is only half the battle. The first half is identifying who your customers are and knowing how to speak to them effectively.

Rob Fitzpatrick’s new book, “The Mom Test,” does a nice job highlighting the methodical process which you can use to avoid the typical pitfalls of customer conversations. This could include confirmation bias and looking for compliments rather than actual feedback. You may think your product is the best thing out there, but be prepared to hear otherwise from the people who matter.

Secondly, it’s important to know who your customers are in the first place. In typical B2C companies, that might be more straightforward, but for non-B2C companies, it can take a little bit more work.

Take B2B2C models for example. These cases pose a unique challenge because it can be tempting to stop short of talking to the end customer and primarily focus on the immediate buyer, partner, or distributor. Don’t forget that the “C” stands for consumer, therefore, it is crucial that the customer that derives most value from your proposition in your marketplace.

In the example of a B2B2C business, you will want to have a relationship with the end customer if you want to keep control of your brand and what it stands for. Your marketing message will likely still have to be targeted to them and you will have to invest in those efforts to reach them, even if there is an intermediary step of the ultimate “buyer.”

Customer conversations should involve understanding the dynamics of both the end user and the B2B side of things. With customers, you must communicate with them to position your product vis-a-vis the competitors. You can do this better than your distributors or partners may be able to, even if they are helping you reach them.

Focusing too much on partners may leave you with a product that the end customer doesn’t care about or is wrongly adapted to their needs because you spent too much time caring about distributors.

Another form of customer conversation that needs to be done in tandem is one that is part of a two-sided marketplace. Yes, it will be twice as much work, but it is necessary in order to make sure you aren’t building an “unbalanced” customer acquisition process and product development. Below are some of the articles that thoughtfully discusses the topic.

Keep in mind who you are talking to

The most complex situation is when the customer is not various individuals, but many people disguised as a single figure. This usually happens in situations where the end user is not empowered to actually make the decision to buy. Rather, there is a series of people within an organization that jointly make a purchasing decision.

In slides 49 to 51, Michael J. Skok has a good break down of what he calls the Decision Making Unit (DMU). He discusses the potential constituents of a DMU, and encourages you to think of them as a unit. This means “speaking to your customer” equates to speaking to all of them as they jointly make the decision. Not all organizations have all the components of Skok’s full DMU list, so it’s just about finding the ones that are required to make a decision – and think of those as the DMU.

After hearing many founders share their stories, it is clear that you need to constantly keep in touch with your customers as you continue to evolve your proposition and maintaining focus on what delivers value. The further you are from the reference customer, the more you need to be mindful of not losing touch with your users and their needs, for that can be fatal in an early stage business.