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4 steps for launching a customer-focused startup

You've spent hours upon hours coding in your apartment, in cafes, even while riding public transit. Now comes the nerve-wracking part: your first customers are about to take your product for a spin. You know that you need a customer service team, but you've never built one before. Where do you begin?

So while it's easy to obsess over every product feature, startup founders need to prioritize building relationships with their customers from day one.

That said, cultivating a relationship with your customers can be incredibly difficult. It takes diligence, patience, and processes that can be difficult for founders—and at the heart of it all is being committed to listening to customers. "Your product doesn't yell at you. Your product is like a dog, mostly obedient and never complaining. Your customers are like your boyfriend or your girlfriend, though. They have expectations and feedback because you're in a real relationship that may not always be so easy to master," says Mikkel Svane, Zendesk CEO. "You have to be vulnerable with your customers."

This is tough and, in the beginning, you will have the least amount of resources and processes in place—so it's all hands on deck. Here are four crucial steps for laying the groundwork for your future customer service team.

"Your product doesn't yell at you. Your product is like a dog, mostly obedient and never complaining. Your customers are like your boyfriend or your girlfriend, though. They have expectations and feedback." - Mikkel Svane

1. Talk to every customer

As the face of the company, the founder must be available to those early customers on a personal level. Give customers your email address and respond in a timely fashion. Model this behavior in front of your team, however small or large.

2. Learn what makes customers happy—and what makes them angry

Listen on your social media channels and investigate every complaint. Those gripes are gifts, and its how your customers will teach you. Dig into the details to find meaningful insights, and Pay attention for precisely those reasons.

3. Amplify the voice of your users

Don't stop with just talking to customers—make their voice the loudest thing in the room. For example, use software like Geckoboard or Klipfolio to create internal dashboards that display real-time customer feedback (as well as other important business metrics). Consider building a dedicated channel in Slack that broadcasts customer issues to all employees—it's a great way to get product managers, engineers, and other employees directly involved in the support process.

4. Base product iterations on customer feedback

When developing your product roadmap (and later, when you're hashing out the product requirements), be sure to incorporate user feedback. Analyze how they're using your product and embrace agile development so you can shift direction quickly without losing large amounts of development time.

No startup wants to cater to every customer’s whim, but by creating a customer-obsessed culture early on, you can be sure you’re developing in the right direction. "Startups need to think about support as a core company concept early on… One mistake that I’ve seen too often is that startups start thinking of support as an afterthought. One of your first hires should be on the support team,” says Jason Katz, a member support senior manager at Peloton.

"Startups need to think about support as a core concept early on... One of your first hires should be on the support team." – Jason Katz, Peloton

The feedback is bad. What now?

It’s okay; put that feedback to use. Here’s how:

  • Follow up with users who give you a negative rating or review. This is a great way to build trust with customers and retain their business.
  • Analyze bad ratings or comments. Don’t overlook them in favor of the glowing reviews. Customers who are unhappy with your product or service are giving you actionable information—for free.
  • Meet every week to discuss customer satisfaction outcomes. Set aside time for the team to analyze and review the negative feedback together and brainstorm ways to remedy the underlying causes.
  • Group negative comments by cause—and look for trends. This will help you identify problem areas with your product, and also with your early support efforts or documentation.

So why is being vulnerable with your customers vital to your startup's future? Simply because those conversations—as awkward and painful as some of them will be—generate invaluable feedback that will help you build a product that truly serves your customers' needs.

Mark Smith is a writer, editor, and musician based in Bellingham, Washington.

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