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The best disruptors offer more than a cool new platform or product

The importance of providing great customer experiences can never be understated. Yet for startups, the initial experience customers have with your products can be the deciding factor in whether your company survives. The barriers that young companies face—whether legal, financial or social—make customer experience (CX) an important factor in gaining a loyal customer base. If the first experience isn’t great, why return? This is something Ellevest, Slack, and Eaze recognized early, which helped them transition from the early startup phase into companies that customers rave about.

Ellevest: Breaking up the boy's club

Conjure an image of “The Man” and a dark, smoky room full of faceless oligarchs pulling the strings of society may come to mind. Yet for Sallie Krawcheck, CEO and co-founder of Ellevest, that smoky room was her office and the faceless oligarchs her industry peers. Krawcheck’s career highlights include stints on Wall Street and influential positions at both Citigroup and Bank of America, yet the 2008 financial crisis revealed to her that the financial sector was in need of a facelift.

“90% of traders are men, overwhelmingly white men. Homogenous groups over-trust each other, right?” Krawcheck said to podcast host Mio Adilman in an episode of Repeat Customer, “[Nobody] believes that if the trading floors of Wall Street were 50% female, 50% male, 40, 45% people of color, that the financial crisis would have been worse.”

Yet for startups, the initial experience customers have with your products can be the deciding factor in whether your company survives.

This was the thought that sparked Ellevest, a digital investing platform that understands that women have vastly different needs than men when it comes to planning for their futures. While most financial advising services aim to be “gender-neutral,” Krawcheck recognized that this philosophy actually disadvantages women, who live on average six to eight years longer than men.

The average woman’s earning potential, however, maxes out in her 40s, while the average male salary continues increasing into his 60s. This leaves many women with less money than their male counterparts over the course of a longer retirement.

Unlike the many one-size-fits-all financial advisors that dominate the market, Ellevest made a large investment in the specific (and large) customer base it serves. Rather than just notifying customers when their portfolio is off-track, Ellevest tries to explain what that means in simple terms, and offer tangible ways to get back on track. Education is a key component of what the startup offers—even going so far as to offer career counseling, to help women earn more as they plan for the future.

This leaves many women with less money than their male counterparts over the course of a longer retirement.

In an industry that never considered the impact of targeting and catering to women, Krawcheck and her team created an investment experience they believe can empower an entire generation of women to take control of their money. And if we’re talking dollars, Ellevest may potentially unlock over a trillion dollars in untapped market value.

[Listen now: Ellevest’s gender-aware investing experience]

Slack: Solving problems you didn’t know you had

Another startup that radically shook up the industry and recently IPO’d, Slack was born from a common problem faced by many organizations in the early 2010s. With communication growing increasingly fragmented thanks to the multitude of apps available in a rapidly growing market, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield noticed that the failing video game he was developing included a feature that could help streamline workplace communication.

“The key idea is the channel exists independent of its members,” Butterfield explained, “So what ends up happening is everyone's looking at the same things, whereas in email, everyone's looking at a partial, fractured version, entirely their own view.”

Anyone that has used Slack can attest to how simple yet versatile the tool can be. And this was what the company banked on when they first began market testing the product. Ali Rayl, vice president of customer experience at Slack, said that when they first launched, the team consisted almost entirely of engineers.

“What we decided was, if we make a product that people feel passionate about, a product that people want to bring into their workplaces and convince their bosses to pay for, because it makes them so much better at work, then we’ll have a business,” Rayl said.

Anyone that has used Slack can attest to how simple yet versatile the tool can be.

In order to generate this kind of hype, the Slack team gave out prototypes to friends in other organizations. People implemented the tool within their teams and saw how much it boosted productivity—which led other teams throughout the organization to adopt the tool.

This word-of-mouth marketing made Slack’s ability to provide customer support crucial, but it also presented an opportunity for product development. Rayl explained how they would invite a group of people onto the platform and closely monitor the support center. If a particular bug kept recurring, the team would pause the invites until that bug was fixed. This process taught Slack a lot about the wants and needs of their customers, who were just as new to the product—and its future evolution—as the engineers were.

This kind of responsiveness and attention to the customer experience is a must for any startup; especially if you’re breaking ground on a whole new industry. To sum up what the team gained from their early prototyping, Butterfield said: “If you learn how to interpret, how to listen and how to respond, you can use customer feedback to create a world-leading product.”

[Read also: Providing always-human conversations, even at scale]

Eaze: Moving from black market to upmarket

Eaze also found success through word-of-mouth. Yet following its launch in 2014, the company’s delivery service was gaining visibility at a time when the legality of medicinal cannabis was still unclear.

This kind of responsiveness and attention to the customer experience is a must for any startup; especially if you're breaking ground on a whole new industry.

When Eaze launched its platform, recreational cannabis use was still illegal throughout the country. This meant that Eaze products were not allowed to be advertised online since they violated the vice clauses that companies like Google and Apple have in place. This eliminated a common mechanism—targeted digital ads—through which many startups find and reach their initial customer base.

Instead, Eaze went back to the basics—using billboards and print advertising to develop initial interest and eventually relying on its great customer experience to spread the word.

Ann-Marie Alcantara, from Adweek, described the first time she saw someone use the app. She and a friend had ordered cannabis on Eaze, as well as some food from a different delivery app. Seven minutes later, their Eaze order was at the door. Meanwhile, their food order was still in the prep stage. Eaze’s on-demand service delivers on being on demand.

Yet for a company that sees itself in the wellness business, Eaze’s customer experiences have to go beyond speedy deliveries.

Instead, Eaze went back to the basics—using billboards and print advertising to develop initial interest and eventually relying on its great customer experience to spread the word.

The company launched Eaze Insights to provide education on cannabis for new or curious users. Due to the many misconceptions that stem from the illegal history of cannabis, there are social stigmas and the challenge of misinformation to overcome. Before the legalization of marijuana, EazeMD (now a retired site) functioned as a platform to ask questions about obtaining a medical marijuana license, where to find a doctor, or to get general information on Eaze’s products.

Quality of both the delivery and education experience is key, which is why Eaze’s support team is comprised of generalized support agents that handle inquiries about deliveries and “concierges”—cannabis experts who can help with any product-related questions. “I had to staff a little bit differently, it wasn't just about hiring support people,” said Mick Frederick, vice president of customer experience at Eaze. “Whether you smoke it or not, you needed to know a lot about cannabis. I didn't care if they partook, my thing was ‘do you have the knowledge?’”

[Listen now: How Eaze is changing the customer experience for a newly legal product: cannabis]

Let your customer experience help raise your brand voice above the noise
For Eaze, a speedy cannabis delivery service is great, but helping customers feel good about their purchase, and helping them understand how to use the products, is better. When industries are new or disrupted for the first time, customer insight and education is vital. Seeking early feedback, like Slack, led to a product that companies can’t function without. And for Ellevest, research into its customer base made clear that better investing begins much earlier, with understanding one’s worth and asking for equitable pay. These are breakthroughs that stem from listening and result in positive, holistic customer experiences.

If you’re involved in a startup looking to elevate its customers’ experiences in a similar way then perhaps the Zendesk startup program is right for you. With one free year of the Zendesk Suite included, startup partners also have access to educational content and our MeetUps series which aims to foster knowledge sharing and community building between local startups.

Many of our customers started with Zendesk when they were first getting off the ground. Recognizing our own humble beginnings, Zendesk is dedicated to helping the newest generation of startups to avoid facing some of the problems that other small businesses dealt with.

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