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Want to grow your startup? Talk to your customers

Direct communication with customers isn’t just a ‘nice to have’ when building and growing a startup; it needs to be at the core of your business strategy.

While startups often feel close to customers, there can still be that push and pull between the original vision and how customers are actually using the product or service. Building relationships through genuine, ongoing customer conversations—whether they be via survey, customer service feedback forms, email or social media, or in-person events or meet-and-greets—offers insight into what customers actually want in terms of experience, features, and even pricing. These conversations can also help new brands build a reputation that is both personable and authentic.

Share your story

Regardless of how you feel about first impressions, they matter. Nate Masterson, CEO of natural beauty product brand Maple Holistics, provided some great insight into creating a connection before even striking up a conversation.

“If a small business wants to boost their profits and customer experience, it’s crucial that they capitalize on all of the pitfalls of modern mass-consumerism. It’s important for small businesses to introduce themselves and share their story,” he said. “This simple marketing technique is a great way to stand out and engage an audience without having to promote sales and markdowns. Besides giving your brand a voice, sharing your story can add character to your business and appeal to consumer emotions.

An example of exceptional brand storytelling is from Billie, a startup that sells razors for women. This female-first business was motivated by frustration about the societal misconception that women are required to shave—when in fact it’s a choice—and the infamous pink tax that charges women more for personal care and health necessities, amongst many other items.

It’s clear from the moment you land on Billie’s website that they’re all about empowering women. Not only does it feel like they’re on your side, but the brand does a great job of showing and not just telling. They donate 1 percent of revenue to Every Mother Counts, an organization committed to making pregnancy and childbirth safe for women everywhere. They’ve also started Project Body Hair, a celebration of female body hair (wherever it is or isn’t), which features the first ever ad to show body hair by a women’s razor brand. (It’s actually pretty cool and you should totally check it out.)

The result has been a community of women who feel seen, heard, and most importantly, connected to Billie and its products.

Uncover customer pain points and be willing to pivot

When startups don’t take the time to stop and speak with customers, things can get tricky fast. No matter how grand an idea or vision seems, if it doesn’t help solve an actual problem, there’s a slim chance of becoming the next Steve Jobs.

As Jenna Erickson, a marketing manager at Codal, a UX design and development agency, said, "; if you ignore customer feedback, you’ll never know how to make your product or service better. Business owners may think they know what the end-user wants, but there is no better way to understand it than actually talking to them. At Codal, we work with a lot of startups and we always recommend to conduct user testing before and after the product is launched. This way, we collect early feedback and are able to make the necessary changes to ensure that the product is something that consumers and users want to use.”

Dr. Jeffrey Wehrung, chair of the School of Business at Black Hills State University, has some great actionable advice on how to gain valuable feedback and get to the heart of these conversations.

He recommends asking customers to provide detailed explanations of how they use your product or service and identifying any workaround solutions they may have created.

Also, find opportunities to watch your product or service in use. “Customers are often unaware of how they are actually using a product, which makes deliberate observations even more valuable," Wehrung said. “This suggests there is a job to be done beyond the initial intended use.”

He also recommends verifying assumptions with actual customers. “You have likely developed a story about the customer's experience and the pains they are experiencing. This is important, but only to the extent that your story is accurate. Describe that story to your customer and make sure the pain points you have identified are actually accurate. You don't want to waste effort solving an assumed problem that isn't actually the root of your customer's pain.”

"You have likely developed a story about the customer's experience and the pains they are experiencing. This is important, but only to the extent that your story is accurate." - Dr. Jeffrey Wehrung

Take, for example, this story from Kenneth Burke, marketing director at Text Request, a B2B SaaS startup.

Text Request started as a customer service tool for the hospitality industry. Because, how great would it be to text a hotel or restaurant for anything you need? Yet after launching, they found a little traction. After talking to hundreds of people, Kenneth and his team learned that potential customers would much rather text for sales and marketing. So they pivoted in that direction and found success.

His team asked questions like:

  • What are you using our product for?
  • What would make this better?
  • What are you trying to accomplish, and how can we tailor our product to help you do that?

Asking those questions, along with regular check-ins, helped Text Request build great relationships with its customers—along with a product customers love. “Once we had the features and solutions people needed, and displayed those on our website, our inbound leads went up exponentially. We're still growing at a really fast rate (well over 100 percent year-over-year) and that wouldn't have happened without all of those customer conversations.”

Keep the communication flowing

Before you send out a mass survey or pick up the phone to dial your best customers’ numbers, make sure to carefully profile the people you’re engaging with and be strategic in your approach.

Matt Bentley, owner of CanIRank, a company that provides SEO software for small businesses, groups his clients into different archetypes so that he can construct more personalized communication. He does this by asking new customers to fill out a simple questionnaire during onboarding to determine the method and frequency that customers prefer to receive any communications. Bentley said, “Some clients simply prefer email or Trello, while others want direct phone calls and weekly check-ins. We also conduct a satisfaction survey every few months, or as appropriate, to monitor our performance and to assure the client that we value their input."

Some clients simply prefer email or Trello, while others want direct phone calls and weekly check-ins.

Bentley wasn’t the only person I chatted with who was fond of proactively collecting information from new customers and then setting up a plan for continuous follow up.

Rally Stanoeva, head of marketing at Rewind, a SaaS backup solution for cloud apps, also mentioned that beyond live chat, email support, and social media, her team has invited every single customer—since day one—to include a brief phone interview as part of the onboarding process. This has helped Rewind gain thousands of customers and grow the team.

Holding one-on-one customer interviews helped shape both Rewind and CanIRank’s marketing messaging, inform product changes through direct feedback, and build a community of brand evangelists.

Be sure to take action

The options are endless when it comes to the ‘how’ of gathering feedback, but it’s what happens after the conversation that counts.

“Businesses that harness the power of customer insights tap into a river of ideas that truly connect with their customers,” said Fiona Adler, founder of, software for team productivity. “When businesses are just starting out, their founders are usually in touch with customers and are naturally building those insights into the business. As companies grow, they need to create systems and structures to access those insights.”

One of the best ways to do this? Create a repository for customer insights across all channels that is accessible to all team members. This could be as simple as a Google sheet or as sophisticated as an omnichannel support solution with the power to capture and consolidate all customer interactions. “There needs to be a culture of continuously talking about those insights and making it an agenda item in each meeting and asking, ” Adler said.

At, Adler said customer insights have had a strong influence over many areas of the business. These results—and benefits to the business—include:

  • Making the product, and the customer experience better through feature development and tweaks to the customer journey
  • Providing quality control for customer service by identifying the need for further training or performance management
  • Bolstering employee morale by providing positive customer feedback to all parts of the organization
  • Uncovering gaps in marketing, where customers aren’t aware that certain features are available to them or opportunities to create content that, like blog articles, using the exact language that your customers use to describe your product or service
  • Identifying extremely satisfied customers and using their feedback as social proof in the form of testimonials, case studies, or reviews—or as customer referrals

Making routine time to have insightful customer conversations can sound like a deeply complex task, but in actuality, it just takes a certain willingness to connect and the ability to put your pride aside to ask questions and listen. Chances are, your customers will have a lot to say.

Mariana Ruiz is a freelance copywriter & content marketer using stories to connect with people. She writes for small businesses and entrepreneurs on customer success, marketing, lifestyle and travel topics. Her hobbies include traveling to tropical beaches as often as possible and contemplating what it means to be human in this wild world. Connect with her on LinkedIn or say hello on Instagram.

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