“If you build it, he will come.”

Those famous words heard by Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams inspired a generation of dreamers, including more than a handful of start-up founders.

But sometimes when you build it, they don’t come. What then?

Entrepreneurs start with an idea. If it’s a good one, it’s rooted in a real need or problem: 

  • The desire to connect with friends and family — Facebook
  • The urgency of having a car sometimes — ZipCar
  • The need for a convenient way to buy books online — Amazon

The problem occurs when companies lose focus on the need they’re trying to solve, or worse, never consider their customers to begin with. They prioritize things that don’t matter. They innovate for innovation’s sake. They begin to push out features no one cares about or launch products no one buys. Before they know it, they no longer matter.

Now don’t get me wrong. Iterating product and optimizing operations are important. There are a handful of product-driven companies that have become wildly successful by leading with amazing products (hello, Apple). Yet many companies are facing challenges because they have been too inwardly-focused and are now fighting to stay relevant (JCPenney, Zynga, RIM).

So what separates the enduring, successful companies from others? They keep the customer at their core, no matter how many twists and turns the company takes or how large it gets.

This doesn’t mean reacting to everything your customers complain about or checking with them before making any decision. It does mean acting in ways that benefit your customers or strengthen your relationships. After all, they’re the reason you’re in business.

Whether you’re a new entrepreneur or find yourself needing to re-focus your company’s priorities, recognizing that the customer is important is half the battle. Here are some tips to keeping your customers at the center of your business:

1. Ask your customers what they want…and listen.

Field of Dreams may be a lesson in believing, but it’s also a lesson in listening. Many founders are good listeners, but they sometimes listen only to those who agree with them (thank you, confirmation bias). Unless you’re the secret love child of the late Steve Jobs and the great Anna Wintour, it’s important to make decisions based on a diverse set of opinions. 

I was shocked to learn many companies struggle without much input from their most valuable experts: their own customers. They think they know best or think that they need to go at it alone.

Surveys (if done right) are an effective way of taking a pulse of what you’re doing well and what you need to work on. Some I’ve launched have had over 50% response rates (usual rates are closer to 10%). I find customers want to be heard and make companies they buy from better; they just won’t go through a ton of hoops to do so.

Make sure to keep your surveys short. Less than 2-3 minutes or 3 questions is a good rule for the periodic check-in. 

And keep the tone personal, authentic, and as transparent as you can. Tell them why you’re enlisting their help: “We’re considering changing our site layout to be easier to use and wanted to get your input as one of our most loyal customers.”

You’ll get better responses. No one cares about filling out a survey from some random third-party pop-up, but they will help if they feel valued.

2. Talk to your customers face-to-face.

In the old ways of business, the shop owner would see his customers every day. Even the sales guy would have to visit his accounts on a regular basis. 

Today, so much of what we do is virtual that we sometimes forget that there really is no substitute for human interaction.

Just because you’re a tech company doesn’t mean you have an excuse. If you’re an online-only retailer, take the opportunity at your next pop-up shop to work the floor and talk to customers.  If you’re an app, host a customer-appreciation event at a café or bar and invite some of your most loyal users. It’ll make them feel welcomed, and you’ll be surprised at what you may learn. 

As a nice bonus, I always find these events really energizing for my teams.

3. Reframe Customer Service Representatives as Customer Gurus.

One of my responsibilities as head of marketing at Everlane included running customer service (what we called "customer experience"). Before this role, I had the perception that customer service was a minimum-wage call-center job, outsourced to India. And it sometimes is, but shouldn’t be if possible. 

The customer service and sales teams are often a company’s main conduits to the outside world. They are the front lines to customers. Use them. 

At Gilt Groupe, we would read notable customer service tickets aloud during our weekly company-wide all-hands meetings. Some of the comments were positive, some were opportunities for improvement, and many didn’t even apply to my specific group. 

Hearing those remarks on a regular basis reminded me why we all have a job in the first place. On occasion, some of those comments would spark new projects and initiatives to improve how we served our members.

Good customer service representatives hold a wealth of information. They have great intuition into what customers really need. Elevate your customer service team, trust them, and empower them to act on behalf of your customers. At online retailer Bonobos, they’re even called ninjas.

4. Ask yourself: ‘Would my most loyal customer agree with this decision?’

A few years ago, I had the fortune of doing some consulting work for Nordstrom. Talk about an iconic retailer with a long history in the business.

What I found inspiring was, despite its rich heritage and success, Nordstrom never let the company or brand become more important than its customers. The leadership would often ask, “Is this best for our shoppers?” or “How will the customer benefit?” when making decisions. 

Yes, sometimes that meant saying no to ideas that could have made Nordstrom more competitive or increased revenue in the short-term. Those decisions may be tough at the time, but as the airline industry has shown, short-term profits do not create enduring brands, satisfied customers, or long-term results.

I’ve found Net Promoter Score (NPS) to be an effective barometer of whether your most loyal customers agree with your decisions; it’s also one of the best gauges of enduring customer relationships.

Ask your customers how likely they are to recommend you to a friend on a 0-10 scale, with 0 being not likely to recommend. Those scoring 9-10 are promoters, 0-6 are detractors, and everyone else is neutral. Your NPS is the percent of promoters minus the percent of detractors. 

A good NPS is above 50% (Nordstrom’s was around 66% the last time I checked). NPS is something useful to incorporate into your surveys and track over time (see point #1).

5. Embed a customer focus into all aspects of your culture. 

It’s one thing to have a few people in your company care about customers (usually customer service and marketing). Being customer-focused requires more than that – it requires making it known to the entire company that customers are important. Even a good development team should prioritize features that improve the user experience. And it starts with the founder.

For tips on culture, Tony Hsieh is much better at this than I am. If you haven’t yet read his book Delivering Happiness, I highly recommend it. I had the honor of meeting him a few years ago, and I find the Zappos case study an inspiring example of how to put the customer at the center of your business, and in the process, create a $1.2 billion company. 

These points aren’t to say that every company should be exclusively customer-centric, although I find that if you do right by the customer, other things have a way of falling into place.

As a startup founder, you must deal with a lot of stakeholders: investors, shareholders, and your board. Just don’t forget that the customer should be the most important one of them. Once they turn their backs on you, the others will too.

And then no matter what you build, no one will come.


Jonathan TranPham is founder of JTP Consulting and was previously head of marketing at Everlane. Follow him on Twitter.

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