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The 5 best ways to actually engage your startup’s customers

There are more articles on leadership and best practices for running a startup written every second than there are sheep in Ireland stripped of their fleece every month. Just check out the various channels on LinkedIn Pulse and have a look. So you’d imagine, then, that every nuanced tip, trick, and fiendish work of magic to ensuring your startup’s success would be well known and understood by every entrepreneur and business owner in the entire universe.

And you’d be wrong.

Because, you see, while the myriad bits of advice are all well and good, and, to be sure, generally quite spot on, there’s one critically important point that, while touched upon by all who write such things, is catastrophically lacking in detail; the sort of detail without which you might as well not even be told about it in the first place.

Imagine trying to follow a recipe — dice 2 onions, melt 3 tablespoons of butter, sear the steak — and then simply, without any additional information at all, cook the fois gras. Nothing else. Just “cook the fois gras.” This would be the culinary equivalent of explaining to somehow how to build an airplane where the 738th step says simply “build engine.”

And that’s precisely the sort of problem with articles on how best to run your startup: while they go into excruciatingly particular detail on just about every possible tactic, they invariably end up, at some point, at Tip #3: engage your customers, which is usually a paragraph or two simply reiterating that you should, in fact, go out of your way to, well, engage your customers, without actually explaining how to engage them, or offering any practicable, actionable ways to do so.

So then. Let’s fix that. Behold: the five ways to actually engage your startup’s customers. Like really, actually engage them.

5. Respond to your support tickets immediately

This should go without saying, but it’s astonishing how often people drop the ball on this one; I certainly have before. But it’s crucially important to be immediate, to be thorough, and to never leave a customer hanging. Granted, this is absolutely not scalable ad infinitum, hence Paul Graham’s advice from Y Combinator that startups should do things that don’t scale. 

4. As CEO, respond from your personal email now and then

Whether you, as CEO, also wear the tech support hat, or your startup is large enough to have a dedicated tech support person — or team — make a point to respond to support tickets with your direct email address now and then, and make sure your details are in your email signature so they know who you are.

Not only does this add a supremely awesome layer of authenticity to your startup, but your customers will absolutely love to know how much you care, and to know that they can get a hold of you whenever they need to.

Do not do this for all, or even most, of your support requests; just the most critical ones, where “critical” is defined as any matter where your startup just totally dropped the ball; a customer is pissed at you for a billing issue; or they’re otherwise disappointed in your product, service, botched support, or whatever it may be.

Finally, don’t do this just to feign attentive, personal support: actually reply back once they respond to you, and keep the email thread open as long as practicable.

3. Send email surveys and questionnaires, and respond personally to each and every one

This is related to #2 above. Now and then, it’s imperative that you get good feedback from your customers, including and especially your paying customers. When the time comes, make sure that you, as CEO, send the survey questions yourself.

First, it will hugely increase your response rates, and second, it will open a line of dialogue with your customers that will prove invaluable in the future. As cautioned in #2 above, though, make sure to reply back after you receive your survey results and keep the thread open.

It’s astonishing how willing to help customers are when they know they’ve got a direct line of correspondence with the CEO of the startup whose product they use and love.

2. Proactively refund customers as needed… before they even ask for it

I was torn whether to place this at the #1 slot, but for reasons that should become apparent shortly, I think #2 is appropriate.

We had a really rocky start with Twibble when we spun it out of our previous startup (perhaps a story for another time?). Suffice to say, we made a lot of mistakes, we kept crashing, and we generally kept screwing up left and right.

And that’s when it hit me: based on the frustrated admiration we were nevertheless  reading in our support tickets — it was plainly apparent that our customers loved our product, even though we were often not able to deliver as expected — I realized that there was only one surefire way that we were going to get through this:

We had to own up to our blunders and proactively refund our customers before they even asked for it.

“As a token of our apology,” I’ve written on numerous occasions, “I’ve just personally refunded you last month’s payment.”

The first time we did this was a bit jarring, if I’m honest. I mean, companies don’t usually go about refunding customers when the customer hasn’t even asked for it. And even when customers do make a formal request, there’s often a lot of back and forth, bargaining, negotiating, and generally fatiguing conversations, with the end result often not even a full refund, but merely a fraction thereof.

But the more we did this, and the more we saw the absolutely elated shock from our customers, the clearer it became to us: this was absolutely the right thing to do, and something you should do too. It will win you massive points, and, quite possibly, save you from losing customers when you do inevitably screw up.

1. Be personal, be transparent, be honest

If you follow the four points above, you’ll soon find yourself in an admittedly unsustainable, but highly rewarding dialogue with many of your customers; a dialogue which you absolutely must continue as long as you are able.

While part of this dialogue is to work with them through technical issues; to assure them that you’re focused on their particular issues or questions; or to discuss their responses to questions or surveys you’ve sent, another large part of the correspondence is to let them into your world, to give them an insider look at what your startup is like, from the inside-out.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve just completely dropped any semblance of professional CEO persona, how many times I’ve just totally dropped our guard and showed our hands: “Nope, it’s absolutely inexcusable,” I’ve written, “we’ve totally dropped the ball. The truth is, we’ve just been totally overwhelmed by numerous technical issues, and I am sorry.”

What’s important is not simply explaining away your mistakes, but actually bringing the customer inside, letting them see and feel and experience what it’s like in your startup. They need to feel that you are another person, just like them, and that your “startup” is really just a collection of several other people, also just like them.

So that’s the recipe for truly engaging your customers. Be responsive; be personal; be proactive with refunds; and be open, honest, and transparent. It will blow your customers away, while blowing you away with their loyalty and gratitude. In fact, it’s how we raised our prices and increased demand, and broke economics.

If you have any other thoughts on customer engagement, please let us know in the comments. Have any questions for me? Fire away.

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