Posts Tagged ‘Startup’

Customer Listening like a Lawn Service: Big Success from Small Business Experience

Written by Vance Fitzgerald. Posted in Customer Experience, Data Analysis

Successful lawn businesses always listen to their customers.

Since lawn companies start out with a manageable number of customers – it isn’t tough for them to truly listen and impact the customer experience. But they don’t listen just because they can, they listen because they have to. It makes them or breaks them.  Show me a lawn business that doesn’t listen to its customers and I’ll show you a nice trailer on ebay. Lawn businesses incorporate what they hear from every single customer into their subconscious set of “business rules.”  They then use these rules to prioritize their work.  It isn’t a documented process.  For lawn businesses, hearing customers is a very natural, logical and necessary survival reflex. The same is true for your business, no matter the size.

Growing Ears Hear More Noise

If you have a big business, or even a small but growing business, you know a lot.  One thing that you know is that maintaining intimate knowledge of your customers (and products) becomes tougher and tougher as you grow.  You know the weighting of the individual customer attributes gives way to broad stereotypes and that you have larger segments that you are aiming to please.  You begin to listen to subsets of your customers that you believe to be representative samples of your entire business.  You begin to listen in waves, re-actively, often through secondary proxies to capture the feedback.  You may have built surveys at some point with the best intent, but they begin to tell you what you already know.   You aren’t receiving much real feedback that you haven’t heard before at this point, but you’ve ‘made it’ out of startup mode.  At this point you aren’t a rookie, you may even be a massive corporation.  You have enough customers to meet the target margin of the moment, and your loyalists (for corporations) or groupies, family and friends (for mid-made-its) are blowing so much sunshine up your ass that you don’t even remember that you don’t know everything.  Even the non-sunshine feedback is sugar coated to the point that it isn’t offering you anything that compels you to pivot from your temporary success plateau.   You can draw very little correlation anymore between the feedback you are hearing and what actions you should take.  You are making generalizations and using lagging indicators to help guide your lumbering strategic direction.  Sometimes you circle back to the days of small & you listen to specific customers because you know it’s the right thing to do.  But you are still left to make broad based assumptions about what the masses want based on some point-pet-peeves you recently heard from a few.  You may be fighting an urge to satisfy a big customer’s every whim vs. maintaining your core focus, losing alignment with your original and foundational mission.  I get it – it’s hard to balance your new found (and justified) confidence with that healthy dose of risk.  For the moment though, take solace in the fact that you wouldn’t have made it through that entire arduous paragraph if you were alone.

Fear Factor

If you’ve grown to be big(ger)- you’ve no doubt listened to your customers in the past.  You’ve made decisions with limited data.  And most often, fortunately, you have been right.  But you are also right when you have that  fear (that you try not to listen to) in the back of your head.  You know – that subtle fear of your empire crumbling that occasionally creeps in to your subconscious.  Don’t worry, I’m not a mind reader, just a listener.  It doesn’t make you less of a founding genius to have that healthy fear.  I won’t even tell anyone that your suit of confidence armor has a secret chink.  But your  promise to yourself should be that you won’t suppress that healthy fear either.   Recognize that risk fearlessness doesnt make you successful, it just separates you from those that wont be. <– Tweet that.  Repeat that. Hear yourself say it.  It’s important. The admirable portion of your chutzpah is self gratifying and sexy, but don’t let it lead to your demise. Go ahead, that’s tweetable too. I’ll wait for you.  When everyone knows your name, the admiration may make you feel like a god..  But you are not.  You are just a leader, and leaders have proven to have limited lifespans.  That feeling of fame stops when you have no followers, so make certain you are working to keep them.  Work to lead people where they are trying to tell you they want to go.  Walk chest high with confidence and a swagger (in your sport coat and jeans if you must) at the end of every day that you have focused on retaining and satisfying customers, your followers.

The Growing Customer Voice

So you get it.  You have to listen to your customers.  That has been true since before an early entrepreneur opened the first brothel.   But what is new(er), that you are beginning to feel is that your customer’s voice is growing.  The former next door neighbor is now the world. If you don’t listen to your customer – that neighbor will know.  If you wow them, the same world is listening too.  Ignore them or wow them.  But know that your ownership of the customer experience is a world stage. Since the customer voice is growing, for better or for worse, your job is to deal with it.  The echoes of feedback are now heard for eternity.  They are re-framed across multiple channels in near-real-time before being archived for future mining.  As big data analytics becomes increasingly more economical, these  echoes are increasingly heard, and additional uses for all of this data-at-rest will come to light.  Trees that fell in the forest last year can rest easy knowing that eventually someone will be there to hear them.  Someone will hear them, and also be able to recognize that the earth was warming and chainsaw sales were also up.  Everything is heard, and everything that is heard is more valuable when coupled with everything else.  That value has become clear and increasingly attainable, and that is why these changes are coming quicker than any business changes you’ve been alive to see.  Being ahead of the wave is going to be critical for your ability to wow your customers and retain market share.  Being behind the wave, well, I hope you enjoyed the adrenaline rush Bodhi.

Competitive Listening

One key and continuing trend is that your biggest competitors are able to hear YOUR customers.  Your competitors are going to be the ones that are capturing data and listening to them – especially when you aren’t.  You need to be doing the same.  Customers that get what they want have always known that squeaky wheels get grease, and now they are squeaking into a megaphone, and in places that require your immediate attention.  And the way you conduct yourself when addressing squeaks is micro-analyzed as well. Your competitors of the future will be the squeak finders that understand YOUR customers better than you do.  They are using big data, often open social and pseudo social data joined with unstructured data bolted to other obscure but now accessible data sources.  That is short enough to tweet, but your followers won’t have any context and they may think you are odd(er). Just send them here, and I’ll be the scapegoat.  Meanwhile – your competitors are working to discover where they can enhance YOUR customer’s experience. They are going to break off chunks of your market share because they are listening to YOUR customers.  So if you want to grow, or stay as big as you already are – you are going to have to learn new and better ways of listening to customers. You are going to have to:
  • Re-think what ‘listening’ even really means.  Daily.
  • Listen to them even when they are not talking directly to you.
  • Listen to what they aren’t saying.
  • Keep your ear to the ground for what they are doing that may change your relationship.
  • Extract an understanding of what is important to your customers *and to their customers
  • Translate all of the above into action, without the delay of bureaucracy

Hire a CHO

As soon as possible, stop using a CxO part time for customer listening.  This is not a CEO, not a CFO,  and certainly not someone buried 3 layers down from any of them.  You need a Chief HEARING Officer.  Call them CHO, CLO, CE-HO, CE-LO or call them BooBoo. But be clear that he or she is there to HEAR, ACT, and ensure INTERACTion, not just listen.  I’m talking about 1/3rd strategic visionary, 1/3rd data scientist and 1/3rd Tasmanian marketing devil.  If you are small and growing, you are likely waiting to be inundated with support calls before you hire someone to run service and support.  But if so, you are waiting too long to start listening to your customers.  You will have already missed an opportunity to guide and influence a cult like following of your product.  You will be putting yourself into the same position that every other company in history has  – creating reactive support that wishes it were more proactive.  If you are big, stop wishing.  Invest in listening.  Start hearing. Hire someone who understands the power of data, particularly the power of combined, big data. There is a reason that Moneyball is real.  Almost every NBA team (aka Big Business) employs brilliant data scientists and data driven decision makers.  There is a clear ability to improve your odds when you are able to see players, plays, profit and customer experience in ways that your competitors have not even thought of yet.  Typical old box scores are directionally accurate at best to these guys.  They have realized that the one data point holy grail doesn’t exist – but that combinations of data can paint a much closer map of it.  They are finding ways to listen to these data points and to utilize them in combination. They are hearing things in the data that you aren’t even listening for. Morey Data Analytics
Lawn services see and split test potential paths constantly. They may find value in helping a non-paying but potential customer with a simple task for free on occasion.  They may knock on the neighbors door to make sure where they are parked is ok – and introduce themselves. On the fly, they weigh the opportunity cost of spending that time vs. driving off to the next job.  These customer touches and hustle efforts may lead to the signing up of a new customer.   This may happen instantly, or it may happen months after the interactive seed is planted.  The effort may be for naught.  But business decisions are made real-time by the person that is directly listening to and hearing what the customer has to say. That is every person that touches the customer. But your business can only fully utilize these data points if you are truly listening and combining what you are hearing. So hire someone who is excited about HEARING pins drop… while they are still in the air…
Pin drop
Hire someone willing to be accountable when they don’t catch the pins before they land. This person has to be capable of grasping your business and must be part of the team that is setting your strategy.  Not just aligned to, not just bought in, but a voice in setting the strategy.  And then you must empower them to influence big decisions from pre-sales through death, both tactical and strategic. Hire someone that listens one way today and two new ways tomorrow. They should be willing to evolve from listening in mono to listening in stereo to 5.1 to 7.1 to 10.2

Customer Listening Evolution

The sound of just two speakers was amazing at one point in the past.  Those days are over, as will be these days. Have you ever thought about how cool an action movie would be with an overhead speaker? I have. In real-life that channel is being captured.

CHO – Action

If you aren’t going to empower someone to course correct tactical processes quickly and also help set long term strategy – don’t bother reading further, because your customer doesn’t really have a voice.  You have to enable, empower, and reward them for prompt ACTION.  You should have a level of trust in your CHO that when he/she  says fix a process – you fix it.  If they say fix a customer interface – fix it.  If they say customers are willing to pay more if we were to do x – split test it. Listening to a customer and then not taking action is a great way to fail slowly.  Be clear that sometimes ‘action’ means explaining to a customer why their demands shouldn’t, can’t, or won’t be addressed.  If you properly set expectations early and often – there is never a reason for dis-sat.  Hire someone that will intuitively know the right factors to account for before taking action on behalf of the customer.

Customer Experience

Every person behind every mower should understand how to interact with Crazy Betty.  Every time they see her, they should know her grandson’s name and that she is a diabetic.  Every interaction is an opportunity to build on a relationship that improves her experience the next time.  Treat Betty like she might put you in her will. Don’t waiver on this.  Hire based on your confidence that the person you are hiring is bought in to your mission.  Use the three strike rule, and fire them when they show that they aren’t bought in.  When they screw this up the first time, explain the massive mantra that should be painted in 4000 pt font on your walls.  Let them know that this can’t happen again.  When they screw up the second time, fire them.  The third strike?  That comes when they are working for your competition.  Harsh? No.  This isn’t a confusing process or obscure and meaningless silo’d initiative.  This is the customer experience we are talking about, and instances where you get to a second strike should be a rarity.  In the absence of a clear process, doing the right thing for the customer is the default path for making the right decision.   Make the customer experience paramount and part of your company culture from top to bottom.  As a leader – own the culture and make sure that everyone that you hire owns it. This should be top down and bottoms up.  It should be clear that the customer is why every single job exists.  Set customer expectations all the time, every time.  Repeat.  Do it again.  Do it once more.  Communicate the expectations.  Clarify.  Deliver or reset expectations again whenever they change.  Deliver more than what you’ve committed to.  You were asked to mow.  Pull weeds, pet the puppy and put the paper on the porch.  Wow them with what you heard from them last time.  Communicate with them – learn how to wow them with an improved experience next time too.

Don’t Discard the Original Sales Pitch

After the sale – don’t discard the ‘pitch.’  This is easy with 5 customers but almost never happens to the extent it should when there are 5000 customers.  But it is basic blocking and tackling if you think about it: Lawn services know exactly why Jimmy signed up with them, and why he left his previous service or is compelled to stop doing it himself. He told them in detail what pissed him off with the previous lawn service during the very first interaction. It was part of the original bonding of the new formed relationship even, a common enemy of sorts. They never forget that he came to them because the last service broke two sprinkler heads. They avoid sprinkler heads like a hornets’ nest when they mow Jimmy’s yard. Now.  Tell me.
WHY did customer ID 8675309 purchase YOUR product or service? Good talk Russ.

How much should I invest in customer listening?

Invest whatever it takes to KNOW your customers better than your competitors possibly can.   Customer Experience
Supplement that investment with listening posts built to hear your competitor’s customers. You need to know your customer’s perception of green grass and be keenly aware of your competitor’s brown spots.
After all, you do have a lawn business.

Raleigh vs Durham vs Triangle

Written by Vance Fitzgerald. Posted in NCSU, North Carolina, Raleigh, Tech

This @jproco thread got me thinking 
As sexy as a subset of Durham is, it seems fair to say that IF you look at these as two distinct systems, Durham as a whole is not as appealing as Raleigh. Polarizing statement, perhaps, but settle down blue friends.  Clearly Durham is doing something very right though - else this would be an easy discussion. Raleigh is the North Carolina State Capitol, and it’s simply not going to crumble overnight.  Raleigh will be just fine for some period of time.  But that is not a solution nor a strategy for the future, and being just fine doesn’t cut it. So you settle down for a second too, red friends.  It is that subtle complacency that is a potentially big problem for Raleigh.  Embracing uncertainty and change, and being courageous enough to evolve and thrive vs. settle, is much easier when there is necessity.  According to most, necessity is also the mother of invention.  Durham has risen in part because of necessity and is spawning invention thanks to a growing number of bulls.  You are simply more likely to get people to change when there is a burning platform.  And the price is right then too. Raleigh doesn’t seem to sense a burning platform.  I’m just fearful of a slow roast if we don’t smell the smoke.  I believe that Raleigh is going to have to incent fast microfailures vs. marinating for a long slow macroast.  That is hard to say on paper, and even harder to make reality. But Raleigh has access to roughly the same critical three T’s as Durham – Technology, Talent, & Tin Cup (capital), so there aren't going to be any excuses when we look back and try to figure out how Durham blew up. I'm good with growing an obtuse Triangle, its all commutable. But from a Raleigh lens - there are simply no excuses for letting it be anything less than equilateral. 
Meanwhile Durham is escaping what might have been perceived to be (that is me cushioning the message to avoid further polarization) a burning platform.  That burn appears to be helping Durham see the potential reward of small business bets and allowing them to have much less fear of the risks.  They are building critical mass, and please don’t let us underestimate critical mass for startups.   Startups are more likely to thrive together and much more likely to flail in isolation.  I’ve read blog posts and replies from James Avery for literally years now that should be the most compelling burning platform smoke detector for Raleigh.  To me he his cry for help from Raleigh should be listened to like a screaming toddler on the 4th floor of a burning building.  Fortunately there are a lot of brilliant folks pushing like crazy in Raleigh, but the sense of urgency from the masses has to happen sooner rather than later.  First to market would have been nice, but Raleigh may have missed that boat.  Perhaps we have survived thus far due to a massive talent pool.  But critical mass in other areas of the country will create a growing gravitational pull if we don’t offset it.  Not only will that be bad for the future of the region, but bad for the Universities themselves.  You see how this ecosystem works?
If you are paying close enough attention you will also have seen the ad-hoc alliances that have formed in Durham across the startups.  You could argue that it’s because they have such magical products right out of the gate that they can’t help but choose to use their cross town startup’s product.  Or you could step back and realize that they are using each other’s products in part because of a simple yet powerful sense of team.  Can there be any other region in the WORLD that grasps TEAM & what the color of your jersey can do for the psyche?  This region should be able to relate to that if nothing else.  It is a magical thing my hatred of *cough* Rhode Island blue.  These startups are eating each other’s dog food, being each others best customer's, and in turn helping make sure that they will all ultimately be delivering wine.  That collaboration simply doesn’t happen between two companies that don’t share some common sense of purpose, perhaps some common enemies. And it happens much more often when they can share a beer tab, or make a food truck visit for lunch with each other.  We need to make sure that we have a shared sense of common enemies as we stand together in the Triangle.
In an ideal world - we would do a flyover and see that this is really a single ecosystem, not two distinct, independent entities with a winner takes all outcome at stake. With the rate of change accelerating today, with enough backing from the big veteran companies of the region, and with enough smart people pushing the envelope – a Triangle All Star mentality is not completely idealistic. Somebody hug me.
Recommendation 1:
Build a diagram that shows alliances in the Triangle.  Connections indicate customers / partner relationships.  Direction of the arrows are open for discussion, but hopefully several will be synchronous.  This will help others to literally see the symbiotic results of creating a supportive, collaborative infrastructure in the region.   Build a single diagram for the Triangle and it will paint an informative picture. Concept:
Durham-connections
  Recommendation 2:
Go watch basketball this summer at the NCPROAM in Durham if you’d like an indication of just how exciting the blending of the blues & reds can be.  It’s even open source.
%d bloggers like this: