Getting Your Startup Team to Understand Your Customer

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By Poornima Vijayashanker (Founder & CEO, BizeeBee) It's been 8 months since we launched our first product at BizeeBee. Since launching, my desire to please customers hasn’t stopped. The buzz bee and I spend nearly every week talking to customers on Twitter, Facebook, via email, or on the phone. I’m always asking for feedback on the product, improving how we react to bugs, and listening to their problems.

Why am I so obsessed with talking to customers? And why do I care about their business? Because no one on my team including myself has ever owned or managed a yoga studio! I’ve worked behind the front desk, and seen how they operate, but I myself have never owned one. Since none of us have lived the life of a studio owner and we’re designing a product for them, we have to learn to think like them.

Here’s how to cultivate the learning and get your team to understand who you’re building a product for:

Customer Development Tip #1 -- Develop Personas

Sure some would say this is easier said than done because at an early stage the customer is constantly evolving. But if you’ve gotten some level of product/market fit you should have customers that are using your product everyday, or have some predictable rate of use. Fortunately for us we have a core group that is using the product everyday, and I know this because I log into the admin I’ve built everyday to see what people are doing.

But here’s the next part that is hard for startup folks to do... pick up the phone and give customers a call. Yes I know they’re busy, you’re busy, everyone is freakin’ bizee. But I’ve learned more about the nuanced ways in which people use our product by listening to them on the phone or watching them in person. The other great thing is that once you’ve got them on the call, you can learn more about their needs. It's finding out the needs that’s the key to developing personas.

A persona is a set of personality traits and problems that a person faces. We currently have 3 personas that our product works well for, meaning they adopt our product and are relatively happy. I know those who don’t fit the persona will drop off, and that’s fine too. Here’s what I do with the persona:

  • I convey it to my team so they develop empathy. Its that empathy that lets them design and build a product that actually meets the needs of the persona.
  • I use it when talking to potential customers. When someone calls us, I ask them some pretty basic questions to see if they’re a match. If they are I try to sell to them, if not I tell them they’d be happy with one of our competitors.
  • I put the personas in ALL of our marketing materials. I want the world to know who BizeeBee is for and who it isn’t for so that I get a match.

Customer Development Tip #2 -- Build a Community Brand To Build Features

I’ve always had an issue with the vocal minority and using anecdotes to build features, to avoid it even being an issue I actually took sometime to create a customer feedback forum. Our customers can post bugs, ideas, and vote up features. We use the forum as a guide for what gets built. There have been a couple times when I have literally dropped everything to build a feature because I saw how popular it was and I was tired of losing leads.

I know there are a lot of founders out there who take a “father know’s best approach” to product development. That works too. The reason I chose the community route is because I saw that the people we’re catering to weren’t being heard by our competitors! The other is that people who have a voice that is being heard are willing to contribute their ideas to improve the product and tell other potential customers about it!

Now the one caveat I will mention is that what gets built still needs to match the main persona. And this is important, because then your team begins to understand the reason why they are building or refining one feature as opposed to another.

Customer Development Tip #3 -- Let Ideas Simmer

One of the interesting things I’ve learned about the bees is that on average it has taken each one about 3 months to get into their groove. By groove, I mean building, selling, and communicating with one another. As a founder you cannot rush this process. I know it can be painful for them, but watching them go through the process and coaching them through it has actually been really rewarding for me as a founder. People need time to absorb the vision, adjust to their environment, and let the ideas simmer before they really feel like they get what it is they are working on.

There will be moments of confusion and clarity. What helps bring clarity is having your teammates talk to customers, read customer emails, and understand the dichotomy of who is and isn’t a customer and why (once again refer to #1). There will also be a lot of “Why don’t we go after this new group? Why did so-and-so not convert to a paying customer?” Instead of answering these questions yourself have the last hire explain the answers. You’ll be surprised by the results

So why is it so important that your team understands your customer, why not just have them shut up and build? I’m no genius nor am I capable of coming up with solutions to every problem. I’ll admit I need help selling, building, and running a company. The more I communicate with my team the more they know what’s going on, and in turn can make educated decisions. Having direct interactions with customers is even more powerful because part of the reward of being in an early stage startup is seeing that what you build actually matters to people and improves their lives, that’s the greatest motivating factor of all!

This post was originally posted at Femgineer.

Editor's note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below. About the guest blogger: Poornima Vijayashanker is Founder & CEO of BizeeBee. Prior to that, she was at Mint where she began as employee #3 in 2006, and stayed through the startup's acquisition by Intuit for $170M in 2010. Prior to Mint, she was in the Master's degree program for computer science at Stanford University but dropped out to join Mint. Poornima holds a double degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science from Duke University. Poornima blogs on Femgineer.com and is a competitive yoga. Follow her on Twitter at @poornima.