The Importance of CEOs Talking to Customers

While many of us claim to regularly talk to customers and prospects, sometimes that is easier said than done. There are so many internal problems to solve when building a company: hiring people, retaining people, resolving disputes, building culture and managing your managers. It’s very easy to bury your head in the sand and not worry about the latest challenges your customers are facing, or the experience they are having with your product. If you fall into this trap, you will lose touch, fall behind your competitors and no matter how fast you can innovate, you may not be able to catch up.

Here are four actions I took to change my own approach to learning from customers.

1. Accept Customers as Your Only Source of Learning

Satya Nadella (a CEO I greatly admire) says, “I fundamentally believe that if you are not learning new things, you stop doing great and useful things”. It is tempting to create methods of learning that do not involve talking to customers. You can spend your days networking with your peers and talking to industry analysts, journalists and influencers. You can create a bubble of ‘thought leadership’ and circles of mutual admiration. However, this all means nothing to an end user who can’t access a feature, or a CIO who hasn’t heard from you in months and is talking to your competitor about next year’s strategic initiatives. Place customer conversations as your sole input to your next cycle of product, marketing and sales strategy. This is the only way to force yourself out of the building and break the habit of following an insular approach.

2. Put Yourself on a Quota of Customer Meetings

As your company scales, you put your sales, marketing and customer success teams on quota. You are effectively on a quota yourself, as you are accountable to your investors and board for the growth of the company. However, one additional thing we’ve done at Datahug is give the management team a target of customer meetings per quarter. These aren’t sales calls, or meetings to discuss account expansion. Rather, they are informal opportunities for talking to customers – big and small – where we seek to understand the challenges and priorities. The benefit is that we often encounter some frustration with our product that we had never thought about, or build relationships that do in fact trigger new sales cycles.

3. Separate Customer Success from Customer Learning

Customer Success plays an important role in every SaaS company, as your survival is based on your ability to generate long term recurring revenue. Lincoln Murphy talks about the difference between Customer Success and customer happiness. He explains how despite a great relationship, your customers may not be achieving their desired outcomes. This results in churn. It is easy, even for me, to become fixated on how to get to that desired outcome when I meet a customer. What problem can we solve today? But, that is what Customer Success is for. I’ve come to learn that we need to go one step further and define customer learning: the ability to understand your customer’s problems so you can shape the future of your company. To do that, you need to make time not just to figure out this year’s desired outcomes, but to understand the outcomes your customers want to achieve in the next three to five years.

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4. Step Into Their Shoes

Finally, empathy gets you a long way as a CEO. Understanding the perspectives of employees, investors and customers is an effective way to build loyalty across the board. It is also the only way to get true insight into the challenges of your customers. Your goal should be to get to know your customers. That way you will have a better sense of what’s most important when you get feedback from other sources. Don’t approach customers with no prior knowledge of your product with questions like “would you like the product to do X, Y or Z?” or “what do you think of this feature?”. Answers to these questions contain too much bias. Instead, put yourself in your customer’s shoes and physically in their office. Become an expert in their business. Find out their problems and what they plan to do about them. Understanding these problems and their current perceived solutions will unlock the next phase of growth for your company.

You will not find the keys to growth on your competitor’s website, in a conversation with your Product Manager, or on a whiteboard in your office.


These articles may also be of interest:

Cultivating a Sales Culture of Transparency

Shifting Your Startup from Product Mode to Sales Mode


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