4 Startup Tenets for Extreme Focus on Customers

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New product startups rightfully begin with a heads-down focus on creating the ultimate product – whether it’s a new technology, a new look and ease of use, or a new low-cost delivery approach. Most then add customer service at the rollout, but very few really understand what it means to be truly customer centric, and even fewer really achieve it.

Customer centricity is far more than providing excellent customer service, although that’s a step in the right direction. Customer centricity is a strategy to fundamentally align a company’s products and services with the wants and needs of its most valuable customers, with the aim of more profits for the long term.

As I was reminded recently by Peter Fader’s book, “Customer Centricity” from the Wharton School, Wal-Mart and Costco aren’t really customer centric. They do provide the right products at the right price to save all customers money (with good customer service), but they don’t try to find their most valuable customers, and nurture them to buy more or bring in friends.

Customer centric means building loyal customers, like Apple appears to have done extremely well. It means recognizing that all customers are not the same, and that all customers are not always right. It means pursuing Fader’s four tenets that can lead to even greater long-term success and profits than a great product at a low price:

  1. Accept that all customers are not the same. By recognizing the fundamental and inevitable differences among your customers, you can give your organization a strategic advantage over your product-centric competitors – who may know little to nothing about the customers who account for their success and survival.
  2. Focus on individual customer value. By understanding that there is real and quantifiable value to be found in individual customers, you can better focus your long-term marketing efforts on precisely those customers who will generate the greatest long-term value.
  3. Quantify the value and cost of acquiring every new customer. By working to quantify the value of each and every one of your customers, you can gain enormously valuable insight about how much you should be willing to spend to keep an existing customer and how much you should be willing to spend to acquire a new customer.
  4. Personalize your offering to each customer or group. By moving forward with a highly focused customer relationship management initiative, you can gather and leverage more information about your customers. This will allow your company to serve those customers in a more personalized (yet genuine) manner than any competitor can.

In reality, you don’t need to get to know each individual customer. But you do need to segment your customers into homogeneous groups. Then you can decide on a marketing program, loyalty program, or a level of attention that is appropriate to each group, for acquisition, retention, and profitability.

Remember, this is not a one-time effort. The needs and interests of your customers are ever-changing, so you have to constantly re-align your resources to build mutually beneficial relationships. Don’t focus only on your products and operational efficiencies, unless you already have the brand image and leverage to prosper with price as the key differentiating factor.

Success hinges on progressing past lip-service, to the real work of building a customer centric organization to execute the focus. That means setting up operational and financial metrics, educating team members, and rewarding the right actions. Can you name three elements today in your startup that go beyond good customer service? If not, competitors are approaching.

Martin Zwilling , Founder and CEO, Startup Professionals
December 24th, 2012