The Art And Science Of Talking To Customers: 14 Startup Execs Share Their Secrets

(Click here to download slides as a PDF.)

We’ve all heard this mantra (or some variation of it) before:

You need to solve for the customer.

It’s a great soundbite, right? Definitely something every business can get behind.

But when you look at how this concept is actually applied in the real word, it can sometimes feel like “solve for the customer” really just means “figure out how to do the bare minimum so the customer doesn’t churn.”

So here’s what happens: marketers blast out impersonal emails to their entire customer lists. And account managers, sticking to carefully crafted scripts, pester customers with phone calls, imploring them to pay for upgrades.

Meanwhile, on Twitter, customer service reps reply to complaints with canned responses, e.g. “We are aware of the issue and are currently working to resolve it.” (Sound familiar?)

This sucks.

Solving for the customer hinges on communication.

After all, you can’t know what your customers’ pain points are if you’re not talking to them.

But talking to your customers is important for other reasons too: It can give you insight into who they are, how they work, what blogs and newsletters they read, and what other products they use.

And this goes beyond getting customer feedback.

Armed with this knowledge, you can fine-tune your approach to sales and marketing.

Unfortunately, what passes for customer communication these days is often robotic.

It’s handled like any other automated business process. Send order invoice, run payroll, talk to customer … 

There’s got to be a better way. And there is. Ready for it?

It’s called “acting like a human.” That’s it.

PS. We didn’t invent talking to people, but we’re making it easier. Click here to learn more about Drift.

One of the best ways to truly solve for the customer is to treat the customer like a human. And that entails talking to customers on the channels they want to talk to you on, and providing insights and answers based on what each individual customer is asking. It’s about empathizing with each customer’s unique situation and adapting communication accordingly.

It might sound challenging to treat each customer as an individual human with individual needs. The feedback you’re likely to get from many business leaders is that taking such an approach is “not scalable.” Our response to that criticism is simple: good.

A funny thing happens when you focus on unscalable activities like talking 1-on-1 with your customers: people notice. Your customers notice, and then they tell other folks about the awesome experience they had. Case in point:

Of course, we aren’t the only ones trying to make customer communication more human.

There are plenty of companies out there doing a great job. So we figured we’d talk to some of the humans behind those companies to see what we could learn. The results are in the SlideShare presentation above.

Not a fan of clicking through presentations? Here’s what’s inside of the SlideShare above:

1) Nick Francis | Co-founder & CEO, Help Scout: “It’s really important that we leverage a mix of qualitative and quantitative feedback to make product decisions. We do surveys, user research and a lot of calls with current/potential customers, which balances out all the feedback we get in the support inbox. Every time I travel, I put together a dinner with customers and just listen for a couple hours. A good mix of ‘all of the above’ is what we’re shooting for.”

2) Benji Hyam | Co-founder, Grow & Convert: “We encourage a feedback loop in all communication channels. We continuously survey our audience via our email list about the challenges they face in their business, and offer suggestions and advice for dealing with those challenges. We also ask people to share results that they’ve achieved from advice in our content. Basically, we make it known to everyone that we’ll respond if they take the time to reach out to us, which encourages people to communicate with us.”

3) Chase Garbarino | Co-founder & CEO, VentureApp: “Since VentureApp is a marketplace for startups to find solution providers, our business is based on fulfilling the very specific requests of unique startups. Ongoing communication is really critical. We kick off our relationships with startups with a consultation, learning as much about their business as possible so that we can tailor our recommendations and interactions with them accordingly. We also have a crew of business advisors that do a lot of handholding for the startup: asking qualifying questions about their needs, making personal recommendations and intros to solution providers, and checking in to see if they are happy with that connection.”

4) Danielle Morrill | Co-founder & CEO, Mattermark: “Listening to our customers happens in both support and marketing channels, so there’s a constant flow of feedback about what problems we’re solving for. We have a vibrant and vocal community we’ve built through the Mattermark Daily, so we’re in constant conversation about what people want from our product, and our space at large.”

5) Tim Trefren | Co-founder, Mixpanel: “We decided to do customer support at Mixpanel in a very different way: we actually teach our customer support team to code! It’s not unusual for a customer to send us source code and we’ll install Xcode, run their source code, and debug the problem for them. Getting hands on and technical is a big hack for customer happiness!”

6) Mitchell Harper | Startup Advisor & Investor/Co-founder, BigCommerce: “I like to use both automated and manual approaches. You can’t go wrong with NPS as a measure of business health, but I also just like to give my email address to customers. If they have something they feel is important enough to email to me personally then it’s more than likely worth my time. Being a CEO in an ‘ivory tower’ never works, so I try to be as open and available as possible – both to my team and to customers.”

7) Jason Quey | Co-founder, Decibite: “I’m in community groups where my target audience hangs out, particularly on Slack. This enables me to have a consistent pulse on their day-to-day events and challenges, even if not directly related to my startup.”

8) Lisa Chu | Creative Director, Black N Bianco: “Building and maintaining a personal relationship with my customers was the catalyst to my business success and I always try to find time every week to stay connected. Using social media and answering their questions on an open platform helps promote other customers to engage in our conversations. Listening and responding to their questions and comments really help turned my business into a success and I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for their support.”

9) Joseph Schwendt | Co-founder & CTO, ReferralMob: “At ReferralMob we use a combination of in-app feedback, support email, website chat, polling our userbase, in-person events, actively reaching out to our most active users, focus groups, account managers, etc. We are big believers in learning from direct customer feedback. Any time anyone in the company hears any form of feedback, they post it in a Slack channel so everyone can see, regardless if it’s positive or negative.”

10) Nathan Resnick | Co-founder, Sourcify: “I try to answer customer emails a few times a day and take a few customer calls each week. This enables me to understand what features our customers are really using and what difficulties they have with these features.”

11) Lance Walley | Co-founder & CEO, Chargify: “Not only do we use NPS surveys to keep in contact with customers, I personally follow up with our promoters (to say thanks) and people who gave lower scores to let them know the status of any features they requested (often we’re already working on adding the features). Recently, I also emailed everyone who converted to a paid user in a specific month to thank them for their business and ask if there were any additional features they would like to see in our product. The responses give valuable insight and help shape the product roadmap.”

12) Randy Stocklin | Co-founder & CEO, One Click Ventures: “We collect customer feedback through NPS surveys and distribute a weekly report to the entire company. It’s important that all of our team members maintain a customer-first mindset, so we route all NPS feedback to the appropriate internal teams on a weekly basis. The Senior Leadership Team carves out time in our weekly meetings to read through feedback, discuss trends, and propose action plans if necessary.”

13) Derek Steer | Co-founder & CEO, Mode: “I listen to customers through a bunch of channels: our support, success, and sales teams chief among them. The rest of the Mode team helps me figure out which customers I should actually speak with, then I try to meet them in person if possible. What that won’t work, I go for video or phone.”

14) Steli Efti | CEO, “We stay close to our customers in multiple ways, but I want to share the one way that has led to some of the most meaningful insights: we visit our customers in their offices. This is obviously a huge investment of our resources each time we do it. But nothing else has helped us gain such a thorough understanding of how to better serve our ideal customers.”

Curious about Drift? Click here to learn more about what we’ve built for sales and marketing.