In today’s episode of The Startup Chat, Steli and Hiten talk about how to become a customer-first company.

The startup world is very competitive. One way to stand out is to build a customer-centered culture at your company. This is the key to surviving the modern business environment. 

In this episode, Steli and Hiten talk about why everybody in the company should be obsessed with the customer, how to create a culture around customer-obsession at your startup, why you need to hire people who are customer-obsessed and much more.

Time Stamped Show Notes:

00:00 About the topic of today’s episode

00:39 Why this topic was chosen.

02:20 Why everybody in the company should be obsessed with the customer

02:44 One way to create a culture around customer-obsession.

04:16 Another way to create a culture around customer-obsession.

05:17 Why the best way to be customer-obsessed is to be the customer.

06:03 Why you need to spend time with your customers.

09:04 Why you need to hire people who are customer-obsessed.

09:28 One tip to help you hire the right people.

09:46 Another tip to help you hire the right people

3 Key Points:

  • I think that everybody in the company should be obsessed with the customer.
  • Your job as a business is to serve your customer better than everyone else.
  • Use your product


Steli Efti: Hey everybody, this is Steli Efti.


Hiten Shah: And this is Hiten Shah.


Steli Efti: And today on The Startup Chat, we’re going to talk about how to become customer obsessed, how to create a culture of customer obsession, or becoming a what today a lot of companies call customer-first companies. So here’s why I want to talk about this with you in this kind of framework, Hiten. Obviously, for people that have been listening to us for a long time, you can go back four years ago when we started this podcast, 400 and soon to be hitting 450 episodes deep. We’ve always been talking about customer obsession in one way or another. A lot of times our advice boils down to, well, you need more customers insights, you need more customer intimacy, you need to talk to more customers, you need to spend more time with your customers. Your customers are what matters. They have the answers you need. They need and deserve your entire focus and attention. We’ve been saying this for a really, really long time. Now, there are companies out there, I think Amazon is the first company I remember, that very publicly communicated this very well. As in, this is the way we’re going to do things, is we’re going to obsess over the customer. Moreso than anything else, we’re going to let the customer and the customer’s wishes dictate what we build, what we do, and how we do things. But in the last couple of years, this has come up more and more and more. I see it more when I look at value statements sometimes where companies will state, always help the customer, or customers first, or they will state it as an explicit part of their core values.


Hiten Shah: Yeah, I-


Steli Efti: Go ahead.


Hiten Shah: I call this customer obsession. I would just call this customer obsession. And I think that all parts of the company, everybody in a company, should be obsessed with the customer. And if they’re not obsessed with the customer, then you’re going to end up having a problem at some point. It’s for a very simple reason. And the reason is that, the way I think about it, your job as a business is to serve your customer, or the customer, better than anyone else. And the only way you can do that is being obsessed with them. So I think that’s why we’re seeing all of, like you said, customer first, a lot of values that involve the customer. But it’s really about how the company behaves and acts and whether the customer thinks that they are thought of first or not.


Steli Efti: So how do you create a culture around this? Now, obviously… Let’s take it step by step. Let’s take two steps for sure. One is, you’re a founder. Let’s talk about the type of founder that has never started a company, is thinking about starting a company now. How do I make sure that I don’t forget about the customer? That I obsess about the customer? That I keep the customer in my forefront? If I’m not experienced in this, and if, let’s say, I don’t naturally already instinctively have that way of thinking, can I practice this? Can I cultivate this?


Hiten Shah: Of course you can. One of the ways, and I think we’ll both have a bunch of ways, but one of the ways is, use the product. You got a product, use the product. If you use the product, you’re already obsessed by the customer because you’re having the same experience they’re having, and you’re having it regularly if you use the product. If you don’t use the product, you’re not going to have that experience, and you’re not going to be able to know what your customers are experiencing. Because a lot of this is about, what are your customers experiencing? Most of it is about what are your customers experiencing, and how can you make that experience better? So a simple basic one is, use the damn product that you built. Hopefully you can.


Steli Efti: I love that.


Hiten Shah: And if you can’t and it’s in a weird market, or not a weird market, but if you’re servicing people that are not like you, find a way to use the product. Just find a way. If you built a product for restaurants, then go one day a week and work in a restaurant and use your product.


Steli Efti: I love that. I love it.


Hiten Shah: That’s totally what you have to do. The other trick related is, go shadow your customer. So if you really can, just shadow them once a month, twice a month, whatever. Customer obsession is really about closeness to your customer. And so I think there are many different ways to do it, but the fundamental ones are you being able to understand the experience they’re having with your business. If you’re at a coffee shop, you own a coffee shop, go buy from your own coffee shop. Or, this is… What do they call that?


Steli Efti: Secret shoppers?


Hiten Shah: Boom. There you go. Get secret shoppers to do it and get you all the data. Get them to wear a camera, a hidden camera yet. Figure this out, understand the experience. Because if you’re owner of the coffee shop, everybody knows you, you probably hired them. So you walking in there and having an experience like the customer is kind of difficult. So find a way to get that pulse of what’s happening in the business. Those are a few.


Steli Efti: I love it. I love it. So the first thing, I just want to double click an underline that. The best way to be customer obsessed is to be the customer. Because we’re all obsessed with ourselves, and there’s no better intimacy than to be the customer. They inspire a lot of times the advice that we have given in terms of, how do I come up with an idea? Or what kind of prompts should I work on? Is, solve a problem that you have, build something you want to use. And the reason why that’s a good thing, it’s not just because it’s selfish, it’s because if you feel really passionately about something, there’s a good likelihood that a lot of other people feel the same way that are similar to you. And you know yourself. You know the pain, you know the desire. And so you can build something that hopefully is really, really close to the customer, because you’re close to yourself. So I love that. I love the shadowing. We’ve talked about this many, many times. I’ll add on to this. Spend time with your customers. And spend time in all forms and formats, not just in the way that you prefer or the one that is convenient to you, which is the one that all people will default to. So one of the most powerful things you can do is go visit them in their natural habitat. Shadow them, just like you said. Go and visit them in their office if you sell to businesses, and spend time there. Walk around, have lunch, have coffee, chat, sit somewhere and watch. Observe how this company works, how they use your product, how the product is being used in the wild. Nothing is more insightful than that. Go to dinner or to lunch. Break bread. Actually having a meal with your customers can also be a totally different format and context that opens up the door for a new kind of understanding, a new kind of obsession and insight. Having customer dinners where you invite a bunch of customers, you wine and dine them. But also, you create this casual, relaxed environment where they can open up more personally, and maybe they’ll bring up some things that they wouldn’t tell you in their office. Can be incredibly powerful and incredibly insightful. And then you might want to have customer meetups, right. Or even more crazy is a customer conference. Actually create a space and invite a ton of customers to mingle with each other and to mostly spend time with each other. And you would mingle the room and listen to your customers talk to each other, give each other tips, talk about each other’s problems. Again, totally different flavor and perspective of intimacy, of insight. You need to spend a ton of time with your customers in one way or another. And then there’s other things, like having the policy of everybody in the company doing customer support a couple of days a week, or one day a week, or one day a month. So everybody in the company hears from the customers that have problems, issues, confusions. Some companies do this with sales, where one day a month, you call new trial sign ups or new prospects and you talk to them, or new customers and you help them get onboarded, or you give a webinar training. You need to spend time with them. And the excuse that you don’t have time or that your time is better spent on things that are, quote unquote, more scalable is a really bad one, because whoever understands the customer best will ultimately own their business and deserve it. And so if you don’t have time to spend a lot of time with your customers and your competitor is finding the time to do so, sooner or later, that competitor will get your customers, and they will deserve it. So you need to find that time. Now, I want to switch to one more thing and highlight one more thing before we wrap up this episode for today. Now, we talked a lot about what to do individually. One thing that I’d like to hear your thoughts on, Hiten, as well, is on hiring people that are customer obsessed. I don’t know who said this, but there’s this great quote. A company becomes the people it hires, not the plans it makes. So you could talk about customer obsession and write it down as a core value. If you hire lots and lots of people that don’t give a shit about your customers, your company will not be customer obsessed. So how do you gauge for that? Any tips for people that are starting to hire a few people, building out a team, or building up their company on hiring for customer obsession?


Hiten Shah: Yeah, I think that it is about values and having certain values, and then basically asking people what they think of those values. Okay, these are our values. What do you think of them? And do they resonate with you? And can you give me any examples of how you’ve lived out these values in your life? And that’ll give you a gauge of how people think about the values, which really ends up being your culture. So that’s one way. Another way is, I just want to know how often that person wants to talk to the customer. Not how often have they or anything, but it’s literally, how often do you actually want to talk to customers? How do you feel about talking to customers? I’d even ask engineers that. Not that there’s a good or a bad answer for engineers on that one. But it’ll give you a gauge of where the person’s head is. One of the things that people on our team say at FYI, internally, is one of the reasons they work with us is because they have this almost explicit trust that when we bring them things to build, that there has been a ton of research that went into it. And that we really talk to the customer. Even if we don’t show them it, which we actually try to as much as possible, and we do. But even if we don’t, there’s just this explicit trust that it is very customer centric. It is very researched. It is not something we’re making up and saying, hey, build this. It has to do with things we want to solve for the customer. It comes from customer obsession, and they believe that. And so a lot of it is just like many other things in an organization, where you have to embody it as a leader in the company. And then people start getting bought into it. So a lot of times if that’s happening, you’re already in the market, that impression already exist of you. So people coming and talking to you and wanting to work with you might even already have a bias. And the reason I mention it like this is, then what you can do is, if you launch something new or you have a tweet that you shared or something that your company did, you can literally just ask the interviewee questions about it. So in your case at Close, I know you folks have been iterating the product a little bit more than you have in the past publicly, and have talked about some of the new things you’ve done. Those features seem very customer centric to me. They seem pretty well researched, and things that are right for the market, and are almost a doubling down on what your core value prop is as a certain type of CRM. And so I would ask any hire what they think about those announcements that you made, and just listen to what they have to say. Do they speak of the customer? Do they speak of it as benefits to the customer? Do they think about it in a way that you might have internally when you decided to do it? Because if they don’t, then that’s your choice to make on whether you feel like you can train them or they can come on board and get there. Or if they just don’t know how to think in that way, and you don’t want folks like that, or you think folks like that might not be ideal for you.


Steli Efti: I love it. I’ll double click on that before we wrap up the episode. I mean, obviously the best… Another really great way to hire people, the favorite way for me to hire somebody, is when you hire a customer at time. So we’ve had this a couple of times now, where somebody was in a company that was using Close, was a Close user for a really long time, really passionate about it. And then when they saw we were hiring for a certain position, they applied and they said, “I’ve been using your product for over a year, I’ve been loving it. Nothing would make me happier than to help bring that product to more people like me.” So if you can hire your customers, that could be a great hack. But then also a simple thing, this seems so simple and trivial, I would never thought that it’s a thing that needs to be brought up, but it does. Have they signed up for your product? Have they played with the product? Have they put themselves in the shoes of your future customers? You’d be surprised how many people don’t go through that. Simple step to me, is the most obvious thing. I apply for a software business, the software business offers a free trial, of course I’m going to sign up and play around with a product if I want to work at that company. Get a sense for what it’s all about, what it feels like. It’s surprising, but still a good amount of people, they will not go through that trouble. And to me, that’s a big red flag. If you don’t even sign up for the product you’re applying for, if you don’t want to see how it feels to a user, to a customer, then you’re probably not that obsessed about the customer experience. So we’re looking for those two things, can be super useful and valuable when it comes to thinking about who to hire. And I’ll end with one great example. Probably one of the most impressive things in terms of customer obsession that a candidate has ever displayed to us was a candidate that researched a couple of review sites, people that have given us good and bad reviews. Pinged them to ask if they could jump on a call with them and ask them for a few more data points about their experience with Close, and then put all those learnings in a presentation and sent it to us. I mean, that was pretty dope. Just talking to 20 customers of ours to get a little presentation of what he learned talking to our customers, current and prior. It was super impressive. Just shows the type of thinking, the type of wanting to be close to the customer, and thinking about the right way about this. That really impressed us, and we ultimately hired him. So I think that’s it in terms of our tips, our thinking, on customer obsession. We shall hit all of you very, very soon. This is it for us for today.


Hiten Shah: Later.