In our first year at IMVU, we thought we were building a 3D avatar chat product. It was only when we asked random people we brought in for usability tests "who do you think of as our competitors?" that we learned different. As product people, we thought of competition in terms of features. So the natural comparison, we thought, would be to other 3D avatar based products, like The Sims and World of Warcraft. But the early customers all compared it to MySpace. This was 2004, and we had never even heard of MySpace, let alone had any understanding of social networking. It required hearing customers say it over and over again for us to take a serious look, and eventually to realize that social networking was core to our business.
Later, when the company was much larger, we had everyone on our engineering team agree to sit in on one usability test every month. It wasn't a huge time commitment, but it meant that every engineer was getting regular contact with an actual customer, which was invaluable. Most of the people building our product weren't themselves target customers. So there was simply no substitute for seeing actual customers with the product, live.
Today, when I talk to startup founders, the most common answer I get to the question "do you talk to your customers?" is something like "yes, I personally answer the customer support emails." That's certainly better than nothing, but it's not a good substitute for proactively reaching out. As Seth writes this week in Seth's Blog: Listening to the loud people, the most aggressive customers aren't necessarily the ones you want to hear from. For example, my experience with teenagers is that they are very reluctant to call or email asking for support, even when they have a severe problem. They just don't need another authority figure in their life.
Don't confuse passion with volume. The people who are the lifeblood of an early-stage startup are earlyvangelists. These are people who understand the vision of your company even before the product lives up to it, and, most importantly, will buy your product on that basis. In some situations, they are also the vocal minority who wants to reach out and get in your face when you do something wrong, but not always. If you're just getting negativity from someone, they are more likely a internet troll - not an earlyvangelist. (For more on earlyvangelists and why they are so important, see Steve Blank's The Four Steps to the Epiphany)
Here's the suggestion from Seth Godin I want to emphasize:
And here's one thing I'd do on a regular basis: Get a video camera or perhaps a copy machine and collect comments and feedback from the people who matter most to your business. Then show those comments to the boss and to your staff and to other customers. Do it regularly. The feedback you expose is the feedback you'll take to heart.It's not enough to just look at the feedback that comes across your desk. You need to foster situations where you - and everyone you work with - is likely to see feedback that matters. Some techniques that I've found especially helpful:
- Build your own tracking survey, using a methodology like Net Promoter Score (NPS) to identify and get a regular check-up from promoters (and to screen out detractors). As a nice side-effect, NPS gives you a very reliable report card on customer satisfaction.
- Create a members-only forum where only qualified customers (perhaps, paying customers) can post. Let them connect with each other, but also with you. Treat these people as VIPs, and listen to what they have to say.
- Establish a customer advisory board. Hand pick a dozen customers who "get" your vision. The way I have run these in the past (when I was dealing with extremely passionate customers) is to have them periodically produce a "state of your company" progress report. I would insist that this report be included in the materials at every board meeting, uncensored and unvarnished.