I spend a lot of time with startups and thus hear many companies talk about their approach to sales and their interactions with customers. From these meetings you can really tell the leaders that are genuine about customer care and those the look down on them. Given that customers and sales are the lifeblood of any organisation you’d imagine everybody would respect their customers. You’d be very wrong.
I was thinking about it this week through some snippets of recent experiences.
A Positive Customer Care Experience
Starting with a positive. I had dinner this week with a top new customer at one of our enterprise software investments. I wish I did more enterprise software investing because when I attend meetings like this I realise that this is my core DNA — rolling out business software solutions to customers. The entire dinner was a discussion of what it would take for our software to help this customer be successful, what he liked about it and where we needed to improve. It was a personal discussion and you could tell that our senior leaders and he shared friendship as well as respect and admiration.
This was customer interaction at its finest and as a result they invited him to meet with our entire sales staff and offer advice on the sales process from a customer’s perspective. Gold dust.
A Contrasting Customer Care Experience
Contrast that with a VC conversation I had. We were talking about raising money from LPs. He was lamenting how much he hated LP meetings and how little he wanted to interact with LPs going forward. In case you don’t know — as VCs we have two sets of customers: LPs (limited partners) who invest money in our funds and entrepreneurs (who we in turn give money to and help support them in building businesses we hope will be valuable). As an insider, I can tell you that a large portion of VCs don’t like interacting with LPs — they view it as a “necessary evil” of the business. I even once met with one very, very well-known VC who told me, “I don’t attend LP meetings. If they want to invest that’s great. If not, somebody else will. I have my staff deal with them.”
Most of the great VCs I know truly care about their LPs. But those that talk about LPs in a derogatory manner are more than one would hope.
I can’t imagine being in this business if you didn’t respect, like, and value your investors. I have gotten to the point where I consider many of my LPs friends. They are sometimes the only people who can tell you hard truths about your business or yourself. Who else is going to tell a VC if he got a bad reference from an entrepreneur or fellow VC? Who else can provide context if your portfolio isn’t growing as quickly as your peer group, if they believe you paid too high a price on a deal, if they question your due diligence in a given situation or whatever critique they might offer?
As a VC if you don’t have that sounding board you’re missing a very important input into your business. The entrepreneurs in whom you invest don’t see the bird’s eye view of your portfolio or the industry more broadly. The press don’t get your financials.
If you don’t respect your LPs I’m not sure you’re in the right business.
Bad Customer Care Experiences
Similarly I see entrepreneurs on Twitter who constantly take pot shots at VC as an industry. The disdain isn’t hidden. I understand where some of the frustration comes from. I know some entrepreneurs have been burned in the past by select VC individuals or maybe even firms. Still — if you’re going to be in the capital raising business you need to get over it.
You need to embrace that there are good actors out there and bad actors. And that perhaps some of the past actions could also involve mistakes you have made. But if you want to build a fast-growing, tech-enabled startup it’s hard to imagine doing so without venture capital and lambasting VCs publicly probably isn’t the most thoughtful strategy.
Equally I’ve heard terrible stories from entrepreneurs about naïve customers or worse. I simply would never invest in a company where the leader of the business (or any senior sales staff) talks down to customers. If you don’t have empathy for their journey who can you help your customers to succeed? If your customers don’t “succeed” by using your product how can you build a great company? You can’t.
I sat in a meeting with a CEO recently who told me that at his last company he forced a customer to pay a large contract up front because he, “knew our software rollout wasn’t going to be successful so I wanted to be sure I got paid my commission.” I can’t make this stuff up. My only regret after hearing that is that I didn’t bite my tongue because I’m sure it was a little bit more bravado than reality — I certainly hope so.
But I rolled out a pretty strong diatribe about ethical behaviour in businesses and customer care and made it clear I wouldn’t invest in somebody who thought this way about customers. It’s hard to shock me — but such brazen lack of empathy was truly mind-boggling to me.
It reminded me of the “blowing your customers up” mentality in perhaps one of the best business books ever written — Liar’s Poker — where bond traders celebrated when they bankrupted their first customer.
I have worked directly with some companies who don’t have a strong appreciation for what it takes to roll out enterprise software and help mid-sized or large businesses successful. I tell every software company I meet with that unless you’re committed to professional services to help your customers succeed you’ll never build a great enterprise software company. Many people advise against this. They would be wrong.
When I have teams that don’t want to build customer care services or don’t want to really interact daily with customers helping them solve problems — which are often political in nature such as functional stovepipes in the customers’ organisation — I then advise them to build different kinds of companies. If you don’t want to get your hands dirty with service or politics then you need to build a higher-volume, self-service business. It will likely be lighter weight (and thus not require integrations with other systems, deep training, rollout support, implementation, etc.) and you’ll need to invest heavily in self-service support tools. Think of this as the Google Apps approach to business.
But even here you need to care passionately about supporting your customers.
If you don’t respect your customers, if you don’t care about making a difference in their lives, if you don’t want their input on how you can build a better product or improve your team — you simply won’t be successful in sales and I would argue you simply won’t build a great business.
I know customer care is Business 101. But the reality from the frontline would surprise you.
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