How Most Startups Totally Ruin Their First Interactions With Customers

Here are four ways to avoid making promises you can’t keep to customers you don’t want.

How Most Startups Totally Ruin Their First Interactions With Customers
[Photo: NASA/Soerfm via Wikipedia]

The first interaction with a customer is hard, and sometimes pretty terrifying. You’ve got about six seconds to pique your customer’s interest, and to prove you understand something substantial about them. Six seconds to earn another six seconds, then another.


You share a secret with your customer, and you’ve worked incredibly hard to build something based around that secret. You’ve recognized something they want that no one else has. The key is convincing them you can help in a quick, trusted way.

This makes the stakes sky-high for first interactions. We’re justifiably afraid we’ll lose our potential customers before they’ve even had a real chance to see what we’ve built .

So we play it safe. I do, you do—we all do. Everyone who’s ever launched a startup makes the same mistake, to varying degree: We tone down our messaging and bend over backwards to not exclude anyone. That way, we imagine, we’re minimizing risk. But actually, this is the riskiest strategy of all.

Bungling Your Message When It Matters Most

When you go to a retail website for the first time, what happens? There’s a three-second delay, then a banner rolls down your screen, offering 10% or $15 off your first purchase in exchange for your email address.

It isn’t just annoying, it’s a cop-out. The retailer has done something monumental to get your attention: Of all the millions of things you could be doing, by some stroke of acquisition genius, you’re on their site. You’ve handed them a megaphone and allowed them to put it to your ear. It’s their one opportunity to prove they know the person on the other end–the person you want to be–and they’re the ones to help you get there. To prove they know what’s important to you.


And what they’ve decided is important to you is price.

Rather than trying to actually connect, they’ve made it transactional–and in the worst way imaginable: “Give me your email address, then unsubscribe to my first annoying email, but use the discount code in it to save some paltry amount off your first order. Then we can probably never do business ever again. Bye!”

Your first interaction sets the tone. What that tone is matters far less than your ability to keep it consistent. This is when the stakes are the absolute highest, and this is when you can’t shy away from what you’re about.

If you’re Walmart, and you actually are competing on price—awesome. Then that’s how you want to frame every conversation with your customers. But if you’re not Walmart and you’re competing on anything else, you’ve just set a precedent you can’t keep.

The 10%-off drop-down banner takes many forms. It’s a website with clunky, unfocused messaging. It’s a resume that has bullet points filled with generic action words. It’s a value proposition for a “simple, easy” way to XYZ. It’s someone who has got something to say but is too afraid to say it.


Your job, instead, is to present your product in a way that your perfect customers realize it’s for them–to make them choose you. Here’s how to do it.

1. Exclude People

The hesitant, toe-in-the-water decisions we make with our first impressions are rooted in compromise and fear. You worry about excluding potential customers, so you compromise and talk yourself into something that’s “less.” Less powerful, less targeted, less funny—just less.

Or, you look around and see other companies offering 10% off in exchange for an email and follow their terrible lead. “They must know what they’re doing!” you think. Now you can move on to more pressing things.

But there’s nothing more pressing. The first interaction is an opportunity for your customer to opt-in. It’s a test that they can pass, not an invitation. For instance: “If you work out five days a week and go directly from the gym to work with your smelly clothes, a laptop, and shoes—then here: I made this backpack just for you.” You better not mention that it’s also got great features for weekend travel. You might even say it’s terrible for that.

You want to be a bouncer for your product. You need to remove the misleading data points that generic messaging typically yields. You don’t want anyone coming in just because you offered them 10% and they like a good deal.


In fact, talking about who things aren’t for will help make the connection that much stronger for the people who realize it’s strictly for them. Bespoke is powerful. Compromise is a disaster.

2. Learn Your Customers’ Language, Then Speak It Exclusively

As Samuel Halick put it in a tweet through his company, User Onboard, “People don’t buy products; they buy better versions of themselves.”

Proving you know your version of the fire-throwing Mario is the first step in your relationship with your customer. They need to know you live in their world, you breathe their air. If you’re selling SEO services to a physical therapist, they may not be familiar with the term “SEO.” So don’t frame the conversation around digital marketing. Frame it around how you understand how difficult it is to get potential clients to find your site.

By the same token, if you’re applying for a job, don’t talk about you. Talk about what the team you’re applying to work on will be like once you’ve plugged your skill set (which is irrelevant on its own) into what they’ve already got.

The biggest differentiator–the most impactful, targeted secret you know–should be front and center immediately.


3. Don’t Be Well-Rounded

Youngme Moon writes about the lack of differentiation in modern products, using cars as an example. Jeeps used to be rugged, but when safety became a category people measured, the company spent its time getting good at that instead. The problem is, now all products look the same.

Steph Curry is probably the best basketball player on the planet and definitely the best shooter on the planet. When ESPN asked him what he worked on the summer after his MVP season to elevate his game even higher, he said he doubled down on what he’s already great at:

The overall theme was to get better at the things I do well and try to add more explosiveness to it. For me, that doesn’t mean vertical. It means creating space, being in the best shape I can be so I can run circles around guys on the floor. But the drills I do are pretty much what I’ve been working on these past three or four years—like this drill where I wear goggles with flashing lights that obstruct my vision while dribbling and passing. Weird, random stuff. Those kinds of sensory distractions are variables that take my mind off the ball and sharpen the brain, helping me neurologically. All of that stuff helps me slow the game down.

Curry understands what makes him stand out from the rest of the NBA. He didn’t spend tons of time improving his vertical leap so he would go from 40th percentile to 45th percentile. He finds obscure, targeted ways to continue to increase the gap between his already elite skill set.

You’ll only have the bandwidth to be great at one thing early on. Beat the hell out of it. Make sure people know what it is. Ignore everything else.

4. Get Smaller

When you start targeting your messaging and realizing how focused an initial message has to be in order to resonate deeply with someone in six seconds, you’ll realize that maybe there aren’t that many people who will get it. It’ll feel like you’re leaving a lot of people out. That means you’re on the right track.


I used the retail example above because I believe big, unfocused retail is in a race to the bottom. Their customers are everyone and no one, and if the only urgency for your customers to buy is bigger and bigger sales, you’re in trouble.

Get to the point where you know what promises you can make to your customers that will resonate and that you can keep. There’s no need to be bigger than that. Once you learn more secrets and can keep new promises to new customers, then expand.

All of this is hardest when it matters most. It’s incredibly difficult to willingly turn your back on a potential customer segment. It’s terrifying to put something out there that doesn’t fit the mold—to take a stance that some people might not like. But it’s necessary if you want all the hard work you’ve done to matter.

Update: The first line of this story has been amended to refer to first customer interactions, which can include but aren’t limited to a company’s “launch day,” as originally written.

About the author

Brian Scordato is the founder of Tacklebox Accelerator, a four-week program in New York City for early-stage founders (many of whom have full-time jobs) to go from idea to validated product. He teaches at General Assembly, writes here, and loves Tar Heel basketball.