If there’s one advice that business owners hear over and over again, it’s know your customers. After all, they are the ones who buy your product and service. Without knowing and understanding how they think, you can’t build a successful business. If you’re a small business owner, this idea can be frightening–particularly when you’ve invested a lot, and you might have a different vision for the company from the people you’re selling to.
I’ve been there–but I’ve also seen the incredible results that can come from listening to your customers. I cofounded MailChimp, but it wasn’t the company we planned on building–that was a side project from scrap code that grew into a business because of customer demand.
Early on, we decided that our motto was going to be, “Listen hard, change fast.” For us, this meant constantly looking for improvement and innovating quickly, and letting the customer dictate our focus as a company.
Getting to know your customer doesn’t need to be an overwhelming process. Here are some simple ways to start.
Visit your customers where they live or work
Whether that’s their dining room table, distribution warehouse, or enterprise headquarters, in-person visits can establish a deeper level of empathy and build trust among customers and your business. This kind of setup is more likely to bring honest and direct feedback on what your customers genuinely think about your product or service. If something is broken, you can act quickly and improve it.
I spend half my time on the road anonymously visiting customers. I once went on a customer visit with members of the product management and research teams, where one of the researchers asked a customer what they thought about automation. It turns out they hated it.
That was particularly tough to hear. We were proud of our work and felt defeated, but we immediately started asking questions to dig into the problems the customer was facing. In the end, that comment was a blessing in disguise. We were able to collect so much valuable, direct feedback about how they were using and experiencing what we built, and that information allowed the team to rebuild and improve the feature quickly. Even if you can’t visit your customers in-person, making the effort to talk to them on social platforms can go a long way.
Remember, even when you think you’ve finished a project or passed a milestone, you’re never really done serving the customer. After all, their preferences and opinions might evolve over time, and you need to be attuned to those changes to keep your product and services relevant.
Invite customers into your office
Customer empathy has to be a two-way street. When you invite customers into your business, not only will you increase their trust, in our experience–your employees become more connected to their work. We’ve found this from conducting quarterly customer visits where we invite our small business customers to speak on panels at our headquarters.
Inviting customers into our territory gives the broader company (engineers, designers, customer support, human resources, etc.) a better understanding and appreciation for what our customers go through, and what they need from us as a business and brand, which in turn allows them to do their job better. Customers also spend the whole day with product, research, and support teams, so they can learn more about MailChimp and ask questions.
Be your customer for a day
It’s easy to say, “Put yourself in the shoes of your customers.” However, until you actually go through it yourself, it’s difficult to do. In order to understand the day-to-day lives of our e-commerce users, build empathy, and learn a few things, we did something a little crazy–we created our own e-commerce store called Freddie + Co. What started as a fun way to get to know our e-commerce customers and share what we learned ended up giving us incredible insights that we weren’t privy to.
To foster this learning community, we eventually built What’s In Store, where we share in-depth customer stories about how and why they use MailChimp. This blog has enabled our customers to develop empathy with one another. By building this community, we learned that our customers want marketing to be simple yet powerful, and intuitive as well as inspired.
Sure, this may not have had a direct impact on the products we’re building, but it has had a profound effect on the way we deliver those products and communicate their value with our customers. In the age of algorithms, excellent customer service can go a long way in differentiating your business from your competitor.
Don’t hesitate to make changes
Customer empathy is only valuable if you can enact change quickly and in a meaningful way. At MailChimp, customer feedback led us to move beyond email after 18 years, and also resulted in us adding advertising options through Facebook, Instagram, and Google in the last year. We wouldn’t have realized that this was the move we needed to make if we didn’t make an effort to talk to our customers.
Customer empathy is core to MailChimp, and essential to the success of any business. It’s the personal connection that keeps products strong, employees engaged, and customers passionately loyal, so dedicate time to spend with your customers to hear what they’re honestly thinking. Otherwise, you might just miss out on an opportunity to make your business infinitely better.
Dan Kurzius is the cofounder and chief customer officer of MailChimp.