I have spent a decade in the startup universe now. First as an ex-VC and now as an entrepreneur. At various capacities, I have been involved with hundreds of startups – those that failed and many that succeeded. As a VC I came to be observant to certain traits which in our inner circles we defined as winning combinations. Almost always successful founders had a set of traits common to them and then  there were traits which were common to founders who fumbled. Vision, persistence, tenacity, grit, knowledge, active listening and networking skills were some winning traits I always found in the startup founders of successful ventures.

Naturally, when I began my entrepreneurial journey, I was confident of these traits in myself. Still am.

As a startup founder, I began with a vision for my product and the business for which I was ready to work any number of hours. There was a goal, a plan, some madness and then some method to that madness.

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one like that. 😊

When I began the journey of Alore, I dreamt of building the platform solutions to propel productivity in businesses. Something affordable, dependable, robust, agile and easy to use. That was my first vision of the product.

Slowly over time using my own experience and inputs of the founders I spoke to or hung out with, I began to see a pattern in startup needs – CRM databases, finding valid email addresses, email campaign tools, booking meetings, tracking sales performance etc.

Two months of exhaustive research in end 2016 gave me and the team a fair idea of what the initial feature set of my sales platform would be.

Then came the regular cycle where I hired developers, built features and functionalities one by one and had a product ready over a few months. But what the Alore CRM product was in 2017 when we brought in initial beta testers and what it is today, is quite different – for the better of course!

A major difference between the first beta version and the one today is founded on a major factor – Active listening.

Since active listening is closely tied to Customer experience of the brand we wanted to nail this one right from the start. Being an introvert and I had been sort of social media shy. However, I knew that’s not how I would be able to really communicate, interact, engage or listen with our users  and customers. I wouldn’t be in the know.

With time I became active online and over weeks met the most amazing people in the world of startups- a buzzing and thriving early adopter community with immense value and insight to share. After we launched our product in a wonderful niche group with help from an established and insightful friend who specializes in facilitating Lifetime deals, we had a considerable number of users and customers.

Here’s when things got interesting. The team and I didn’t just hear what our target audience, users and customers spoke about us, our product, our customer support etc. but we spent considerable time in observing the interactions and engagement of the entire startup universe. (Our B-school professors would be so proud seeing we did what they suggested !! )

We were observant to how customers and users praised or complained about all kinds of stuff in various communities and groups and how that tied into customer experiences in general. A McKinsey report very rightly summarizes this when it says that about 70% of the buying experience depends upon how the customer feels she/he is being treated and listened to.

Customer-experience-sales

Source: Medallia Insights

Okay, it would be a different game if I were just preaching about this theoretically, but I’m talking from experience here. In a time when Customer experience is everything, actively listening helped us shape much of our customer experience. I have always found consistent value in our own product User’s voice. The key forever has been, not hearing but listening actively!

Actively listening to our customers is what cements the foundation of a company. and this happened with us as well. We were clear of this internally and made active listening a company-wide commonality – not a one-time thing but an everyday habit !! In fact the new hires were even tested on this trait. (Such interesting stories to share on those interviews 😉

We realized early that just having Intercom support and the ability to reach out over email wouldn’t cut the deal. We wanted users to not feel hesitant to reach out to us ever. To make ourselves easily accessible, we decided to be at every major place possible where the users were from Intercom to LinkedIn and within days we figured out where our customers loved talking to us best – Facebook!

Hence, we created a closed community of Alore users on Facebook. Aptly we named the group Alore UserVoice – a place where every user could voice every opinion, suggestion, shortcoming, use case about Alore.

Presence of our community on Facebook created a seamless experience for our users to find us in seconds. It was a successful initiative to make our users to feel that we valued their opinions and inputs all the way.

User-voice-matters

When users are given the platform to voice their ideas, they often have the most amazing inputs

At Alore, we work our business quite transparently and through a two-way public communication channel always try to always keep our supporters and users in the loop on what we are working on, what we plan and keep the table open to their opinions on our work.

We regularly run polls to expedite and prioritize features, aspects, and integrations etc. If users say they want Feature XYZ and give us a good use case for it, we reshuffle our priority list for development and happily work on Feature XYZ first. This flexibility and willingness to keep the customer first has helped us gain plenty of valuable features and also build great professional relationships and friendships’.

Think of it, your customers like to feel valued and heard just the way you like to feel valued and heard when you’re the customer. Never ever forget that.

Alore-Uservoice-2

We’re open to welcoming suggestions, ideas, healthy debates

Why user voice matters:

Here’s the deal, users are attracted to your product because they feel that you might solve a particular need for them. In our business of SaaS where the barrier to entry is at an all-time low, there are “N” number of solution providers offering similar solutions. What differentiates your product in this sea of solutions is if you are solving the customers needs the way they want you to. This you would only figure out if you knew what people want. and eventually things boiled down again to the basic- Listen !!

Active Listening makes all the difference in the world between mediocrity and value. It helps you figure out what customers need, by when and what they are willing to pay for!!

Of course, if you have qualitative and quantitative data to support your decision making its an even bigger asset.

Marketing-customer-experience

Active listening is an integral component of the customer experience. Data Source: Marketing charts

Listening about your product:

If you’re in the game, play it honest – play it well.

The biggest pitfall I’ve seen in active listening is when founders fail to listen to feedback constructively. Many founders often fall into the negative trap of feeling more knowledgeable and visionary at the cost of feeling üsers don’t know enough”. While having confidence in your vision and product is imperative, founders need to handle this aspect artfully.

There will be those who support and those who hate. That’s just how business is. When users drop in a negative feedback, be positive, be humble and take criticism in a stride. Feedback helps in customer retention in a great way because if someone is making the effort to rant it out to you, it indicates that they value your product, are in some way invested in your betterment and would like to see a resolution. Value this opportunity.

Once you begin to build a reputation about your business and solution, there are bound to be those who support and those who feel ruffled about your presence. Whatever be the case, it’s best to know where you’re being mentioned, in what context and by whom. While offline mentions are difficult to track if people are discussing you over beers or in their offices, digital social listening is easier and faster.

Essentially social listening is identifying, tracking and assessing what’s been spoken about your brand in the digital space. There are plenty of ways to track this:

1) Monitor forums:

This is a relatively tedious process but an insightful one. If you know the forums and portals where your target audience hangs out and discusses stuff, its best to keep a tab on that and keep checking periodically on what’s being said about you. Dedicated industry-specific forums, Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups, Reddit, Quora etc. are a good place to start.

2) Google alerts:

This is probably the easiest way for social listening Set up alerts on Google for your brand name and certain keywords you want to track. Google will send you the details over email every day. I personally didn’t find it useful because sometimes I get spammy looking content coming in even when people misspell, or the word means something in a local language.

3) Specific dedicated tools:

There are dedicated tools like Followerwonk (For Twitter), Commun.it (twitter), Mention, Hootsuite that help track every mention of your name on the social media space.  There’s also this bigger list of tools from Brandwatch that you can explore if this interests you.

Listening beyond your product:

Active listening also makes you more aware of the universe beyond your immediate environment. There’s a lot going on at any point of time. Like the wise men said- It’s possible to say too much. It’s rarely possible to listen too much.

This is important. As a business and especially as a founder, we cannot be tunnel-visioned about only taking cognizance of things about our product. We need to be alert and open to hearing of what’s happening in the eco-system. You need to notice and understand what is it that the target audience and users love (or hate) about your competitors’ product, what is it that they love in general about other products e.g. the UI or verbiage or unique onboarding program or humorous campaigns take etc.  of a non-competing product might be really great and something that you should keep in mind for the future. Many times you gain great insights on what users see as necessity and what’s invisible to them.

What next? 

All this said and hopefully having convinced you to engage more in listening proactively and actively, the buck doesn’t stop here. Once you’ve figured out what users want, the key next course of action is taking action.

Create a mind map or visual representation of whatever you’ve understood and then strategize to form your next steps to answer to the customer’s expectations. That will help close the circle of the customer experience and make the experience of engaging with your brand memorable. Active listening requires keeping the founder’s ego in the backseat and understanding what the user really wants. Listening and consequently taking action helps create trust, lower the defensive attitude of prospects and helps build meaningful relationships with users. It also helps in customer retention because users like the fact that a business is approachable, listens to feedback constructively and takes relevant action wherever possible or needed.  An open communication between the business and its users creates a wonderful transparent environment where the users feel valued and you as a founder have the satisfaction and mental calm of giving your best.

Signing off saying – listen to your user’s voice.