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Entrepreneurship 101 for Customer-Centric Leaders and Those Who Want to Be

Published September 1, 2020

Entrepreneurs and startups intuitively understand the need to connect their products and services to the needs of the market—because if you haven't identified a specific need and aligned your offerings to meet it, you have little chance of success.

Entrepreneurship and the pursuit of product-market fit.

In the early stages of venture creation, the pursuit of product-market fit is driven by identifying and closing the gap between customer issues and proposed solutions.

As a mentor and teacher, I work closely with our MBA students to let customer-driven evidence lead them to conclusions without letting their own biases (hopes, assumptions, beliefs, etc.) get in the way of what the market really needs.

Customer experience, and giving customers what they need.

Aspects of my role as a mentor are mirrored in my day job as a customer experience strategist. In this role, I help organizations understand what customers need and act based on this knowledge—often, while building the institutional muscles to do so systematically and regularly.

Unfortunately, many established organizations have a hard time looking from the customer perspective; they are hindered by established processes, systems, rules, and reward structures.

What customer experience leaders—and those who want to be—can learn by applying concepts that drive early-stage venture creation.

Whether you're trying to create a business or improved customer experience in an established organization, the common success factor is deeply understanding what customers need and giving it to them in ways that are relevant and, where possible, unique.

To link entrepreneurship and customer experience together, there aren’t many sources better than the Customer Development Manifesto from The Startup Owner's Manual, written by Steve Blank (founder with Eric Reis of the lean startup movement) and Bob Dorf.

While the full list of 17 rules includes several startup-specific principles, I’ve narrowed it down to the 8 that apply equally to any established organization striving to better connect with their customers regardless of size, industry, location, or product.

Edited slightly for focus, the subheads are from The Manifesto; the commentary is mine.

  1. There Are No Facts Inside Your Building, So Get Outside.

    You cannot find out what customers really think without talking (and listening) to your customers. From one-on-one interviews to qualitative focus groups and formal data gathering through things like surveys and behavioral analytics, there is no substitute for looking at your business from the outside-in—through your customer's eyes.

  2. Pair Customer Development with Agile Development.

    Whether you're improving existing systems and processes or designing new products, services, or experiences, the ability to continually gather, analyze, integrate, and act on customer input is crucial in responding to changing customer expectations. Adopting an iterative “design, deploy, assess” approach to experience improvement is at the heart of the most customer-centric businesses.

  3. Iterations and Pivots Are Driven by Insight.

    What worked well yesterday may not work well today or tomorrow. As a result, you need to have the ability to shift focus or direction based on what you learn from your customers and your data. Continually identify pain points and experience gaps, and then prioritize their improvement based on customer needs and your business objectives.

  4. Validate Your Hypothesis with Experiments.

    The objective is to turn your informed guesses—another way to define hypothesis—into facts by testing improvements with the customers who will actually use or interact with them. In the context of customer experience, think of your efforts as “pass/fail” experiments that provide insights you can learn from and take action on.

  5. Failure Is an Integral Part of the Search.

    As noted in Mark Coopersmith and John Danner’s book The Other “F” Word, failure can be a game-changing resource—provided you learn from it. This means finding what works and what doesn’t, iterating based on what the data tells you. And of course, set yourself up to fail small. Little tests and iterative improvements lead to big gains over time.

  6. (Customer Experience) Startup Metrics are Different.

    Every company is comfortable with traditional business metrics like balance sheets, P&L, and cash flows. Customer experience metrics link customer interactions to the feelings those interactions drive, and to the behaviors that customers exhibit. Those behaviors are what drives traditional business metrics—and why linking them is foundational.

  7. Communicate and Share Learning.

    To socialize efforts and prove value, customer experience professionals need to share what they learn with stakeholders and other interested or affected parties across the organization. Customer-driven data is remarkably effective at aligning different parts of the organization around problems, and collectively pursuing solutions to them.

  8. Success Begins with Buy-In.

    Adopting a customer-centric strategy has the potential to change almost every aspect of a business, from go-to-market to metrics, systems, and processes. Up-front stakeholder buy-in is critical. But make no mistake—any leaders worth their salt will also require you to prove the value of your efforts. And by following these steps, you can.

    More than once I've thought that the field of customer experience improvement is driven by the same underlying concepts of product/market fit as the world of venture creation and startups. Let’s call it experience/market fit.

    After all, no matter how well aligned to the market your brand, messaging, products, or services are, if the experience of using them is too high of a barrier, then customers won’t use them at all. 


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