Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

Customer relationships are everyone’s business

For us at Bunch customer-centricity always was a crucial principle to follow as we developed our products and service, since as a founder I knew this is the most important cultural pillar for our startup’s success. However, I learned that developing customer obsession in a team is one of the most challenging parts of building a business.

Customer obsession runs in our family

Growing up in a restaurant, customers were part of my every-day life since the early days. Every day of my life from Birthdays to New Years Eve, we always had customers that we served. For me as a kid this was often tough, as it seemed there was no escape. Nowhere where my family and I were alone, our customers were always there, either calling to reserve a table for the next day or simply walking in and ordering food. Of course, my mum could have simply been more strict with boundaries and treat this whole restaurant thing more like a job, but it was her life. Often she sat down with our guests and chatted with them about their lives, how they liked the food, what else was going on. She was constantly customer researching every single day. She then came up with new concepts: we build up a whole experience design concept over time. Her restaurant does not only serve food but offers a fully immersive cultural experience that includes an exhibition of authentic art and music, innovative food concepts and drinks. It paid off, guests often drove 3–4hs across the country to experience my mum’s creations.

The hard truth about customer obsession

Building Bunch, I often remember my mum’s obsession with our guests and their needs and phantasies and try to push the boundaries on what we could offer our customers. This absolute obsession sometimes causes friction with my team or at the very least intense discussions and debates. Being customer-obsessed is easier said than done on a team or company level.

Customer obsession, in reality, means sacrificing your own needs. It’s a virtue, not a principle.

Picking up the phone in the middle of the night, if a customer needs your help. Answering Whatsapp messages at any time of the day. Turning on your computer and trying to solve a bug in the middle of the night. Often my team asks me: How much of that is right? How much is too much?

As with every virtue, it can be taught and acquired

In order to help my team to develop a strong conviction that customers are our north star, over time we tried different things to help the whole team develop the same customer obsession that my mum and I share. Some worked, some did not. Overall, things improved a bit at first, but then sometimes as we hired new people they were often overwhelmed with the expectations we had with regards to customer-related behaviors. And so things they got worse again, because we as founders did not put enough work to onboard them properly. It always felt a bit like 1 step forward and 2 steps back, and it’s hard to see short-term progress.

As I was writing this article, I’ve asked my technical co-founder Charles, what had helped him to grow his customer obsession over time, since his progress in that regard has been remarkable over the past 3 years. I remember conversations at the beginning of our journey together, where I had to remind him to always start from our user’s perspective when thinking about the end-to-end user experience and designing new features. Now, he often is the one that brings in customer perspective in decision-making, puts himself in our user’s shoes and challenges our design and product assumptions. He is one of the biggest advocates for GV Design Sprints in our team and is an important role model for every engineer that joins our team. When I asked him “What has helped you to become so customer-obsessed?” he answered:

“I think it starts with me acknowledging that it is something I need to succeed and that I’m really bad at it. Then trusting someone (aka someone on the design or product team) to set thresholds on “what good customer experience” looks like and me trusting that and trying to make it happen with code. Furthermore, I also internalize more that it’s literally my job as a founder — If I don’t obsess over customers, then who?”

Charles further described that he is quite systematic when it comes to self-improvement. If he commits to a learning goal, he is persistent and prioritizes this over everything else. Watching him persevere on this journey towards customer obsession reminded me of the different types of empathy and that what Charles was doing here was basically building up cognitive empathy aka perspective-taking, the very rational version of empathizing with someone. But this is only part of the job-to-be-done, in order to mobilize the team to help customers solve their problems, we need our team to feel with our customers (emotional empathy) and feel responsible to spontaneously help (compassionate empathy). My second co-founder Anthony has replied to the same question: “For me, it was most helpful to see role-plays of our customers and to join user testing sessions and discovery interviews. Literally being there when the customer describes their challenges and problems and being able to feel it at that moment, right with them.”

Anthony was pointing at the fact that nothing can replace the direct interaction with customers as the most powerful way to experience what it means to be in “their shoes”. As Jeff Bezos states it in his 2016 letter to shareholders: Resist proxies! In the end, all that counts is the result you achieved for your customers. It’s not the process that gets you there, or the best UX or market research, or which methods you use, it’s everyone’s commitment on the team to keep the most important person in your business — your customer — at the core of all decision-making and thinking and doing.

One of my personal objectives in 2020 is to help everyone on the team to build up cognitive empathy, emotional empathy and compassionate empathy towards our customers and measure our success exclusive based on our customers’ success.

Here are some of the things we’ve tried and how/whether they’ve helped build up customer obsession in our team:

Things we tried to help the team to build customer obsession and empathy

What did we try that DID NOT work (yet)?

Customer Chair — Inspired by Jeff Bezos we’ve placed tokens of customers in our meetings. We tried chairs, dolls / stuffed puppets (that we got as a present once) and other things. At the end, it seems a bit random and it’s hard to keep up credibility/make sure the team takes it seriously.

Assisting in user testing — This is one is tricky since I believe that it actually works long-term, but you definitely can’t expect any short-term benefits from it. Basically by involving your non-customer facing team members more and more in user testing by asking them to take notes and attend will help to increase awareness for customer needs, but that alone won’t do. You’ll have to find ways to increase empathy with the customer.

Customer Insights Hours — We continuously try to synthesize and summarize the takeaways from customer research and present them on a weekly basis back to the whole team at our all-hands meetings. So far, the reality of an early-stage startup has often collided with the prep time necessary to make this a steady habit. So we’re still going strong with this one but have not found a good balance to make it part of our regular practice.

What did we try that DID work?

Round robin customer care — This is one of my favorites: Every team member at Bunch actually gets to chat with our users or at least potential users and they even get to take action and help with requests. This is the most powerful intervention, I believe, and it’s super easy to do. All you need to do is write-up some simple guidelines and have someone who is a pro in Customer Care/Success train the rest of the team.

Role plays — Instead of simply presenting customer research results, how about playing them out? All you need are 2 people from the design or product team that emerged themselves deeply into persona work and held many interviews. The rest of the team can ask them anything and get pretty good and solid answers back. Definitely engaging and effective.

Google Venture Sprints — If you are thinking of venturing into a new product direction or need to test a risky, yet interesting concept or feature, there is no better and faster way whether it will land with your customers, than a GV Sprint. We’ve ran it more than 10 times now and many key features (e.g. the 30Qs Mindset Screening Assessment for Job Candidates) in our products have been invented this way.

Customer visits in the office — We’ve done this once, but the effects are still remembered by those members of our team that have participated. Do you know how designers and UX researchers shadow users in their surroundings? We thought about how we can bring the same intensity of experience to the rest of our team and came up with the idea of bringing the customer into our office. We have bought breakfast and had invited a customer that was traveling to Berlin to meet our whole team. Overall it took 2,5hs and everyone was extremely engaged. Surprisingly, the whole team asked TONS of questions and the team built tons of empathy during this experience. Thanks to Rico Fernando for making it to the Bunch office back then!

Hiring for Customer Obsession — We’ve always paid attention to how customer-focused our candidates were, but somewhere in Q3 2019 we stepped up our game. We not only check for high customer-orientation using the Stanford-Science based Mindset Screening (Bunch Assessment), but by now the whole team pays attention to Customer Orientation in team interviews. At the moment someone raises a red flag around this topic, we escalate and at the very least follow up with a critical drill-down on past experiences with customers. If we don’t get very convincing evidence that the candidate truly obsesses over customers, we rather pass. In 2019 we increased the quality of our hires when it comes to customer obsession.

What worked for you?

Which new habits and behaviors did you develop or are you experimenting with that help you and your team to obsess about your customers? We’d love to compare notes!

Further reading:

How to Scientifically Test for Customer Obsession According to Netflix’s Former VP of Product

2016 Letter to Shareholders by Jeff Bezos

20 Years Ago, Jeff Bezos Gave an Interview Detailing Amazon’s Killer Strategy — and It’s Absolutely Brilliant

Co-founder, CEO at Bunch — Helping future leaders grow; bookworm, psychologist and relentless optimist. Grow | Inspire | Stay humble