The art of the customer visit (and why startups and SMBs should visit their customers)

by Steli Efti

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When was the last time you visited a customer? Customer visits might seem extravagant and unnecessary on the surface.

Why not just get on a call with your customers? Or email them? You could just send them a survey, or even dig into your product analytics to surface insights.

If you're a startup, I'd risk betting on the fact that you haven't visited a customer in a very long time (maybe ever). At the same time, if I'm talking to another entrepreneur and say something like "It's super crucial you physically visit your customers", they all look at me as if I just said the most obvious thing in the universe.

Few startups actually visit their customers

Visiting customers is like working out or eating healthy: everybody knows they should do it, very few people actually do.

And it's not like we're above others. We launched Close in January 2013. Our first customer visit? May 2014. It took us more than a year to set foot in a customer's office. Isn't that crazy?!?

We get why so many startups are putting this off:

  • It takes a lot of time. One customer visit can eat up about half of your day—driving there, spending time with them, driving back. You're just too busy to fit that into your schedule.
  • It's too easy to push this down to the very end of your long to-do list.
  • Your customers aren't worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to you, so it's too easy to tell yourself it's not worth investing all this effort into a customer visit.
  • It seems more sensible, urgent and important to focus on getting new customers to sign up, rather than visiting those who are already on board.
  • The benefits seem intangible.

What are the benefits of visiting your customers?

Here's a quick rundown of the value we got from our first customer visits.

Motivation

Seeing real people use your product is incredibly inspiring. It energizes you. It recharges your batteries. It gives you a visceral sense of how your work actually impacts the life of your users, rather than just an intellectual understanding.

When you experience your product empowering people to perform better, it boosts your morale. And that's the most valuable resource you have as a startup. How fired up are you about your mission? It's like pouring gasoline on the fire that fuels your engine.

Everybody on your team—from CEO to intern—should visit a customer, for this reason alone.

It is different from hearing customers tell you how much they love your product or how great they think it is. You just have to experience it. You need to see real human beings depending on what you built. You need to witness how your product helps them to operate better, to be better at what they are doing.

The impact you make on other people's lives is a much stronger driver than any number on a spreadsheet can ever be. Do not underestimate how much this affects you. It's powerful.

Context

Your customers are more than the sum of all their clicks on your product. Yes, you might be monitoring product usage and read all the feedback people send you via email or even tell you on the phone, but you're missing a lot of crucial context if you can't see your customers using your product within their work environment.

  • How exactly are they using your product?
  • What's happening around them?
  • What else is on their screen?
  • What's competing for their attention?
  • What's their workspace like?

When you visit your customers, you get to see the environment in which they use your software. You experience your product embedded into a user's workday and get a sense of the entire puzzle, rather than just a single piece of it.

And it's little things, like ...

  • What kind of headsets/chairs/desks are they using?
  • What other software/apps are they using during their day?
  • Which little hacks did they come up with to make them more productive and efficient?
  • What makes them smile, what makes them frown when interacting with your app?

It just gives you a better picture of what's working and what's not.

Even a multi-billion dollar startup like Pinterest is visiting their users at home. Mind you, that's users, not even paying customers. 

Sounds too abstract? Let's look at some concrete examples.

Ideas for high-impact product improvement

One customer we visited had a TV on their wall displaying our reporting screen. But our reporting page wasn't optimized for full-screen TV display—it looked crappy.

When I saw that, I remembered one of our engineers had already worked on a quick fix that would make it look better, but we never released it. So I took a picture of the screen, sent it over to our team on HipChat and asked if we were really ok with having such an ugly display page in our customer's office. :)

closeiodashboard

Phil released the quick fix/tiny feature within an hour, and our customers loved it. It's the small things that can sometimes make a big difference. 

closeiodashboard2

Better user guides

One of our customers had a guide laying around. Just a couple of pages that told their employees how to use our app.

We loved it. Yes, we have a getting started guide, extensive documentation, video walk-throughs, live demos and all that but this was a quick and easy way for team members to get up to speed with our sales communication platform.

We took a couple of snapshots and are now turning this into a template we can share with all our customers.

Relationship building

Meeting someone in person adds another dimension to your relationship with your customer. You can do a lot of relationship building via email, chat, phone and Zoom, but nothing has the same effect as meeting someone in person. It creates a human bond between the two of you.

It deepens the commitment on both sides. If one of the people we met needs help one day, we'll be more eager to support them. And I'm pretty sure they'll be more forgiving if there's ever an issue with Close and be more loyal to our product. Jason Lemkin never lost a customer whom he had personally visited while he was CEO of EchoSign. Spending time with your customers transforms a transactional relationship into a partnership. It builds empathy on both sides which ultimately leads to better business. 

Insider's view

You get the inside scoop on a company. You get a feel for the office politics and what the internal power dynamics are. Which role are people in the company playing? What are some of the internal secrets your customers are working on? What does their future look like? You'll learn a lot about their business if you spend some time at their office.

Upselling to a higher plan

Years ago, one of the customers we visited was on our Basic plan. Back then, this plan did not include calling. They made tons of sales calls through a VoIP provider. We didn't like that at all, because if you're our customer, and you're making sales calls but not using Close to call, you're basically driving a Porsche with the parking break on.

We talked about this with the founder, but he said there'd be no way they'd use Close for calling again. Our calling feature inside the app once was down for several hours, and it hurt their business. They didn't want to get into a situation like that again. "No chance."

We then asked the guy in charge of managing the sales team if he would be open to giving VoIP another try. His reply? "I'd love to go back to calling with Close! It would make the life of our sales reps so much easier!"

Now that we had our "internal champion", we gave him everything he needed to make the transition happen and they're now using the calling features in Close.

The extra revenue is good for us but the effect this will have on THEIR business is even more important. It will pay for the upgrade many times over, their sales reps will be happier, and they get so much more value out of being our customer.

You can't predict which benefits precisely you'll get from visiting a customer—but you will always get value from it!

What do you say during a customer visit?

Hopefully by now you are sufficiently motivated to actually visit your customers. But what do you say and do? How do you get the most value out of these visits? How do you prepare for them? How do you wrap them up? How do you get started when you visit their office?

Setting up the meeting

First of all, you set up the meeting with the founders or CEO. That's the person you'll be officially meeting. But it's not necessarily the person you'll spend most of the time with. Focus on the person managing the team that's using your product.

What to talk about

Make sure that expectations between you and your customer are aligned before you start asking them a lot of questions. Create a setting that encourages them to discuss and share their concerns openly.

Also, make sure to discuss confidentiality. If you plan to report back to your team after your customer visit, explicitly ask them if they're fine with you sharing their business processes, revenue numbers, etc with your team. (If not, that's fine too—you can still share the learnings, without actual specifics with your team.)

  • Start out by talking in general, broad terms about their business and your business. Then progress to more specific topics and product use cases.
  • Be both a student and a mentor. Learn as much as you can about your customer, and look for opportunities to help them.
  • Inquire about their workflows. 
  • How often do they use your product?
  • Which of their team members use your product the most? How often do they use it? Are there secondary users that only use it occasionally, and if yes, what for? How often? 
  • Ask them to describe their goals in detail.
  • How do they implement your product? Get a sense of the nuts and bolts.
  • What bugs do they encounter?
  • What features are they missing?
  • What do they like?
  • What do they hate? What are limitations and shortcomings in your product that they find particularly frustrating?
  • If your product would cease to exist tomorrow, what alternatives would they consider to replace you?
  • Are there any trends or changes in their industry that could affect the way they use your product in the future?

Ask for and give referrals

This is a great opportunity to get referrals. And to refer them to others as well. Don't just limit referrals to potential customers—any reason to put them in touch with other people is fair game, as long as you can see potential value for both parties.

Sometimes we see companies serving the same audience with complementary services—that's potential for a co-marketing initiative. If you introduce two happy customers to each other, and they collaborate together and both get a ton of value out of it, you generate a lot of goodwill, and oftentimes very vocal brand advocates.

Report back to your team

If you do conduct a customer visit, make sure to document your learnings and memorable moments, and share them with your team. It's important that all the insights you gain during a customer visit actually become organizational knowledge.

One thing we do at Close is to share some pics or highlights from our customer visits in Slack, and then during our weekly team meeting a team member might give a quick 2-minute summary of their customer visit.

How often should you meet them?

There's no one-size-fits-all formula. It depends on your startup, but in general: you should meet them more often than you're meeting them now.

Jason Lemkin recommends every co-founder, CEO and Customer Success Manager should meet on-site with five customers a month.

Here some pictures of customers we visited in Berlin, Germany in 2015:

 

A photo posted by Close (@startuphustler) on

 

Being able to see the environment in which your customers use your product, the atmosphere at their work place and talking with the people who use your product daily is always an insightful experience.

CloseioAirfy-CustomerVisit

 
 

A photo posted by Close (@startuphustler) on

 

Here we were visiting a Close customer in Ottawa:

customer-visit-canada.jpgWhen speaking with them we gained some valuable insights on how they experienced our Customer Success efforts, and how we can improve moving forward.

Customer visits have been a crucial market research method for traditional businesses for many decades—but they're even more crucial for startups and SMBs. Your most powerful assets when you're in a market with established, large companies is your ability to understand your customers better, and focus on their needs better than a large corporation can. 

Ever visited a customer?

Did you ever visit a customer? What did you learn? What did you gain? How could you better help a customer? I'd love to hear from you. It's time to talk more about this, so we all start visiting our customers and spending more time with them. Always aim to take the relationship with your customers to the next level—don't think that just because they're already paying you, or they signed an annual contract, there's no room for improvement.

Too many businesses are spending too much time acquiring new customers, and not enough nurturing the relationship with their existing customers. Customer visits are one of the best way to