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Last December, my startup Vayable -- a platform to request, design and book unique travel experiences with locals -- hosted a holiday party at the French wine bar around the corner from our San Francisco office. Unlike most startup holiday parties I’ve attended, the vast majority of attendees at ours was our community, and their travel stories took center stage.
One couple told me how they spent their entire travel budget booking back-to-back Vayable experiences on their upcoming trip to South America. I got to know another guy who told me that after taking his girlfriend on a sea foraging experience he had gone straight to Chinatown to buy the supplies he needed to cook seafood like a pro. We had "Insiders" (our name for local travel advisors) making crepes, giving talks about wine and doing illustrations of all the guests. We went home that night with an arsenal full of insights and feedback that ended up being critical to our product decisions. Equally as important, we’d developed real connections with the people who mattered most: our customers.
While hearing these stories from local customers was amazing, we were struggling to connect with another group: our user base in Paris. To meet demand, we needed to educate our local Insiders and hear their questions and concerns -- these were the very people helping our travelers have the best experience possible. This involved many (many!) late nights and all-nighters to compensate for the 9-hour time difference, incessant Facebook messaging, Skype calls and Google Hangouts.
While technology allowed us to find our community of core Insiders from halfway around the world, something was missing. We realized the insights, feedback and relationships we built virtually were never as strong as the ones we’d created in real life. Because the voices of our customers in San Francisco -- almost all in tech -- were within earshot, they gained center stage in our product development, while those from afar got drowned. We were building from within a “techo-chamber,” which limited the potential of our business.
In mid-August, we released a new product that enables Insiders to offer more than guided experiences, but also advice and full trip design. Unsurprisingly, the largest number of customer requests for the service were in Paris. We were leaning heavily on a customer base we didn’t even really know. The solution seemed obvious: My team should go to Paris and talk with our community the way we had done in San Francisco and New York.
A month later, we boarded a flight to launch a pop-up headquarters in Paris. We spent most of our waking hours with our Insiders, letting them guide us in every way possible. They helped arrange our accommodations, performed usability testing and showed us everything from the Mona Lisa to Montmartre and midnight adventures in the catacombs. Half of us spent our days implementing the feedback on our product, while the others were meeting artists, teachers and historians interested in becoming Insiders.
We concluded the pop-up headquarters experience with a community demo day. We pitched our product to our customers and gave them the opportunity to provide feedback by voting on which designs they most wanted to see and whether they would choose to sign up as an Insider. The results were breathtaking.
Here is what we learned:
Engaging with customers helps build trust. Not only did we build lasting customer experiences and trust among our community, but saw record growth of Insiders and increased referrals from those we had developed relationships with in Paris. This could not have happened virtually talking to people across the globe via Skype or Facebook.
Our marketing budget decreased. Word-of-mouth marketing is gold. It allowed us to acquire new customers at a less expensive cost (even after we factor in costs of those meetings) than other marketing avenues.
We can accelerate our product development cycle. We shortened the customer feedback loop by involving them at multiple points in our development cycle, rather than just at the beginning and at the end. This enabled us to catch mistakes faster and tweak if needed.
The best way to build communities and attract more customers is through transparency and exceptional experiences. As founders, it’s critical that the way we decide to reach our customers is reflective of businesses, team culture and customer base.
What other tricks do you have for engagning with customers? Let us know in the comments below.
The author is an Entrepreneur contributor. The opinions expressed are those of the writer.