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Customer-Centricity: The Immunity Boost For Startups Now more than ever, genuine empathy with customers is needed to survive and thrive

By Ajay Batra

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During the ongoing pandemic startups—early or growth-stage, bootstrapped or funded—are trying hard to survive as they look for the light at the end of the tunnel. Most are scrambling with issues of cash flow, salaries, sales, and collections, as they try to find islands of opportunities in this mayhem.

Not surprisingly, startups built on solid foundations of sane unit economics, proximity to customers, frugal operations, and sensible growth seem to be faring better. Now, more than ever, organizations with a deeply entrenched DNA of customer-centricity will be better prepared to weather the storm as customer needs change, existing customer segments vanish and new segments appear.

How to build a successful venture by being customer-centric? The answer is as operational as it is philosophical. At the most basic level, it is not a choice, but the very reason for a venture to exist. From understanding our customers to make them "succeed' to data analytics, from building a conducive culture to collaborative innovation, here are some key activities to focus on.

Get to know your customers deeply

This may seem quite obvious, but it is shocking to see how many startups, and established enterprises, lose sight of their main stakeholders. Whether it is B-C or a B-B mode, startups need to show authentic empathy to understand your customers' life context, pain, and needs. As Jeff Bezos said, "We see our customers as guests to a party, and we are the hosts. It's our job to make the customer experience a little bit better." A simple tool to help you think through this is the KNOW persona development framework:

· Key attributes of your customers—age, gender, location, employees.

· Needs—what do they want to achieve in their personal/professional lives? What keeps them up at night?

· Options—What alternatives or options do they have currently to help service these needs? This is a great source for competition mapping and for developing a positioning strategy.

· Wants—Are there specific expectations from your product/service like cost, quality, service?

Learn how your customers learn, and where they "hang-out'

In a fluid world enabled with digital technologies and social media choices, people are moving from one source of information to another. They are frequently exploring new "hang-outs'—from a new café downtown to a virtual conference, to a brand-new social networking app. Knowing where your customers spend their recreational and professional time (office, home and beyond) is a critical part of knowing their life context, but is even more important in helping you devise effective means (read: channels) of reaching and engaging them.

Collect and act on data related to customers' experience

The focus of customer-facing technology and data analytics platforms is to develop better "listening posts' for the business. Ongoing, if not real-time, customer experiences are collected and analyzed for refining products, channels, service, price, etc. Some critical elements to keep in mind are customer feedback (for example, using a tool like the NPS), customer satisfaction surveys, and social media comments.

Collect qualitative insights on customers' experience

In this age of artificial intelligence, data analytics and high-performance computing, organizations lay a lot of emphasis on quantitative insights. This is great, but these must be accompanied by an emotional (almost intuitive) understanding of customer behavior. Once again, this requires us to see things from the customers' perspective, and each business as a "customer relationship' initiative, and not as a market research/sales exercise. A simple tool such as customer journey map helps organizations under various touchpoints that excite, pleasantly surprise, or disappoint customers. For example, how easy or frustrating is it for the customers to find your offering among the clutter of competing choices? How did the customer feel after the first contact with a company representative? How delighted is the customer to recommend your services to another?

Define, track, and act on customer-facing business metrics

Founders and leaders need to convert customer empathy and relationship insights into a business model that delivers the expected value profitably. To ensure that the venture stays on track on its customer-success mission, relevant measurements need to be defined and collected, for example—customer acquisition cost, revenues, gross margins, customer lifetime revenue, new/lost customers per month, revenue per customer, etc.

Customer-centricity aims to galvanize the entire organization to deliver experiences that customers care about. While it may appear to be relevant only for customer-facing roles such as marketing, the reality is that the entire chain of people needs to understand the customer inside-and-out, almost better than the customer herself. Building such a culture is the number one priority of founders and leadership team, and is a sure-shot way to emerge strongly from the current, and any future, downturn.

Ajay Batra

Founder, Uniqorn Growth Partners

Ajay Batra is an entrepreneur, author, angel investor, and active contributor to innovation and startup ecosystems. He has been recognized for his ground-breaking work in Design Thinking and Startup Maturity Models. He is the Founder Uniqorn Growth Partners, a global startup advisory and assessment company, and a Senior Advisor with

Venture Fastrack of the Wadhwani Foundation. He has recently published his book, ‘The Startup Launchbook’ with Wiley.

He was the Founding CEO of the Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Bennett University. He also headed Bennett Hatchery – the startup incubator. He is a Charter Member of TiE, a member of LeadAngels and a Mentor for Atal Innovation Centres, NITI Aayog. He serves on several national committees of FICCI and CII and is a sought-after jury member for national and international startup competitions like HULT Challenge, CII Startpreneur Awards, Babson Challenge, ET Power of Ideas, Innovation Launchpad, etc.

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