The Importance of Bonding with Customers: A Cautionary Tale

Without trust, your company will never succeed. Building your business hinges on cultivating trust in your brand, with your products, among your people, and through your processes.

In the beginning at Loopd, my digital wearables startup, my cofounders and I talked theoretically about trust. However, the concept didn’t become a reality until we rolled out our products. As a mission-critical component of major corporate events, we needed to be considered trustworthy and reliable. This journey began by establishing customer relationships three to four months before a conference or meeting ever took place.

Managing Expectations

The Box Dev conference in April 2015 was our first event, and it was a learning process that showed us the importance and fragility of trust. As we planned the event, we shared a high level of trust with our customer, Box, but, as issues arose, this gradually crumbled.

Our integrity eroded little by little with every promise that we could only partially keep. Even if we fulfilled 99 percent of our commitments, that remaining 1 percent made all the difference. We discovered that trust is not about personal integrity, hard work, or advertised expertise. It is about a more intangible x factor surrounding expectations that begin during and after the sales process.

We could always gauge our success based on the state of customer relationships post-event. After Box Dev and a few other events where customer relationships felt strained in the aftermath, we recognized the need to create a simple process to build, grow, and maintain trust.

This was critical for our success; we needed loyal repeat customers with long-term business.

Building a Foundation of Trust

The foundation of trust begins within your organization. As a leader, you must establish it with every member of your team, from the lowest-ranking individual to the top executive. People who feel seen and valued do better work and execute responsibilities at a higher level. Trust also empowers people to grow professionally and become capable of managing entire groups such as sales, engineering, production, or operations.

Micromanagement is a sign of distrust—and your employees know it. Performance will suffer and growth will be stunted. Customers have strong radar for internal conflict, and this distrust can spread and infect those relationships as they become suspicious of you and your team.

After we understood these components of trust, we created a set of “homework” assignments that helped define expectations at the beginning of our customer relationships. These assignments encouraged our customers to set realistic expectations for Loopd (and themselves) at the beginning of our working relationship:

Customer Responsibility:

Customers need to share and acknowledge responsibility for their own level of success. By using an online project management tool such as Trello, our customers could see detailed tasks for our team and their own. This helped cultivate a collaborative environment where we worked in tandem and had visibility and accountability for responsibilities.

Definition of Success:

Trust hinges on so much more than clear communication and transparency. At our “customer success” kickoff meetings, we asked our clients to take some time to define the single most important criteria for success, the one element that would determine whether they would become long-term customers. By verbalizing this from the onset, we could more easily feel successful and prove value upon completion.

For example, the Retail Industry Leaders Association zeroed in on “improving session survey response rates.” With a specific internal key performance indicator (KPI) in mind, we could easily gauge whether Loopd met the association’s expectations and helped it solve a problem.

Choosing Metrics

Without clear communication and stated metrics of success, many clients fall into the cultural propensity toward dissatisfaction—even after what we would define as a successful event. With these homework assignments, we realized that we could help our clients and ourselves by meeting or exceeding expectations almost every time.

If we saw that we were going to miss the mark, we could broach the topic in a clear, candid conversation and discuss our limitations. This gave our clients freedom, power, and the ability to reevaluate our relationship and how our products aligned with their needs.

From the beginning, we were determined to avoid the common startup trap of over-promising and under-delivering. We knew that, by trying to please everyone, we would satisfy no one, and that would produce failure on every front.

These client conversations about expectations were not always easy, but they were rarely fatal. Even the difficult ones resulted in a solid foundation of shared trust to build a long-term relationship on.

If you get on the same page as your customers, build trust, and establish clear expectations, you can set your customers—and your startup—on the path to success.

This article is adapted from the book Takeaways: Secret Truths from Leading a Startup by Brian Friedman, a millennial entrepreneur who went from a blank sheet of paper to a multimillion-dollar exit in less than three years. During this time, he secured over $2.5 million in angel and venture capital financing, hired more than ten employees, opened  offices in San Francisco and Taiwan, and sold global brands such as Intel, Cisco, Castrol, and Box.