Startups: Are You A Trusted Adviser Or A Responsive Assistant?

Written By: Dharmesh Shah July 6, 2007
We've all heard the cliche "The Customer Is Always Right".  Those of us that have actually been in any type of business and had real interactions with customers for more than 2 days have learned that this statement is factually incorrect.  The customer is decidedly not always right.  The real question then becomes, when (if ever) should you act as if the customer is always right -- even when you know he's not.

My simple mind addresses this with one simple question:

Are you a trusted adviser or a responsive assistant?

My best analog for the trusted adviser is a doctor (or an attorney -- all lawyer jokes aside).  If you're doing something really stupid, a trusted adviser should know better and has a sufficiently strong relationship with you to smack you upside the head and tell you you're being stupid.  They're the expert, and that's their job.  The fact that you're paying them money has little influence on the relationship.  They don't think of you as a "customer", and they know you are not always right.  On the other hand, a responsive assistant is someone that does what the customer wants because they don't have (or are not perceived to have) any special skills or talents beyond the customer themselves.  They're not experts, they're time-savers.  There's nothing wrong with either of these types of businesses (and both product companies and service companies can be categorized this way).  Problems arise when you think of yourself as one type and act in the other.

I've met many startups that are faced with this dilemma (especially in the early stages).  My current startup, HubSpot, is a decent case study.  We're in the internet marketing software business.  Our target customers are small businesses.  The problem that we have at HubSpot frequently (that I think many of you might have as well) is that customers often ask for things that are clearly not in their best interests. 

All modesty aside, most startups are experts when it comes to understanding their domain and their product offering.  In most cases, our understanding is much higher than that of our customers.  I'd like to think that's why customers decide to license our software in the first place.  We eat, breathe and live this stuff.  As it turns out, customers don't always recognize their own limitations or they don't trust you enough to let you push-back on their requests.

Here are the things that I think influence this dynamic of the trusted adviser (and why so many of us end up sometimes getting treated as assistants instead).  Here are some of the questions that go on in customer's minds when they try and decide whether you are a trusted adviser:

How Customers Decide If You're a Trusted Adviser

1  What's in it for you?:  Will you benefit somehow by directing me to your line of thinking?  For example, by denying my request are you reducing the amount of low-margin business you get from me?  Raising your level of profitability is not my problem, it's yours.  If you're going to make more money by guiding me in a certain direction, I'm going to be concerned.

2.  Do you understand me?  Perhaps in most cases, what you're telling me is the "right" thing.  But perhaps my business is different in important ways.  You may think you're giving me the right advice, but you're really not.  Do you really understand me and my business such that you can give me great advice and steer me in the right direction?

3.  Are you really an expert?  How can I be certain that you really know as much as you claim you do?  What if you're simply wrong and an animated logo with cool sound on my home page really will get me more customers?

4.  Did the expert make the call?  How do I know that this advice is not coming from some junior person that was just hired last week because the "experts" haven't really had a chance to spend much time on my business?

So, my advice to those of you in startup-land that want to be trusted advisers is to focus on the above questions and make sure you understand where the customer is coming from and what you can do about it.  Be transparent.  Be objective.  Be empathetic.  Trusted adviser relationships are earned but are well worth it. 

What are your thoughts?  Have you ever had to tell a customer they were wrong?  How did you handle it?  Would love to read your comments.

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