by Les Trachtman, author of “Don’t F**k It Up: How Founders and Their Successors Can Avoid the Clichés That Inhibit Growth“
Founders are often intimately involved in early customer relationships – building their custom solutions, personally involved in the sale, and answering support questions directly. No one is more credible than the founder himself during the early adopter phase. Unfortunately, when this becomes a persistent state and the company scales, the situation can become untenable and an unmaintainable bottleneck restricting the company’s growth. But worse, the precedents that are set, the expectations that early customers have, and the lack of transparency related to issues these customers experience throughout the rest of the company can be catastrophic.
Unfortunately old habits don’t die easily. I’ve personally experienced situations where clients routinely called the founder on his cell phone whenever they have any problems or questions. In one situation, even after we’d established a service desk, it was difficult to break this customer’s routine practice of calling the founder on his cell phone. That’s probably because whenever the customer complained to the founder, the founder dutifully dropped everything he was doing and took care of his customer’s request. Admirable, but not scalable behavior. This pattern continued as the company grew and the founder became busier, until one day, inevitably, a customer called, the founder promised action—and then completely forgot to follow through. Since the founder had taken the call on his cell phone while he was in his car, he also neglected to log the call in our CRM (customer relationship management) system, so no one else in the company was aware of this customer’s issue. Six months later, that customer called the founder for the very last time—to let him know they were leaving for a competitor.
In the wake of losing this customer, we instituted an after-action review to determine how to improve our system. The founder’s version of the story was that he didn’t want to offend his long-term customers by telling them they should stop calling him directly. Again, admirable but not scalable. He also said he feared the customer would object if he passed them off to what they viewed as a lower-level employee in customer support. At the same time, the founder had to admit that in this case, his fear of offending the customer had resulted in worse service and the loss of a long-term account. Everyone would have been better served, including the customer, if he’d followed protocol and taken steps to wean the customer off the habit of calling him directly.
As a founder, if you’re being honest with yourself, it’s fairly easy to proactively transition a customer’s account to an established reproducible process or at least someone else in the company without offending that customer. It’s not that hard to explain to your customers that they would be better served by dealing with the help desk, where trained professionals are far more up to date in their technical expertise. Where their issues will be recorded, scrutinized on a timely basis, and escalated if not addressed. If the customer is really important, it’s a fairly simple matter to take that customer to lunch and introduce their new contact, ideally someone who also has much more direct knowledge of how your systems are working.
This advice is so simple and practical that if you as a founder can’t follow through on it, then you have to confront a deeper problem within yourself. You must come to grips with the fact that you’ve got an unhealthy emotional attachment to your importance to your customers. But as your company grows it no longer is just about you! You may tell yourself this early customer deserves to hear from you directly, but what truly deserves your focus and undivided attention is your job of taking your company to the next level of growth. Yes, you may love your long-term customers, but there comes a point when (as Bad Company would sing) that good loving’s gone bad.
Les Trachtman is currently the CEO of The Trachtman Group – focused on helping companies grow and scale, as well as managing director (and majority investor) of Purview, an early stage company focused on disrupting the medical imaging business. He is author of “Don’t F**k It Up: How Founders and Their Successors Can Avoid the Clichés That Inhibit Growth“.