Monday, March 4, 2024

Book excerpt: Storytelling for Startups — Why you should talk to your customers

In the second excerpt B2BNN is publishing from Mark Evans’ new book Storytelling for Startups, we look at the importance of talking to customers and how to do so effectively.

To read the first excerpt we published, go here

Story-driven marketing is a two-sided coin. Startups tell stories consumed by target audiences. That is a pretty simple proposition, right? But here’s the thing: effective storytelling happens by having insight into your audience. What stories do they like to hear? What stories get them excited, curious, etc.? What is the trick to knowing what your audiences want? That’s easy: talk to them.

This includes getting more information about their custom-ers – something some companies think they can’t or will not do because why talk to people who have already bought your product. But not talking with customers is a recipe for failure. No matter how good your idea or product, it is difficult to meet their needs and interests if you don’t know your customers. Some startups may discover their product does not address what customers really need or want. Or they may find the way that early customers are actually using their product is not the way a company thought it would be used.

I had a startup client, for example, that had its mobile app enthusiastically embraced as a user-friendly tool for internal communications. The app, however, was designed to drive awareness of corporate social responsibility and wellness programs. Once the startup realized how the app was being used, it switched gears and began to see more sales traction.

Stuart MacDonald, a business advisor, says startups have little money for research so they have to make educated guesses about their customers – their needs, goals, interests, buying habits, etc. A key consideration, he advises, is putting yourself in the shoes of your customers to think about their problems and how your product can resonate with them. “Even though you won’t necessarily get it right, there is huge value in the act of thinking about who that prospective customer is and what is going on with them. You need to make a decision about customer profiles. Will you get it 100% right? No. For an early stage company, some of it will be a guess and a supposition. Even though a startup will not get it 100% right, they will be further ahead by virtue of having a stake in the ground.”

There are many ways to talk to customers. It could be done using surveys, telephone calls, face-to-face interviews, attending conferences, or using focus groups. And here is a key consider- ation: customers welcome the opportunity to be engaged. To them, it means a company wants ideas and feedback as opposed to being forgotten after a purchase is made. It is important to talk with a mix of customers – customers who love your product, customers who are satisfied, and customers who are unhappy. As Bill Gates put it: “Your most unhappy customers are your greatest source of learning”.

8 Ways to Get the Conversation Going

How do companies kick off the process of talking to customers? That’s simple: you ask them. I told you it was simple. Here is how you do it:

  1. Establish your needs and What do you want to learn from talking to customers? Is it ideas for new features? Are you looking to improve the overall experience? Do you want honest feedback?
  1. Identify the customers you want to It could be all your customers, customers who have been around for more than a year, recent customers, or customers who stopped using your product. This plays a key role about the insight being sought.
  1. Create a list of questions to get the required information. To make them easy to answer, the questions should be focused and succinct. To get more insight, stay away from simple or yes/no questions.
  1. Reach out to This could be done using email where you ask to have a conversation. At this point, there are several options:
  • To do an interview, it means sending a note explaining your goals and how you would like 15 to 20 minutes of their time to get their ideas and feedback. Then, it is a matter of being organized to arrange meetings. Tools such as Doodle, ScheduleOnce or Meet-o-Matic make it easy to create appointments to fit the schedules of multiple people.
  • Surveys are also another way to communicate with customers. They are not as time-consuming but less personal. Customers are sent an email with your goals, along with a link to an online survey using tools such as SurveyMonkey or Typeform. I would suggest asking a maximum of 10 questions.

5. After someone does an interview or completes a survey, send an email thanking them for their time. You could even offer a thank you gift (e.g. gift card)

6. Aggregate the information – go through interview notes and survey answers to highlight common themes, ideas and suggestions.

7. Create a document that features actionable strategic and tactical.

8. Explore how the interview materials can be used to create white papers, blog posts, case studies, etc.

There are, of course, many other ways to talk with customers. Steli Efti, co-founder with, says calling new customers to thank them for their business can provide opportunities to meet in person or do a phone call. Startups can also do informal customer meet-ups, host user-groups, or attend conferences.

An example of a company that really embraced the concept of talking to customers is Groove. To get a better idea about how its customers use its online ticket system to provide customer support, Groove CEO Alex Turnbull talked to 500 customers over a four-week period – an exercise that took more than 100 hours of calls. Turnbull described the process as “mind-blowingly valuable….It has changed our product, our business and the way we think. It’s certainly been responsible for any growth we’ve had……You don’t have to go on a mission to talk to every single customer. But reach out to a handful today. You might learn something that will change your business.”

Case study: Talking to Customers

Perhaps one of the most creative approaches to talking to customers was done by Freshbooks, an online invoicing service, whose senior executives went on a 12-day road trip in a rented RV as they travelled to two conferences: The Future of Web Apps in Miami, and the South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSW) in Austin, Tex. Along the way, Michael McDerment, Saul Colt and Sunir Shah stopped in different cities to have breakfast, lunch and dinner with their customers.

The “Roadburn” trip allowed Freshbooks to meet with more than 100 customers in 10 cities with stops in Miami, West Palm Beach, Orlando, Jacksonville, Tallahassee, Pensacola, Mobile, New Orleans, Houston, and Austin. “We really believe that we’re a service, not a technology,” McDerment, Freshbooks’ CEO and co-founder, told IT World Canada. “We want to deliver a great experience, not software. If we want to be about service, we want to break down those barriers at every opportunity we get.”


The FreshBooks HQ in Toronto
The FreshBooks HQ in Toronto

 Six truths about talking to customers:

  1.  Given that few startups actually talk to customers; you score points by reaching out to them. And if the CEO does the outreach, it is even more powerful. One of my client’s customers was so impressed the CEO made a call, they decided to do even more business with the company.
  2. If you ask for 15 to 20 minutes, you can get more Once a customer gets on the phone, they are not eager to hang up. In fact, they see it as a great opportunity to provide ideas and talk about their needs.
  1. Customers will tell you what they like about your product and, as important, things that make them unhappy. The criticism is more valuable than “you’re doing great” because it offers much-needed perspective.
  1. It is an excellent business development opportunity. Nothing says we value and want your business as much as talking to customers. It gives them more encouragement to do business with you and spread the word.
  1. It provides competitive insight and intelligence about how rivals are doing business better, differently or worse.
  1. You get a much better picture of your customers – their interests, needs, and points of pain. The more you know, the better you can serve them and improve at selling to potential customers.

Reprinted with permission from Mark Evans. For more information on Storytelling for Startups, go here


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Mark Evans
Mark Evans
Mark Evans help startups and fast-growing companies tell better stories (aka marketing). His strength is delivering “foundational” strategic and tactical services, specifically core messaging, brand positioning, marketing strategies and content creation. Find him via his blog


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