This article was originally published on Forbes.
At a first glance, you may wonder what a healthcare startup in Chicago, workplace research consultancy in London, and an out-of-home advertising agency in Detroit have in common. But, when you take a closer look, which is what I did, you’ll find that they share an unwavering focus on their customers, providing solutions to real needs.
As founder of a customer relationship management (CRM) startup, I look at customer relationships both as a product developer and a business owner. Today I’m writing with my business owner hat on, to share with you four business and customer relationship lessons I gleaned from three companies (Insightly customers) led by visionary women entrepreneurs who are changing the game in their industries and making a difference in people’s lives.
1. Know your playing field
Professor Lynda Gratton spent more than 15 years studying workspace and what it takes to create collaborative and dynamic teams before she launched Hot Spots Movement in London, a research consultancy that helps companies around the world build productive teams and future-proof their businesses.
Dr. Stacy Lindau, the founder of healthcare startup NowPow, came up with an idea of connecting patients to high quality community services right at the point of care while she was conducting research funded by Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services at The University of Chicago.
Before Candice Simons took a leap of faith and launched Brooklyn Outdoor in Detroit, she spent a decade working in advertising, absorbing knowledge and paying careful attention to customers and macro-trends in the industry.
While you may not need a Ph.D. or years of industry experience to start a business, becoming an expert in your field will pay off in a number of ways throughout different stages of your business: From creating a high definition picture of your customers and understanding their unique needs, to developing better solutions, to identifying opportunities for growth. Of course, as a business owner you never stop learning, but a solid foundation will save you time and money, especially at the beginning. Instead of catching up on knowledge in your industry, you’ll be able to pursue creative ideas and focus on building long-lasting customer relationships.
2. Clearly define the problem you plan to solve
By the time Dr. Lindau, Simons, and Gratton sat down with a business plan, they were equipped with a wealth of knowledge and experience that left no doubt in their minds that they were bringing solutions to real problems.
While researching workplace dynamics, Prof. Graton saw that companies, big and small, didn’t know how to navigate their businesses in the face of societal, demographic and technological forces that were reshaping work and workplace dynamics. She launched a consultancy to apply her research and help companies to retain and engage their employees and strengthen their brands.
For Dr. Lindau, the lack of access to quality community services was a glaring problem in Chicago, so she saw an opportunity in using technology to better connect people with the community resources they need to stay healthy and lead productive lives. She partnered with Rachel Kohler, a veteran business owner, to build an online platform, including a directory and e-prescription service, that would help hospitals, patient advocates and thousands of individuals easily find, match and make referrals for critical services in a timely manner.
Simons launched Brooklyn Outdoor to build authentic experiences between big brands and consumers and to better connect independent billboard operators with Fortune 500 clients. As part of their creative planning and process, her team spends time in the neighborhoods where the ads go up, learning about the people and culture to create advertisements that resonate with local audiences.
Be clear on what you plan to solve, and for whom, to avoid endless existential soul-searching throughout the lifetime of your business. You’ll still have to revisit your “why” from time to time and pay attention to macro-trends and changes in your industry, but starting out with clarity is critical to business success.
As you grow your business, you’ll also find your customers and customer data as invaluable sources of insight and inspiration. Invest time in choosing the right technology to manage your data and customer relationships.
3. Choose technology that can empower your team
For Hot Spots Movement, choosing the right CRM wasn’t just about streamlining internal processes and projects, managing customer data or forecasting sales — it was a conscious decision to select a system that would help automate mundane manual tasks and free up time for more valuable and rewarding work.
As a company that set out to simplify access to critical social care, NowPow wanted a simple CRM solution for their own team. With so many moving pieces, they wanted a CRM they could customize and implement quickly. They also wanted to create a transparent workspace, where every team member had visibility into customer relationships from the very first touch by sales through the months and years of customer service down the road.
When Simons was deciding on a CRM, she wanted to make sure three things would happen — her team would be fully engaged, they would be strategic about the data they entered and managed in the CRM, and they would be able to manage the system, not the other way around.
Note that all three businesses put people at the core when deciding on a CRM. You take time to pick the best talent and hire the right people for your business. Why not choose the kind of technology that would empower your team to do their best, feel productive and contribute to your business growth? To quote the SVP of Apple and former CEO of Burberry, “Everyone talks about building a relationship with your customer. I think you build one with your employees first.”
This doesn’t mean that you should ignore your business needs, security requirements, integrations or cost when choosing a CRM. Just remember that systems and tools don’t build relationships or drive success — people do.
4. Lead with empathy and authenticity
Whether it’s part of their business value proposition or customer philosophy in general, Prof. Gratton, Dr. Lindau and Simons built their teams and companies with authenticity and empathy both towards their employees and their customers. Their focus on customer relationships stems from a deep understanding of a human need to connect and do meaningful work. Prof. Gratton launched her business to help people better connect with each other in a workplace and find fulfillment in their work. Dr. Lindau built a platform that connects people to critical resources and allows professionals to coordinate efforts in providing access to those resources. Simons helps companies to connect with their audiences and create authentic brand experiences through engaging advertisements.
It’s easier to trust your vision and stay on course when you stay true to yourself. You’re also more likely to onboard people who share your values, believe in your vision and feel encouraged to be their authentic selves. In a way, empathy is impossible without authenticity, and you need both to build meaningful customer relationships and inspire your team to do the same.
We learn from example. True leaders, like Simons, Prof. Gratton and Dr. Lindau, aren’t always showing us what to do, but rather how to be: How to act on inspiration and execute with vision, purpose and empathy. With time, that inspiration percolates into employees and, ultimately, into customer relationships.