Back in 2007, Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky were just two broke students when they came with an idea to rent out air mattresses. Since then the business snowballed into one of the most successful accommodation websites, worth $31bn and operate in 191 countries. Chesky’s personal wealth is estimated to be worth around $3.2bn and yet, up until last year, if you browsed the San Francisco listings, you would come across the business magnate’s sofa, available to stay on.
It’s heart-warming story, of a CEO keeping to his principles, despite the fame he has garnered. However there is a deeper significance to the anecdote. Chesky renting out his sofa on AirBnB is one of the reasons why he has been a success. Building a business is down to many things: luck, timing, and perseverance. However in the case of many, it is knowing who your customers are and what they customer want. In other words, if you’re serious about expanding your business, you need to put yourself in the customer’s shoes.
Turning to an overused allegory, The Emperor’s New Clothes is a perfect example of poor business acumen. The emperor has been elevated to the point where he has lost all his perspective, all grasp on normality: a common affliction amongst CEOs and execs. Keeping in touch with the base of your company, your product or services will help keep that detachment at bay. Your comms may be handled by one team, your tech by another but if you act as a customer once in a while you can keep one ear to the ground and identify areas that need attention.
An example from our own company Fat-Lama, a peer-to-peer rental platform, one of the most used features on our website is the live search bar. The idea being that anyone looking to list items can see what people are searching for and what trends there are in the marketplace. This idea was actually the result of our own team members digging around in search data in the office when trying to decide what they were going to list themselves. Companies often have their big break when implementing a simple home grown idea and seeing things from the customer's point of view can often inspire these strokes of genius.
It’s so often an area miscalculated; however if you get your customer service right, it can transform a business. A good analogy is that a waiter always tips in a restaurant. This is a perfect illustration of how empathy comes to change behaviour in a business relationship. For us, it’s easy to become obsessed with meetings, emails, reviews and more emails, to the point where you’re only interaction with a customer is as a number on a screen. It’s at this stage that management tends to fail the customer. It’s hard to think about a number’s point of view, or what it wants out of a service. Instead it is merely a benchmark, a figure for increase.
However become your own customer and suddenly that number is you again. It will put you back into contact with customers that drove your business at the beginning. Not only will you reconnect with your core support but you will also learn about how people are interacting with your company and consequently understand how best to appeal to the customer. This was how success stories like Buzzfeed came about. Whilst working at Huffpost, Peretti spent months monitoring trends in content and URL trails, so that when it came to Buzzfeed’s launch, the company knew exactly what their clientele were after. Their approach goes to show that a bit of time researching the customer will go a long way in advancing your business.
This advice isn’t just for the CEOs and Execs. In fact at the top your role in daily decision-making will necessarily be limited, so it is your team that will head any new concepts or innovations. If your middle management are also adopting the role of customer, they will have the to recognise issues and make changes in areas you simply to have the time, or sometimes even the expertise, to deal with personally. From the employee point of view it will also lead to a more positive, proactive office ethos. It’s something that tech giant Airbnb have been rigorous in encouraging. In all of their offices, conference suites are modelled on the living rooms of that particularly cities most popular listing. It might sound like a gimmick but it also keeps everyone focused on the vision of the company.
There is no end to the business advantages of being your own customer but ultimately it should just be enjoyable. Chesky didn’t list his sofa as just a PR stunt but because he loved his company vision and he was proud of what he had achieved. So take a bit of pride in your company and enjoy being part of what you’ve built.
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