Years ago, small businesses wanted to appear large so customers would trust them. They produced fancy stationery and secured a respectable business address. This has all changed with the Internet, where customers value the human voice. Now every business wants to appear small and provide personal service to its customers.
While this is an advantage for startups, it does not totally resolve the trust issue. Prospective customers still want to know the company’s track record. With whom have they done business before? In other words, who has previously trusted them to provide a solution to their problems?
Andrea Johnson is the co-founder and CEO of a startup in Palo Alto, Calif. called ThisLife, which stores and organizes photos in the cloud. While she feels that her business serves a real need, she believes that one of her biggest stumbling blocks toward growth is trust. “At the crux of many of the inquiries our customer service desk receives is the implied question, 'Can I trust your service?'" Johnson says. "Customers are rarely that blunt, but they find polite ways to ask the question for many reasons.”
Here is how to gain the trust of customers to grow a business:photo: Thinkstock
1. Show your passion. This is something that startups can do better than most companies. Raw enthusiasm always pours out of the founder and first employees. Show customers the mission. “We introduce ourselves and explain why we are so passionate about solving the problem of photo organization," Johnson says. "We describe our features in plain English, no engineering degree required. We offer an intro video that gives a flavor for the product.”
2. Go private. If the company sells an online social sharing tool, Johnson suggests setting the defaults to “private." She admits that “although this isn’t the fastest way to drive growth in an uber-social, ultra-viral world, we strongly believe that customers should have complete control over their own accounts.”
3. Offer a free trial. Almost any company without an established brand needs to let customers try its product for free before they buy it. Don’t collect credit card information until the end of the trial. This will get more consumers to try the company’s product (although the conversion rate will typically be lower).
4. Make contact simple. This is also where a startup can set themselves apart from established companies which make it traditionally hard to talk to them by phone. Johnson says, “We make ourselves available to them by phone, e-mail, Twitter and Facebook. Every customer who opens an account (free or paid) receives a personal email from a member of our customer service team with a direct e-mail address and phone number should they ever need to contact us.”
5. Get a reputation. Consumers believe earned media (what others say about your company) more than any advertising. Getting involved in social media communities by listening and helping is an inexpensive way to build credibility with new and prospective customers. Respond to every social media post. Encourage new customers to share their (positive and negative) experiences.
6. Value customer suggestions. Johnson believes that a company can build credibility when it shows customers it values their input and that “their requests have a major impact on our product development choices.” It shows that the company is open to change and new customers will become committed to making the product better.
7. Ask the experts. Johnson suggests getting the product tested by experts in the press. The company can then post these reviews on its website and use social media to spread the word.
8. Make for an easy exit. Many customers get concerned about how to stop using a tool once they start, worried that they will not be able to recover their information. ThisLife created a tool so customers can easily get their pictures and videos back if they want to stop using the company’s service. Telling customers that it is easy to stop using a company's service will make them more likely to try and stick with it.
9. Be patient. This is a difficult skill to develop in a fast-paced world. However, never rush trust. This valuable commodity takes time to build. It may be a big barrier to entry for many customers, but once it is achieved, it is an even bigger barrier to exit for them.
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