Are you building software? Or are you building a startup?

It seems like a simple enough question. But like most simple questions, when you get under the hood, the first answer isn't always the right answer. You might find that you think you're building a customer-focused, high-tech, high-growth startup around an app, but what you're really building is just a great piece of software. 

The startup dustbin is full of great pieces of software.

The first and most important step of your technical product build is turning users into customers.

Here's how to do that.

Don't think in terms of software and users

The first step of any technical product development requires a mindset shift. It seems obvious on its face, but when your platform is the core of your business, you're not building software for users, you're creating a product for customers.

This one small clarification influences everything from capturing customer information to developing the user experience and user interface.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

First, track customers earlier and longer than you would track users

A user becomes a user when they log into your software with a username and password. But if you want to develop a product around customers, that login moment is way too late in the process to start tracking them.

A customer is a customer before they use your product, before they even buy your product -- it's the moment they decide that your business is worth a look. 

That's also the moment when the clock starts ticking for you to capture everything you need to know in order to close the sale. That clock will stop ticking quickly.

Whether you're marketing with ads, email, content, or direct outreach, the first time a prospect comes into contact with one of your marketing or sales methods, your goal is to save that customer to your database, preferably with a way to contact them. That one database record is the root of all their activity moving forward, long after they stop paying money to use your product.

Because a customer is still a customer long after they lose interest in your product. Your strategy will eventually be a process of reaching out to millions of people to find thousands of customers. This is like finding thousands of needles in millions of haystacks. So why would you ever throw away a needle?

A customer prospect email address or mobile number is always a valuable thing, even when it's not immediately valuable. Thus, only delete a customer prospect out of your database when they ask you to. You never know when their interest in what you offer might be rekindled.

Next, protect and privatize valuable information

Speaking of value, because your customer information is so valuable, you need to take all the appropriate steps to protect it. Your software and cloud infrastructure should have standard security protocols built in, and those protections should be enhanced any time you're working with personally identifiable information (PII).

Names, locations, email address, phone numbers, any data that connects back to a real human, needs additional protection around:

  • View: Only the customer themselves and employees with administrative rights should be able to view PII.
  • Storage: All PII should be encrypted when it's stored.
  • Transfer: All data, but especially PII, should travel in and out of your product in an encrypted manner, and only to and from trusted sources.
  • Privacy: Customers should have self-service access to all the data they generate, they should know how that data is used, and they should be able to request its removal without breaking your product.

Also remember, your product is valuable as well. So on top of all that protection for the customer, you'll need to protect your product by establishing roles for each customer, with clear definitions for what they can and can't access, depending on if they've paid and how much.

Finally, keep tabs on each customer's progress

It used to be that customer progress was binary -- either they were paying for the product or they weren't. In today's SaaS world, the customer's path is called a "journey" -- from their first awareness of the product until they stop using it. Your platform should track that entire journey and react differently based on where the customer is on that journey.

As I said before, that journey starts the first time your customer is made aware of your product. When you start tracking them, give them a status--a simple identifier that they've begun their journey. As they move through the sales process, keep updating that status : Maybe they visited your website, tried a demo, signed up for an email newsletter , whatever it may be.

Update that status all the way through to purchase, then track more data as they use the product. Track how often they use it, for how long, which features they use, and anything else that might give you a sense of where they find the most value.

When customers start to lose interest, you can take action to recapture their attention. When they're unsatisfied, you can catch them before they leave and offer to improve their experience. You can even offer a reward to customers who refer more customers to your business.

Make this transition from user to customer before you build anything else into your product. Your customers are the most important data set you have, and your most valuable asset, so spend the most time making sure you capture that value.