I do most of my grocery shopping at a place called Olivia's Market, a small grocer in my neighborhood. In fact, I stop in at least three times a week, so I've gotten to know the owner, Bill Maheras, fairly well.
Now, I'm not saying we're best friends, but over the years we've traded a bunch of emails and had coffee down the street, and he's even offered me some choice Bulls tickets. Good guy, this Bill.
We also enjoy talking shop. To say that the grocery business is cutthroat would be a major understatement. Every day, Bill has to contend with slim margins, lots of competitors, scores of suppliers, and high inventory costs. No surprise, then, that Bill always tells me how lucky I am to run a software company. With high margins, no spoilage, and no inventory, our businesses are polar opposites.
But I always remind Bill how in at least one respect, he is far luckier than I: He actually knows his customers.
In today's hundred-data-points-on-your-customer world of online business, Bill has one data point that really matters: He can recognize a customer if he sees her walking down the street. Can you say that about your company? I know I can't.
We owners of Web-based businesses love to gloat about how many customers (make that users) we have. But do we really know any of them? Sure, we can calculate their lifetime value and figure out how many times they've logged in over the past 90 days, what brand of mobile phone they use, and how much they spend a month. But we wouldn't know who they were if they walked in our front doors.
The owners of such locally based businesses as Olivia's don't get glossy magazine covers, and industry websites never claim that they are changing the world. But I am more convinced than ever that we can learn a lot from the Bill Maherases out there.
Why don't I know my customers the way Bill does? Obviously, scale is one reason: We have tens of thousands of individual paying customers. Another is geography; we have users in more than 50 countries, and it's not so easy to strike up individual relationships with them.
But the main reason is that our business is built on self-service. Customers buy Basecamp without ever having to interact with us. If they do have a question, we handle everything via email. We've been in the business of automation. We've never really valued full service.
There is nothing wrong with this. Our customers love our product. And they love that they don't have to talk to salespeople, make any phone calls, or wait for someone to approve their purchase to sign up.
But what if we tried to run our business more as Bill does? Is it possible to create a model in which we get to see--or at least hear--our customers on a regular basis; in which we know their names, their businesses, their stories; in which we might even recognize them if we bumped into them on the street?
I want to see if we can do this kind of thing at 37signals. How much better can we be if we know our customers for real, not just as data points?
So that's what we're going to do with our next product. It won't be self-service; it'll be full service. Rather than no touch, it'll be high touch. If you want to buy it, I want to get to know you a little first. A phone call, a videoconference, whatever--I just want to know who my customers are so I can really understand why they want to buy. I want to know if I can really help them.
What's this product? Well, that'll have to wait for my next column. Until then, go meet your local grocer, dry cleaner, and shop owner. Really talk to them. And let them inspire you.