We signed 100,000 new clients during the pandemic… by listening

Drawn to solving complex problems, I spent decades of my career in managerial roles at top tech companies Frank And Oak and building ad tech solutions for companies like Shopify and Clash of Clans. But throughout those years of growth and achievement, I always had a voice in my head saying, “Is this really the best thing I can spend my time doing?”

I quickly realized that building technology that helped companies sell virtual soldiers, blouses, and pants was just fundamentally dissatisfying for me. Eventually, I decided I wanted to build a company with a bigger impact. 

With Eytan Bensoussan, I founded NorthOne and we did just that. We saw that small businesses were not having their needs met by traditional banks and we built a digital bank that specifically served them. 

Then the pandemic hit. 

Businesses closed, startups couldn’t find funding, unemployment rose. But even during these difficult economic times, we signed 100,000 new customers

How did we achieve that? In short, we listened.

We conducted a “customer discovery” program in order to understand the specific needs of our customers. By understanding how we could best help them during this difficult time we set ourselves up for success. We used our learnings to quickly address our customers’ needs and grow our business. 

Following our model, here’s how you can drive growth in difficult times using a laser-focused approach to customer experience. 

1. Know your market

The pandemic changed everyone’s needs across industries and locations. During this global shift, we paid close attention to the businesses that we were built to serve: those with under 20 employees. 

In fact, small businesses with under 20 employees make up almost 90% of the businesses in the US. We saw that almost as soon as pandemic restrictions went into place, these businesses were the ones to drive the accelerated demand for digital financial services. 

The increased demand was fortunate for our business, but it posed challenges as well. We were prepared to meet the demand, but with a rush of new customers, we needed to adjust our offerings to cater to their needs. 

So at NorthOne, we worked to make our offerings align with the needs of our customers as closely as possible. 

2. Determine customer needs

In order to add the most customers during this time of high demand, you need to find as many ways as you can to listen to your customers in order to learn what products and services that are right for them. 

And then you need to deliver those products. Our company’s approach was to connect with thousands of customers and closely go through what they needed. 

Not all businesses are alike, even within a certain demographic, like those with less than 20 employees. We started by having conversations with business builders in our networks. Then we created personas based on geography, industry, and financial experience. To understand the specific needs of those different demographics, we conducted methodical outreach calls to business owners who were representative of each persona.

3. Implement a customer discovery program 

So what is customer discovery? 

We define the discovery process as answering these key questions: 

  • Where do problems exist for our customers? 
  • How do our customers interact with that problem?
  • How is this problem solved today? 
  • How painful is this problem for customers today? 
  • What are our customers’ business flows and habits? 

For clarity, this process is not user testing, feature set discovery, or running focus groups. It involves direct conversations with existing and potential customers. The process starts by determining who to speak with to gather these insights and answer our core questions. 

To “discover” a customer, we: 

  • Talked to many, many existing customers 
  • Identified those who experience the problem we care about
  • Within that group, identified those who are motivated to act to fix that problem 

To source the people we wanted to interview once we understood the core problems we needed to solve, we targeted: 

  • Former interviewees 
  • LinkedIn contacts
  • People in relevant LinkedIn groups and relevant Quora threads
  • Attendees of industry conferences
  • Members of small business councils
  • People complaining about money management or banking experience on social media
  • People posting on social media with relevant hashtags 
  • School alumni
  • Former co-workers

To standardize and make the most of each interview, we developed scripts for different length interviews with questions like: 

  • What is a day in your life? 
  • At which points in your day do you interact with finances or money?
  • What are the kind of metrics you want to track when it comes to finances or money?
  • What kind of internal resources do you have dedicated to financial management and money?
  • How does your company make spending decisions?

4. Understand the problems you discover

Once you begin to talk to these target interviewees, you will see different problems emerge and, when you do, it is important to understand the different categories that they fall into. 

The types of customer problems you will discover include: 

  • A latent problem — they have a problem but don’t know it
  • A passive problem — they know of the problem but aren’t motivated to change
  • An active/urgent problem — they recognize the problem, are searching for a solution, but haven’t done the hard work of actually solving it yet
  • A vision — they have an idea for solving the problem, have cobbled together a home-grown solution, but would pay for something better

Don’t get caught up in all the problems you record. Some are more valuable than others. In fact, the problem that you should dedicate your energy to is the “vision problem.” It is key to note that they have found their own solution but would pay for something better

And you can become the one they pay to do that. 

(Here’s a deeper dive into our Customer Discovery Plan.) 

5. Determine what solution is needed

We found that business owners who had never set up a website, let alone a website facilitating e-commerce transactions, suddenly needed help moving their financial operations online. 

In a world where every business needs to convert to digital, people without financial or technical backgrounds are now the ones embracing digital transformation. What they needed more than anything is a solution that didn’t require them to learn the intricacies of financial management or tech development. 

And this is something that is easy for entrepreneurs to forget. Often we build things for people like us. But the people that need the most support are often the ones who didn’t have backgrounds similar to us at all.

6. Deliver those products

Following our discovery program, we determined that our customers told us they needed speed, ease of use, and financial management tools that are designed for small teams rather than for companies with hundreds of employees. 

Previously, owners’ options were either to go to a large bank that provided small businesses with an anemic, bare-bones view into their finances or to go to a new financial technology company that assumed that they already had a financial operations background. 

Consequently, our research led us to prioritize operation speed and to update our tools to make all of our services as easy to understand as possible. By listening to our customers we were able to maximize our impact. And by maximizing impact, you can maximize your growth. 

Published February 23, 2021 — 10:35 UTC

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