A customer who hates you is called an “opportunity”

When we first started ZOLL Data Systems (then called Pinpoint Technologies), we had several customers who hated us. I’m talking hated. They wanted to sue us. Burn us at the stake. Kill our dogs. I mean hate.

The reasons were of course various, and at the time we couldn’t understand how it could be true. After all, we were well intentioned. We tried hard. We were honest, hard working guys. How can you hate us that much?

Well, it turns out that if you completely screw up public safety dispatch operations, people notice. Who knew? People can even die (yep, it happened, more than once, I’m sure). We had to live with that.

Looking back, it’s interesting how those customers that hated us so much eventually became our biggest advocates. They literally went out and sold software for us. The reason: We fixed their stuff. Fast. Decisively.

It’s a funny thing, but your most pissed off customer is an incredible opportunity. Here’s one story that sticks out in my mind.

We had a huge customer who was deploying our dispatch software in Tennessee. For the entire state – something like 500 vehicles. I think at the time this was about ten times more than we had ever handled for a single customer. It sucked. Turbo sucked. It took 2 minutes to dispatch a trip via drag and drop. Stuff crashed (it was, after all, Windows). They threatened to sue.

It turned out that the customer was running their servers on the 1997 equivalent of a TRS-80. They didn’t buy that this was the problem. So our tiny little company emptied our savings account and shipped them a shiny new Dell server at the cost (to us) of $10,000, and sent a small army of people down there to help them transition to it. If we were wrong, we promised, the server was on us.

This fixed the problem. Maybe you say this customer was being unreasonable. I say we sucked because we let them deploy our software on crappy infrastructure. Our bad, not theirs. They were literally blown away at the response and we saved the account. The customer who hated us the most turned into an ally.

We thought about it, but we never went so far as to intentionally screw up. If you’re in a startup, you know it will happen to you enough that you don’t need to go so far as to try to suck. You’re gonna suck some. Maybe even alot.

Today, I work with lots of startups. We teach them to just make sure customers are thrilled no matter what. It pains me to occasionally see them suck and not take advantage of it. Some even let customers go, saying they just weren’t ready. Sorry, they say. I guess we just suck.

Next time you suck, try going to extreme measures to unsuck your mess. Jump on a plane if you have to. Recite the mantra – “we simply will not be the ones who suck.”

When you suck, take advantage of it. Fix it fast, and admit that you sucked. You’ll be amazed what happens next.

file under: Blog, Startups