Meeting customers IRL still works

As the business world reverts to a blend of remote & in-person, meeting customers IRL is becoming important once again, especially in a slowing economy.

Sharing some thoughts on how jumping on a plane & meeting people could be key to unblocking growth for your business.

I was recently in a brainstorming session with a portfolio company that is struggling with stagnant growth. The company is profitable, has clear PMF as demonstrated by loyal top-tier customers, yet is unable to grow the business fast. It has major logos but the ACVs just aren’t expanding.

Now, as with any startup, stagnant revenue is a symptom & the causes could be many. In order to do a root-cause analysis & subsequently unblock growth, my immediate actionable input to them was simple – “go and meet customers in-person”.

When the bolt of lightning called Covid struck our planet, paradigms of doing business changed overnight. As workers went remote, so did interactions with customers. In fact, as companies were forced to do business with each other over video calls during the lockdown months, people discovered that it was both highly productive and profitable to drive the sales process sitting anywhere in the world with a laptop & a stable Internet connection, engaging customers living thousands of miles away over a shared screen.

As the world is stabilizing into a new-normal, many companies are now realizing that the success of a fully remote sales & BD process is highly contextual. In hindsight, its applicability & effectiveness became extraordinarily broad based in 2020 and 2021, mainly due to:

  • An excess liquidity fueled, demand-on-steroids environment, and
  • Altered social norms of human engagement.

Simply put, everyone wanted to buy so badly that the only bar the sales process needed to clear was to show up on a Zoom call. And, it also helped that nobody really wanted to meet a stranger in-person & take the risk of Covid transmission.

Now, as we sit in 2023, both these factors no longer exist:

  • Demand is contracting across industries, courtesy of the ongoing cycle reset driven by rising interest rates.
  • Post vaccine, broader social norms have reverted to a blend of remote & in-person. What proportion will they reach at steady state is hard to predict, although with the present return-to-office movements even with Big Tech like Amazon & Meta, my guess is 60% in-person & 40% remote (assuming a continuing trend of 3 days per week in office).

It’s critical for all founders & operators, especially those in early stage startups that typically have finite resources to deal with business headwinds, to quickly embrace this reality. In a 60-40 IRL:remote world with contracting demand, it’s unacceptable if founders & senior leaders aren’t getting on the plane to meet customers & build trust.

Meeting customers IRL has multiple advantages. First, leaders taking the time to travel & spend bandwidth in listening is a strong demonstration of commitment. It’s Strategy 101 that in most cases, it’s easier to grow a current customer vs land a new one. Even in consumer products, product leaders first focus on retaining existing customers + re-activating inactive ones, before filling up the top of funnel with new leads. In any business, growth is possible only when existing customers are happy.

Second, breaking bread with customers builds 1:1 trust with their execs, putting a human face to contracts, transcending beyond employers & current deals to opening up the possibility of these leaders becoming your personal champions for long after.

Third, getting informal feedback about their product experience as well as larger problems & challenges they are facing, & then connecting the dots across multiple such conversations, is the best way to do a root-cause analysis of “why are we not growing fast enough?”.

Going back to the portfolio company I mentioned in the beginning, I gave them a very simple & actionable plan for the next 8 weeks to unblock growth:

  • One founder to play what I call a ‘Key Accounts’ role.
  • Literally make an excel sheet of top 5-10 customers, hop on flights, meet key execs IRL, get feedback, hear their problem statements & build a personal rapport via drinks/ dinner.
  • As an output of each meeting, create a simple roadmap for (1) enhanced customer success, where customers are unhappy and (2) in-account revenue expansion via upsell/ cross-sell, where customers are happy & want to grow.
  • Finally, and most importantly, partner with relevant teams (product, delivery ops etc.) to unblock & provide execution momentum to these customer-wise revenue roadmaps.

The founder’s role shouldn’t end with token customer visits. Driving results by providing the necessary context, energy & cross-functional unblocking help to operating teams is the real output all stakeholders are looking for.

Btw, as I was working on this draft, star product operator & angel Gokul Rajaram posted this thought yesterday on the importance of building relationships in enterprise sales:

On a side note, willingness to get on a plane often is a career hack I used very successfully at Alibaba & something that I learnt from my then boss. While our international peers in US & EU offices loathed traveling to China & facing all the inconveniences (from jet lag & language to food & other cultural disconnects), me & my team would show up in Hangzhou every month, blending in with our local colleagues & building trust over meals, rice wine & karaoke. Slowly, we came to be known as the “true believers” – the only team willing to make the sacrifice & do a round-the-world trip every month to get s**t done. We gradually earned the right to be ‘insiders’, getting access to unique growth opportunities within the Group.

Now in this new phase of my career as a tech investor, am doubling-down again on this approach. As I ramp up venture investing in the US-India corridor, I am aiming to spend at least 2 weeks per quarter in India & devote more operating time to portfolio founders, grow new deal flow, cement old ecosystem relationships as well as initiate new ones.

Let me end this post with an article from Jason Lemkin of SaaStr that I really like – 10 Things That Always Work in Marketing. This is a must-read for anyone looking to unblock growth in their business. The suggestions go much beyond marketing, touching on all aspects of go-to-market. Reproducing the section on visiting your largest customers:


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Author: Soumitra Sharma

Operator-Angel I Product Leader I US-India corridor I Believer in Power Laws I Love building & learning

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