The Hierarchy Of Business Promises

I wrote a blog post a few days ago about the how dangerous the ‘pivot’ is for startups and small businesses. In it I mentioned the importance of the promise a startup makes to it’s early customers and not screwing up that relationship by breaking that promise at the alter of ‘pivoting’. This idea of a ‘Promise’ that a startup makes stayed on my mind throughout the holiday period. It further came to the fore of my thoughts in my moment of weakness when I broke my promise not to read any tech blogs; I read Fred Wilson’s serious post on delivering on your promise in 2013. I encourage you to read the post, it’s a short one.

I’m a big believer in the promise; when you keep your legitimate promises you become trustworthy and trust is the most valuable currency in any relationship (yes, the interaction between customers and your product is a relationship).

We now trust Zappos because they’ve promised free delivery and returns and delight

We now trust Apple products because there is a promise that they will be well designed

We now trust TLC for trash TV because they’ve made a new promise to fill our heads with reality show pap


At the core of the relationship with your customer is trust. Once that promise is broken the trust is gone. I can think of four constituencies you make promises to as a business.  It’s also the most important and easiest to control

  1. The product promise to your customers:  once you put a product/service in the market you make a promise to help customers satisfy one of their hierarchy of needs. This comes from clearly understanding your customer’s needs, which you can control. Once this promise is kept then you are in business because people are paying for your product or service and your business thrives. It’s the simplest, most important but also most complicated promise to keep.
  2. The fulfillment promise to your team/employees:  people come to share and work with you to achieve your vision of a business that will satisfy #1 above. At P2S we receive a ton of customer feedback (we use Wufoo and use up all our monthly free allocation), it’s the most delightful thing when someone on the team sees the feedback on a slow customer acquisition day (which happens to every business) because it reminds them of why we do what we do. The promise you make to your team is to give them an experience that will be life enhancing (or even life changing) and when they get that from satisfying customers they strive harder and you continue to fulfill your promise to said customers (back to promise #1 above).
  3. The promise to yourself: you wake up every morning and promise to give your best effort to whatever it is you do. In the context of a team if we all keep that promise to ourselves then it allows us achieve #2 (a powerful thing when all on the team are aligned) and consequently #1.
  4. The ROI promise to investors (where you have some): this promise is not hard to keep when you’ve delivered on #1, #2, #3. Where you fail to deliver on this promise is either when #1 isn’t clear/executed upon or (very important but oft overlooked) when you make promises about ‘when’ you will deliver on the ROI and fail to deliver by that ‘when’. Delivering on this promise cannot happen without the earlier three and for that reason I consider it the least important in the hierarchy.

Regardless of the externalities that distract you as you work on your business this hierarchy that places the focus on delivering a promise to your customers should stand. Knowing who/what is most important, customers, holds you through the tough days and humbles you on those days when you start thinking you are awesome because you’ve gotten a few thousand/million of said customers.

Never forget: it’s always about the customer.

Do you agree?

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