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With Zach Stein

Building Trust as a Climate Startup

Most businesses have to build trust with investors, customers, etc from the ground up. When you don’t have a recognizable founder brand or large partner to gain trust by association, you start out guilty until proven innocent. So, how can you build trust effectively and efficiently when it’s a core component of your business model?

We sat down with Zach Stein to get some insight on building trust as a new business. Zach is CEO of Carbon Collective, an online sustainable investment advisor that helps individuals and 401(k) plans invest in alignment with a climate-safe future.

Get ahead of issues

Before you even begin to build customer relationships, shape your business to be intrinsically trustworthy. Do your homework ahead of time– understanding your customers’ motivations will help nip many issues with trust in the bud. Prior to engaging with potential customers, ask yourself the following questions to better gauge problems that may come up:

  • Who is your target client?
  • What expectations do you have of your client?
  • What expectations do they have of you?
  • What questions are you most likely to get about your product?
  • How can you build/adapt your product in a way that avoids these problems?

Knowing these answers to these questions will help you plan for transparency and create trust.

Humanize your business

Once you’re ready to engage with clients, building trust begins with humanizing your business. In short, people trust people– not corporations. Therefore, any opportunity you have to show your human-ness is invaluable. Ditch the formalities and be real when talking to potential customers. It’s not unprofessional to share tidbits about your life– in fact, building rapport by being vulnerable will build relatability and trust. Allow yourself to be seen as a person, not just a business.

To get there, though, you have to be available for direct contact in the first place. A customer’s decision to buy a startup’s product is a weighty one, and they’ll likely want to talk to someone behind it first– especially if you’re not attached to any big (and credible) name. Be people-first when starting out– even if your process is mostly digitized, make human interaction easy. The more you divorce your business entity from the people involved, the harder it is to build trust.

Remember to also couple your human interaction with a clear and transparent process. This enables you to set clear expectations, and also make things easier for your ops team; with clear process, you don’t need the CEO involved on every call.

Many founders will communicate the why behind a business to investors, but won’t with customers. Thing is, creating this narrative can be a very powerful tool for humanization. Contextualize yourself within your business– let customers know not only what you’re doing, but why you’re doing it.

Transparency, transparency, transparency

To build up your credibility, overinvest in transparency. The adage that startups should limit their website to the bare minimum leaves too much to be assumed– include detailed information about your terms, process, costs, etc., preferably with no gates or walls that preclude people from learning more.

Transparency is fundamentally respectful. By being clear and open, you give customers their time back. Laying out all the details of your process tells a customer that you aren’t here to manipulate them– rather, to help them make sense of your business. When people feel respected, they’re more likely to engage with you further. If they encounter a long, complicated sign-up process, they will often just keep looking.

Don’t over-automate

With today’s advancements in tech, it’s possible to automate a lot of people out of your sales process. Don’t fall into this trap, especially early on. When you haven’t yet built up a trustworthy name for yourself, it’s better to have real people writing emails, getting on calls, booking meetings, etc.

As a founder, it’s important to be part of most (or all) early deals. Get on the phone with your customers and build a connection. The human component of a deal shouldn’t all be diligence– approach your interactions with the goal of connecting and creating ease, rather than just collecting/providing information.

Be the duck

Though your business may require you to work through third party technologies and services, your clients will only see you as the sum of your parts. You want your clients to feel held moving through the process– at the end of the day, they are only directly working with you. How do you balance unrelated third parties fundamentally representing your business?

Think of a duck– as it swims across the pond, the bird itself glides elegantly over the water while its feet are paddling furiously beneath the surface, invisible to the viewer. Be the duck’s feet, and allow your client to coast smoothly above water. Scramble to keep things consistent for your customer, and any time you find a ripple that shouldn’t have happened, reorient so that it doesn’t happen again.

One way to do this, is to get ahead of any potential issues with third parties through transparency. Acknowledge your use of partners, and thank your user for putting up with the experience without shifting blame or making excuses. Show empathy, and acknowledge that this isn’t an optimal experience for you or the client. If it becomes a persisting issue, be lenient with your clients– you may decide to offer a few months of free service or make up for the problem in another way.

If issues arise, prioritize customer service requests. Even if you can’t address them immediately, send a same-day (and ideally, non-automated) email to acknowledge the issue and estimate when they can expect a response. People tend to be fairly forgiving if you acknowledge a problem and provide context.

If you find that ripples are continuously occurring because of a specific partner, do everything in your power to shift away from them over time. The last thing you want is for a potential client to leave because of a problem you don’t have control over– don’t allow these trust-eroding wrinkles to persist.

Zach Stein is the CEO of Carbon Collective, an online sustainable investment advisor that helps individuals and 401(k) plans invest in alignment with a climate-safe future. He was previously CEO and Co-founder of Osmo Systems, a sensing technology company that reduces waste in aquatic farms. Zach also founded Urban Worm, a composting business. He received his B.A. in Psychology from Hamilton College.

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