(Editor’s note: Jason Cohen is an angel investor and the founder of Smart Bear Software. This story originally appeared on his blog.)

A lovely new company/customer etiquette has emerged, and small startups are especially suited for exploiting it. I hope you’re not ignoring it.

Just yesterday someone explained to me what they expect from their website hosting company: “I want someone else making sure the server doesn’t go down. Or, if it does go down, I want someone to apologize to me.”

Ten years ago, that italicized text would have read: “Or, if it does go down, I want someone to scream at.” Or: “I want someone to give me a refund.”  The new attitude is not “Those assholes better not ever screw up,” but rather “I expect them to try hard, to care, and to treat me well when they inevitably screw up.”

This doesn’t mean you get a free pass to screw your customers, then earn forgiveness from a heartfelt “open letter from the CEO.” Rather, it means:

  • You’re doing your honest, level best to do right by your customers, evidenced continuously through all your communication — blog, tech support, website — not just after a crisis.
  • You’re learning from your mistakes, evidenced by problems tending towards the esoteric, and by explaining in your apology what steps you’ve taken to avoid this and similar classes of error.
  • You’re doing everything in your power to be the best, evidenced by a culture of awesome employees and inventing new ways to make your customers successful, so mistakes are ordinary human error, not negligence or indifference.

It’s not even the apology itself; no one’s convinced when a large company issues an insincere, legally-vetted “official apology” that you know doesn’t fix anything. What that quote above really means is: “I want to work with other people who behave like real people, who are obviously trying their best, and who respond to problems as earnestly and quickly as can be expected.”

In short: People readily forgive honest human error, but become adversarial and distrustful with the typical, sterile customer/provider relationship.

The typical advice for “being authentic” is to “just be yourself,” but I don’t know what that means. Thales said the most difficult thing is to “Know Thyself,” so it must be really hard to do that over Twitter and AdWords. (By the way, Thales also said the easiest thing is “To Give Advice.” I’ll let you bask in the irony for a minute…)

So I suppose one route to “finding your voice” is to take stock of your total life experience together with your ten-year goals, then synthesize a compelling, internally-consistent philosophy, apply that to all your actions and communications, and summarize it in four punchy words on your home page.

Yeah right, who can do that? Not me, I can’t even decide what to have for lunch.

So instead, here’s a few more practical ways to discover what’s essential to your personality and point of view:

Criticize others: If you especially enjoy someone’s slogan, why? Is it because it’s funny, clever, specific, unwavering, simple, conservative, confident, or ballsy? Conversely if you loathe someone’s “About Us” page, why? Is it because it’s too personal, not personal enough, too detailed, not detailed enough, silly, formal, useless, childish, lengthy, or arrogant? When you see something that strikes a nerve, complete the sentence: “I absolutely [love|hate] that because …”

Decide what you are not: For example, you might say “I hate companies who use formal language; I’m never going to allow formality to dictate how I communicate.” Or the opposite: “I hate companies who think it’s funny and clever to use informal language; I’m going to instill confidence by showing that we behave like grown-ups.” It’s easy to identify corporate stuff that pisses you off; use that to decide both what not to do and what to do instead.

Copy something you love: Sounds weird I know — how can copying lead to a unique, personal style? Over time, you’ll morph that copy into something unique, but there’s nothing wrong with getting a headstart by imitating something you wish you had thought of yourself. I’m not advocating plagiarism, of course. The goal is mimicry, not theft; influence, not carbon-copy. Your mindset should be: The thing I’m copying is a rough draft that needs extensive editing but whose heart is in the right place.

Even assuming you successful identify what “being human” means to you, it’s still surprisingly difficult to implement because every strong decision you make will alienate many people even while it’s thrilling others.

If you adopt an informal style, some people will find it refreshing while others find you untrustworthy. If you’re proactive in announcing bugs, some people will reciprocate by gracefully putting up with the problems, while others will be shocked — shocked! — and will Twitter that you sell shoddy software. If you admit the entire company consists of two people, some folks will smile knowing they’ll get primo customer service while others will flee because of the low probability you’ll still be around next year. If you curse on your blog, many people will wince and click “Back” but others will laugh and click “Subscribe.”

Ultimately, you need to be strong, specific and honest. Yes it means turning off some people, but the remainder will love you all the more (and make sure their Facebook “friends” know it).

What’s the alternative — having no persona at all? Then why would anyone get excited about you? Why would they put up with your faults? Why would they tell their friends about you?

Is your goal is to become a soulless corporation? No? Well then, do whatever it takes to be soulful.

Photo by °Florian via Flickr