Inbound Rocket

9 Tips for Early Customer Development Conversations

9 Tips For Getting The  Most Out Of Your Early  Customer Development Conversations

In a time, where technological improvements have made is easier than ever before to start building your product idea straight away, the question is no longer if your product can be built, it’s whether or not anyone actually wants it. Customer Development is used to help you stop wasting time and money on products that people don’t want. Next to validating your startup idea it can, of course, be used to identify problems and to optimise ideas or existing products.

We touched on the subject of Customer Development before in our blog post from last week, this week we are going to dive a bit deeper into the subject on how to actually get the most out of these conversations.

Below are 9 key tips and principles for practicing Customer Development effectively.

#1 Don’t pitch your idea at first

One of the most natural things, when you start talking to people, is to go into an automatic pitch mode. However pitching an idea instead of trying to have a conversation where you try to find out about people’s problems will result in learning less about your potential customers. You will get biased answers that can lead you down the wrong path. The goal of Customer Development is not just to validate or invalidate your idea, but mostly it is to learn what is valuable for your customers and optimise whatever it is you are building. People are naturally inclined to agree with whatever you are telling and to compliment you, so when you are talking about this “brilliant” idea which you are putting blood and sweat in, of course, they will love it! Because of this you will miss out on learning key insights. Pitching and potentially even selling should only be used after you are confident that you’re solving a real problem. And even when you do that and people say the love it, let them get their wallet out straight away to prove they are not just trying to blow you off.

#2 Try to prove yourself wrong

People don’t like to fail or get the feeling of rejection. So you are inclined to find people who “believe” in your vision, however in the case of starting a business it is important to remember that you don’t want to waste your time and money on something that people don’t want and in the end will never be a business. The faster you can prove yourself wrong the less time and money you waste.

#3 Talk less, listen more

Remember our goal here when starting with Customer Development? The goal is to learn from the people you are talking to. Learning happens when you are listening, not when you are talking. Try to shut up as much as possible and try to keep your questions short and unbiased (don’t embed the answer you want to hear in the question). Of course, you will need to do some talking to help guide the conversation, but in general, listening is an extremely powerful skill to have as an entrepreneur.

#4 One-on-one and in-person is best

A lot of people rely on online surveys, maybe even focus groups, secondary research or even anecdotal interviews with people that aren’t and will never be actual customers. One-on-one conversations are always the best way to go with. Even having a conversation with three people (one being the customer) with the person not asking the questions directly involved, will lead to the person being talked to looking for simple things like “am I saying what you want to hear?”. Confirmation bias is not something you want 😉 Focus groups can have the same effect with biased responses, especially if it is about a personal matter. When doing in-person conversations it is easier to spot “hidden” clues with body language like enthusiasm or other emotions.

#5 Ask open-ended questions and drill down

Yes-or-no questions will lead to short and binary answers. Open-ended questions get people talking more than a yes-or-no question. By asking more open-ended questions, you can be more confident that they’re giving you honest input. For example do you think you can have lots of insights from the question “do you like X?”, instead ask questions like “what do you like or find frustrating in this process?”.
Remember a little kid driving you crazy by constantly asking “why”? By consistently asking why as a follow-up on someone’s answer you can drill down to the root cause of that particular problem. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarifications and the “why” behind the “what”.

#6 Your three big questions

Don’t stress too much about choosing the “right” important questions. They will change. Just choose the three questions which seem to help with validating your most riskiest assumptions or seem most important right now. Doing so will give you a firmer footing and a better sense of direction for your next three. Knowing your list allows you to take better advantage of serendipitous encounters.

#7 Don’t ask customers what they want

Henry Ford’s famously said:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”.
-Henry Ford

Your job is to listen to what customers are saying, understand what the problems they are having and create a solution that solves that problem. Customers don’t know what they want, they only know about the problem they are facing. As a founder, you are the visionary, so it’s up to you to come up with innovative solutions to the problem you are identifying with these conversations.

Anybody will say your idea is great if you annoy them for long enough

Anybody will say your idea is great if you annoy them for long enough (Click to Tweet, you can edit before sending)

#8 Ask for introductions

At the end of every conversation, see if you can get leads to another 1 to 3 people to talk to. This serves as both a form of investment (it shows that they’re eager for the problem to be solved and believe it would be helpful to others) and of course getting referrals will make the process a lot easier for you to talk to as many people as possible. There are a lot of creative ways to find people to talk to, but referrals are the easiest way to get access to them. If the problem is big enough and you are given a genuine impression that you are trying to learn more to help them solve the problem, people are generally happy to make an introduction.
Write down everyone’s contact information too and ask if you can follow-up for more feedback as you continue to develop your business. Eventually you’ll also be selling to them, so you’ll want to have their contact information on file.

#9 Write up your notes as quickly as possible

The details behind every conversation can fade fast, so even if you have recorded your session, write-up your notes and commentary (around things like body language etc.) as soon as you can. I normally write everything down in a shared Evernote, this way it is easy searchable for everyone within the team to see use. For “recording” during the conversation I’d like to use post-its. Writing down one phrase or one remark per post-it, adding little symbols to symbolise their body language.

Write up your notes as quickly as possible

After the conversation this helps to look for patterns by spreading the different conversations out on the table. Customer Development conversations will not give you statistically significant data, but by recording the conversations like this and spreading them out on the table it will give you insights based on patterns. You will need to use your judgement to read between the lines, to try to understand the agendas and context, and to filter out biases based on the type of people you had a conversation with. But it is exactly the ability to use human judgement based on human connections that make interviews so much more useful than surveys.

And remember always question your assumptions. You might be surprised to find that something you think would be really important to your customers isn’t important to them at all. It’s better to find that you’re wrong and not spend any time or money on your product, than to spend a bunch of time and money building something that no one wants.

So now that we gave you a deeper look into how we approach our validation process here at Inbound Rocket, how are you currently approaching these Customer Development conversations? What pitfalls did you encounter when talking to your potential customers? Drop us a comment below and let’s see how we can help each other getting on the right path towards real problem solving companies.

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  • Great tips Hans, I really love the simplicity of the 3 questions rule and the idea of trying to prove yourself wrong. Learning a lot from Inbound Rocket.

    • Thanks @fredrivett:disqus, always be prepared! Especially if you have those three questions in the back of your mind, no matter who you bump into you are always prepared for doing some more customer development 🙂

  • Onyekachi Izukanne

    Thanks Hans…BOOKMARKED! How do you currently find ideal customers to engage with for Customer Development?

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