How to Begin Customer Discovery?
Most of us in the corporate world are afraid to start a conversation with a stranger for the first time, but when you start doing it, you cannot stop. You’ll be surprised to see how many people are willing to spare their time to help you if you approach them professionally and appropriately. Based on the book ‘Talking to Humans’ by Frank Rimalovski and Giff Constable, you need to begin with a set of the most important questions before you explore customer discovery, such as:
- Who do you want to learn from?
- What do you want to learn?
- How will you approach your interview subjects?
- How can you ensure a productive session?
- How to make sense of what you’ve learnt?
Let us now go through these questions separately.
1. Who do you want to learn from?
The first step in understanding whom you want to learn from lies in understanding who your market is. For this purpose, Frank Rimalovski and Giff Constable have suggested a few types of customers:
- The usual customer you imagine if you get traction with your idea.
- The early adopter.
- Important partners for distribution, fulfilment or other areas of the business.
Remember, you shouldn’t create a product for everyone. You need to be more specific in the early stages. You need to understand the types of people who possess the problem that you’re interested in solving. Sometimes, these people have a particular job or mental state, live in another part of the world or belong to a specific age group.
Early adopters are essential, as well as they try your product early before anyone else. Moreover, mainstream customers consider early adopters as living proof before they can use a new product. Therefore, you cannot move to the mainstream market if you don’t have early adopters.
For B2B products, you need to consider the different participants in your sales process. In a usual B2B sale, you will always have a strategic buyer who is excited about the change you will bring to the market, an economic buyer who controls the budget, a technical buyer who will approve or disapprove of the product and the actual users. Steve Blank also recommends that you should start by talking to the mid-level managers instead of the C-suite as it’s easier for you to get their time, have continuous conversations, and they’ll educate you better before you move up the chain.
2. What do you want to learn?
You need to go with a prepared list of questions for every customer interview. It will make you look more professional, and you’ll be able to clarify all your doubts early with essential questions.
How do you know what your most important questions are?
For this purpose, you can use Alex Osterwalder’s business model canvas or Ash Maurya’s lean canvas. You can also use the following set of questions used by Frank Rimalovski and Giff Constable:
- Who is my target customer?
- What is the problem that my target customer wants me to solve?
- How can I solve my customer’s problem?
- Why can’t my customer solve this problem today?
- What is the measurable outcome that my customer wants to achieve?
- What is my primary customer acquisition tactic going to be?
- Who will be my earliest adopter?
- When will I make my revenue by?
- Who will be my primary competition?
- I will beat my competitors mainly because of the?
- What is my biggest risk to financial viability?
- What is my biggest technical or engineering risk?
- What assumptions do we have that, if proven wrong, would cause the business to fail? (Market size should be included in this list)
Based on this list, you need to spot the questions that are extremely important and fairly uncertain. When examining your questions, you need to be careful with speculation. Most people are bad at predicting their future behaviour. Although it may be tempting to ask your customers, “would you like this idea?” or “would you buy this product?” you have to treat those answers with great skepticism. It’s highly effective to ask your customers to share a story about their past experience with the product.
Ask open-ended questions
Your goal is to speak less and get the customer to talk more. You need to ask open-ended questions purposely or, at a minimum, follow up yes or no questions with an open-ended question that gets your customer talking. One way is to ask your customers questions, which start with who, what, why and how. You must avoid questions that begin with is, are, would and do you. However, remember that if you can get a yes or no to a question, you can follow up in a manner that gets your customer talking. Steve Blank has an interestingly open-ended question he uses to finish his customer interviews – “What should I have asked you that I didn’t?”
Testing for price
Two of the most challenging questions you could carry out through interviews are whether people will pay? And how much will they pay? As a result, you should ask questions such as:
- How much do you currently spend to solve this problem?
- What is the allocated budget for this? And who controls it?
- How much will you pay to make this problem go away?
Frank Rimalovski and Giff Constable have suggested setting up a situation where the customer believes they are purchasing the product even if they know it doesn’t exist yet. You can try to get customers to purchase in advance or sign a non-binding letter of intent to buy the product for expensive corporate products. The main thing to remember is that people don’t think about their willingness to pay unless they believe it’s an actual transaction.
Getting comments on a prototype
Sometimes you need reactions to a product solution. You can gain a lot of insights through setting up mocks or prototypes in front of customers; however, you should interpret their reactions with a degree of skepticism. If you show the customer a proposed solution to their problem, you need to separate this step from the questions about their behaviour. You must first ask about their behaviour and challenges to ensure that the discussions on product features don’t take over the conversation.
The magic wand question
Some people like to ask customers if they had a magic wand and made a particular product do what the customer wants, what would it be? Such questions are absurd because customers are too tired of their reality to devise practical solutions. It’s the customer’s job to talk about their behaviour, goals and challenges. Then, it’s the product designer’s job to develop the best solution!
Design pass/fail tests
Although customer discovery is made up of a lot of qualitative research, it nevertheless helps you have a quantitative mindset. Therefore, you need to set goals for the main questions and track the results during the process. By setting such targets, you can carefully consider what you’re hoping to achieve, and thus it’ll be easier to make decisions when reviewing the gathered data.
An interview guide is not a script!
You should feel free to distract away from the questions if the conversation brings up something new and exciting. However, always remember to plan, prioritize and prepare your questions before customer interviews.
Observing behaviour can be powerful, like questions
Sometimes observing your customers’ behaviour can be helpful. For example, you might observe their purchasing behaviour and how they try to solve a problem. As you think about what you want to learn, you should consider how you might gather data by observing instead of interviewing customers. However, this might not always be practical; for example, if you want to give customers a weight loss shake, you cannot observe how they go about their diet.
3. How will you approach your interview subjects?
Remember, people are always willing to help you if you’re working on a topic that interests them and if you approach them professionally and appropriately. However, you need to consider three rules before recruiting interview subjects:
- First, don’t interview your loved ones.
- Be creative, and don’t expect people to come to you for an interview.
- Fish where the fish are and not where they’re not.
An aspiring entrepreneur wanted to target mothers of young kids. She spoke to people in coffee shops and felt the stories were too unfocused. So she tried to stay at school pickup zones, but the mothers refused to talk to her. After that, she went to the playgrounds considering mothers would be bored watching their kids play, and it worked! However, she could only get a few minutes of anyone’s time. Thus, she started organizing evening events for the mothers at a local spa where she got them pedicures and wine, and this time of the day worked for the mothers as they could leave their kids with their husbands. The subjects had a great time talking while getting their pedicures.
Discover the moment of pain
If you can communicate with people during their moment of pain, it can be enlightening.
Make referrals take place
You need to make use of referrals. Let’s assume you want to talk to doctors, but they are busy and have assistants to block you out. However, you’ll at least know how to approach one doctor, and that doctor will know other doctors. Even if your doctor happens to be a loved one and breaks the rule of not interviewing your loved ones, they might provide sound advice on when to approach a doctor and can also connect you with other doctors.
You need to set a goal of walking out of every interview with two or three new candidates. Then, when concluding the interview, ask the subject if they know anyone facing the same problem.
Conference and meetups
You need to be mindful of people’s times. Frank Rimalovski and Giff Constable have found it highly effective to ask people for their time but for later after the conference and meetups. You need to get their business card, let them get back to communicating and have a thorough conversation when it fits their time. Then, soon after the conference is over, while their memory is fresh, send them a short email which reminds them where you met and invite them for a conversation. This effectively works for in-demand panel speakers just like it does for other attendees.
Usually, meetups are not expensive, but conference tickets can be costly. If you’re on a budget, you can tackle expensive conferences by grabbing people outside the building, or if you can access the attendee or speaker lists ahead of time, you can directly contact people and meet them near the event.
Finding interviewees is more challenging when you’re focused only on enterprise customers. Apart from conferences, LinkedIn can be beneficial. If you possess a hypothesis on the titles of the people you’re searching for, you need to search them on LinkedIn. You might be able to get them through a referral via LinkedIn or call them through their company’s main phone number. After that, you need to discover how you will approach them. You can get their advice or approach them as if you’re selling something specific.
Seeking advice should be your default method early in the customer discovery process. People like being asked for advice. You can create a blog focused on your issue and ask people if you can interview them for an article. So now, how do you approach someone to sell? It will be helpful if you are past the initial learning and want to test your assumptions about the customer around customer acquisition and messaging.
Benefits of gatekeepers
If LinkedIn isn’t helping you, you’ll have to call the CEO’s office. Your goal isn’t to talk to the CEO but their executive assistant, as his job is to be a good gatekeeper. So let’s say you tell, “I’m looking to talk to the person who handles B” they will mostly connect you to the right person. The advantage is that if you leave a voicemail for your contact, you can say, “Sarah from the CEO’s office gave me your name”. Thus, mentioning the boss’s name improves the rate of response.
Another way is to send a short, targeted email to a company that asks for you to be introduced to the right person to speak with.
Students and researchers
You have an added advantage if you’re a student or researcher, and you should inform these subjects. As an extra incentive, you can also offer to share the results of your research with your interviewees.
Fish where the fish are
You need to try a new method if something isn’t working. Have an online survey and pick your top thirty candidates for whom you would like to schedule calls as the target audience.
Online forms and landing pages
You can create an online form or landing page and make a list of customers whom you would like to contact. For example, when Frank Rimalovski and Giff Constable’s landing page was testing a product for a better home organization, it consisted of a 3 step funnel with a call to action, price choice and a request for an email address. Their team carefully tracked the conversion metrics and used the emails to have interviews.
A word of warning – driving traffic isn’t an easy process. If you have the funds, Google or Facebook ads can work. If not, you can try to generate word-of-mouth marketing through social media or bloggers.
4. How can you ensure a productive session?
The following guidelines should be followed to run a productive session:
1. Conduct physical interviews
Having physical interviews is effective because you can read their body language and build rapport more quickly. However, video conferencing is also practical since you can read the customer’s facial expressions. Phone calls should be your last choice, and it would be best to avoid emails or texts.
2. Speak to one person at a time
Speaking to one person at a time is effective, and it’s helpful to have another person on your side taking notes quietly while you talk to the subject. Frank Rimalovski and Giff Constable strongly suggest avoiding focus groups for two main reasons:
- To avoid group thinking.
- You will struggle in focusing on one individual’s stories and try to focus on their areas of interest while handling multiple people together.
3. Add a notetaker
A notetaker will ensure you stay in the moment without worrying about getting every bit of information on paper. It’s easier for you to focus on the topic, the body language and how to proceed with the conversation. Always remember to write down your notes soon after the session, or you will lose a great detail of fresh information in your memory that you couldn’t write down during the session.
Many interviewees are willing to be recorded. However some may feel uncomfortable being recorded, but most people forget that they are being recorded once the conversation goes smoothly. Frank Rimalovski and Giff Constable recommend us to listen to the recording and write notes soon after the session is over as memory stays fresh and written notes are more accessible and faster for you and your team to scan.
4. Begin with a warm-up and keep it human
When you start the session, you need to clearly explain the subject why you’re here and thank them for their time. Dive into things with one or two easy warm-up questions. If you’re talking to a customer, you can ask them where they are from and their occupation. If you’re talking to a business, you can ask them how long they’ve been in the industry.
You might as well have a written or printed set of questions but don’t strictly adhere to that list as you need to make the subject feel comfortable that you’re listening to them and not being there for the sake of interviewing them for your purpose.
5. Don’t be biased
Confirmation bias is when people want to hear what they want to hear. Therefore, you must conduct each session by preparing to listen to what you don’t want to hear. Some arrogant entrepreneurs believe that by listening to what they don’t want to hear, their idea gets killed, and the customer isn’t supporting it. Remember, the customer is in pain and knows what they desire to end that pain!
6. Get them to tell you a story
As mentioned earlier, people are not good at predicting their future behaviour. So if you’re asking any speculative questions, you need to get prepared to listen with great skepticism. It’s better to know if your subjects have tried to solve a problem in the past. What made them search for a solution? How did they search for it? What did they think that the solution would do before they tried it? How did the solution work out for them? If they struggle to remember specific parts of their past experience, you must help them set the scene of their stories, such as which part of the year or day? Were you with anyone?
While telling their story, you must follow up with questions about their mental state.
7. Look for solution hacks
One of the best indicators that a market needs a better solution is that some people don’t accept their frustrations with a certain problem but are actively trying to solve it. Maybe they would have tried a few solutions or tried coming up with their solutions. These solution stories indicate a market need.
8. Understand importance
To make someone try a new product, their pain needs to be so awful that they will change their behaviour, take risks and pay for the pain to go away. If you feel there is sound proof that someone has a problem, it’s worth asking them where it ranks in their list of things to solve.
9. Don’t talk; just listen
Don’t talk, keep your questions short and don’t be unbiased. Don’t rush to complete the customer’s sentence when they pause as they might be thinking or have more to say. You need to learn and not sell.
10. Keep drilling questions
You don’t have to be afraid to clarify your doubts with follow-up questions such as why as long as the customer doesn’t start getting annoyed.
11. Repeat or misinterpret to confirm
For important topics, you need to repeat what the customer said. You might get one or two interesting answers. They might correct you for misinterpretation, or by hearing their thoughts that you are repeating, they’ll realize that their actual opinion is different, and they’ll give you a much better answer.
Another way is to purposely misinterpret what they said and see if they correct you. Still, if you’re a beginner at customer discovery, it’s better to do a dry run with a friend or colleague and see what your questions sound like. You need to understand what it feels like to listen carefully and occasionally brainstorm.
12. Gain feedback on your product
There are essential things to keep in mind if you want to get feedback on your product ideas, regardless of whether you show them in a mockup or demo:
- Separate the storytelling from feedback. People love to discover features and solutions which will influence the stories they might speak of. So, talk about their stories first and then get feedback.
- Pacify their politeness. You need to ask your customers to be honest with you and explain that it’s the best way for them to help you.
- It’s easier for people to say that they like your product because they don’t want to offend you. Instead, you should put them in an actual experience, observe their behaviour, or try to get them to purchase your product.
5. How to make sense of what you’ve learnt?
Your goal isn’t to learn for the sake of it but to make good decisions to increase your chances of success. So, how do you do this? The first step is to make sense of your patterns.
Take good notes
First, you need to track data if you want to discover your patterns. This will be easy if you bring an excellent notetaker to the session or make sure that you write your own notes soon after the session. Make them accessible to the entire team through Google Docs or any other way. You need to note down the following information for every note:
- Name of the interviewee.
- Date and time.
- Name of the interviewer.
- Physical or virtual?
- Photo of the interviewee.
After that, start making descriptive information about the interviewee.
If you’re making specific metric goals for your interviews, you may set up a shared spreadsheet that mainly acts as a running scoresheet of your progress and how you’re tracking targets. Turning your observations into quantifiable metrics can be tricky but valuable. However, our brains like to put down what we want to hear, which is cognitive bias and calculating real metrics fights against this.
Frank Rimalovski and Giff Constable’s advice is to calculate metrics but remain skeptical. Don’t be obsessed over any particular metric and continue questioning what is behind your numbers.
Dump and sort exercise
You must assemble your team and prepare them with sticky notes and sharpies. Give everyone 10 minutes to note down what they learned from the sessions. Put all the sticky notes on the wall and group them accordingly. Then, as a team, discuss the patterns, reexamine your assumptions or business canvas, and see what needs to be changed or requires more investigation.
Discover patterns and apply judgment
Customer discovery sessions don’t give you accurate data, but they will provide you with insights based on patterns. They can be tough to interpret as what people say is not always what they do. You don’t want to have any strong reactions to anyone’s comments. You don’t want to take things too seriously, but neither do you want to be discouraged from trying to talk to thousands of people before coming to a decision.
You need to use your judgment to discover the meaning implied by your customers, read body language, understand the context and agendas and take away biases based on the types of people in the pool of interviewees. But it’s mainly human judgment based on human connections that make interviews more useful than surveys.
Don’t step down from your role as a product designer
It’s not the role of your customer to design the product as it’s yours.
Expect fake positives
While all the entrepreneurs get a good amount of critics and skeptics, you must be careful of the opposite problem in customer development interviews. People might want to be helpful and kind to you, and you would like to hear nice things. Keep this in mind when you’re weighing things.
The truth curve
Your only source of learning customer discovery shouldn’t be based on merely talking to people. You don’t know the actual truth about your product until it’s up and running, customers are using it, and you’re making a profit. But this doesn’t mean you should immediately jump to a live product, as it’s expensive and a slow process to repeat your new business. Instead, you need to get into the market early and immediately test your assumptions by starting with conversations and proceeding. First, it will increase your chances of creating a product that your customers want. Then, as you build confidence, test it with increasing levels of believability.
It’s no doubt that talking to people is powerful and valuable. It gives you great insights but as mentioned before, what people say is not what they do! You might show people mockups, which might provide you with another level of learning and opinions, but their reactions need to be considered with skepticism.
How many people should you talk to?
There is no strict answer to this. If you’re in the consumer business and haven’t spoken to at least 50-100 customers, you probably haven’t done much research. Steve Blank recommends his teams, who are mainly B2B, to talk to at least 100 people in 7 weeks. Don’t stop talking to prospects, as you will likely grow in what you learn from speaking to them. If you see the same old pattern, you might as well change things and study different assumptions and risks. Assume that if you feel like you have a good understanding of your customer’s actual needs, you might proceed to explore how they learn about and buy solutions in your product category today.
Lead the way with vision
Customer development and startup techniques are some of the strongest ways to increase your chances of success, but they shouldn’t be replaced with success. Instead, you need to start with a vision, and you need to start with how you want to improve the market and bring value to people’s lives.
You need to begin with a set of the most important questions before you explore customer discovery, such as:
- Who do you want to learn from?
- What do you want to learn?
- How will you approach them?
- How can you ensure a productive session?
- How to make sense of what you’ve learnt?