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Rethink Customer Discovery

"How many calls should I make?”

The question came from a budding entrepreneur testing if her idea is a business. In truth, customer discovery never ends. It is not an easy answer and part of the problem comes from our own early stage mentoring process.

In our enthusiasm for “accelerating” the startup journey, we divide strategy into a series of activities. Customer discovery motivated by a series of questions represents a key step:

  • Who has the problem?

  • How do they solve the problem now?

  • What frustrations do they have with their current solution?

As startup and early stage mentors we build on similar questions to establish context for talking about open-ended questions, active listening and techniques to gather information, validate business concepts and specify product solutions. Sometimes we provide examples to show confidence in results improves as the number of interviews increases. The “magic number” is 100 interviews. (Our students never remember the words “more” or “at least”).

In this context our lessons tend to morph into tasks our startup teams execute as a set of interviews to prove people will buy their product. While not alone, I am personally guilty of overlooking the quality of customer discovery, even conceptual understanding, to get on with the acceleration curriculum.

Are you talking with the right people?

Asking people their thoughts about your product concept nearly always yields answers. However, this information may not inform your business decisions when you do not talk with people that own the precise problem you address. Validation of our product ideas have value only comes with talking to real prospects.

Customer discovery begins with identifying and understanding the market. Startups are encouraged to think in terms of the broadest markets as an aid to raising money. Customers groups in these large market opportunities may purchase products with similar high-level specifications. Look more closely and you will identify smaller sectors defined by applications and distribution channels establishing different requirements, buying practices and expectations. Each sector has its own characteristics shaping expectations for price, performance, availability, operating cost, life expectancy, packaging and other parameters.

Having clarified a market segment, you must clearly identify people that have the problem and their role in buying decisions. Your addressable market is the cohort that shares the same set of problems and ways of absorbing new products and technologies.

The customer that buys your product is not always the same person with the problem you address. This is especially true in B2B applications where your product technology enables a functional requirement in another product. In this case your solution solves a problem for a buyer that is not the end user. You need to make sure your go-to-market and product strategy hits the target buyer. Putting yourself in the prospect’s position enables you to identify the complex dynamics of the market you address.

Are you asking the right questions?

There are several practices to follow in customer discovery. You want to totally focus and avoid all distractions in your interviews. Depending on context, you should try to collect information as individual one-on-one conversations. Be consistent with the topics you cover and write notes immediately after each discussion. To the extent possible, prepare and cover the same topics so you build consistent pictures of customer needs in your chosen market segment. Develop specific questions that engage with prospects and their suppliers to gain:

  • understanding

  • focus ideas

  • provide new insights

Practice asking open-ended questions. Perhaps you remember a little chant from Richard Scarry, author of over 150 books for children. “Who, what, when, where, why and how”. You can say it fast when you pause and emphasize “and how”. Always wait for answers and reflect (repeat or paraphrase) speaker’s ideas to ensure understanding and gain more information.

Never talk about your product! Always focus on understanding your customers. On your entrepreneurial journey you must be prepared to validate your business concepts before testing product ideas. Try to develop a full multi-dimensioned picture of your target customer. Know their life and activities well enough to understand how they would behave under different and disruptive conditions.

Change perspective -- It is not about you!

Effective customer conversation requires suspension of our natural tendencies to “sell”. Concentrate on developing empathy with prospects. Remove your own perspectives and align your conversation with their thoughts and objectives.

  • be genuine (natural)

  • be fully engaged

  • pay attention

  • make eye contact

  • stay on subject

Accept the perspective of speakers as “reality”. Eliminate all distractions and focus on the conversation to hear and process exactly what the speaker says. From this framework, you open the door to understanding the true nature of their problems, current solutions and product opportunities.

Do not rush from topic to topic. Stay on subject and exercise patience so speakers have time to think, rephrase their thoughts and respond to your questions. Meaning comes from both expressed and unexpressed actions. Words count but so does body language and context, both before and after the current topic.

Live with your prospective customers

Few entrepreneurs address a problem that aligns perfectly with their own story. Even when aligned, it is not a good idea to use your experience to establish customer needs and behavior. The best way to characterize customer persona is to “live” with prospective customers.

I work with an industry leading company that sends product designers to the field for several weeks with prospective customers. Trained in the rules of customer discovery, designers apprentice or join operational teams as interns. Think coffee intern and tool bringer for a maintenance worker as an example. They live the job and think about tasks that require exceptional expertise and make the work expensive, uncomfortable, awkward or dangerous.

Product designers return with deep understanding about one or more product solutions to address problems they experienced and tested with their deeply connected field associates. You will not be surprised the company grew rapidly and became an industry leader after establishing this practice. Give some thought to how you would manage a similar process.

Rinse and repeat

Returning our discussion to the question “How many calls should I make?” brings us to the answer, “You never stop the process of customer discovery.”

You begin by targeting a specific sub-category of your market and identify a problems to address with a specific product. You continue to identify other problems so you have multiple products to sell to the same customers, the same market segment and finally, multiple other segments of your chosen market. Customer discovery is not a task but a process you live and breathe every day.

Please contact me to discuss your own startup journey.

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