The Achilles Heel of Customer Development


The Chinese word “weiji” for “crisis” is made up of two symbols – one signifying challenge (wei) and the other signifying opportunity (ji). Other than the fact that this particular translation, while popular, may be inaccurate, the “challenge/opportunity” duality is still very fitting to Customer Development.

The Customer Development battle-cry: “Get out of the Building”, codified by Steve Blank, is simultaneously one of the most basic and difficult practices to implement – especially if you are a technical founder (like me). While Customer Development makes a compelling, albeit rational, argument for the opportunity side of the equation, getting our bodies to listen to our heads is the challenge side of the equation.

A lot of people I meet assume talking to customers came easy for me which is simply not true (they also assume I live in Silicon Valley which is also not true). Like most other technical founders, I too was a closeted geek. I used tools like email, discussion forums, product blogs, etc. for years to avoid having to directly talk to customers. The times I did talk to customers, the conversations didn’t feel productive or sent me off on wild goose chases.

“I knew listening to customers was important but I didn’t know how.”

I went from dreading direct customer interaction to wiring my mobile phone to a toll-free number. The pivotal turning point for me was hitting the realization that “Life was too short to keep on building something nobody (or not enough people) wants”. This coincided with my early exposure to Customer Development and Lean Startups that jumpstarted my own rigorous testing and application of these principles.

Customer Development is fundamentally about instituting behavior change in how we build products and it’s hard to effect that without a catalyst. I am not going to regurgitate the rational arguments for customer development here but recognize that the real obstacles are emotional not logical. I’m instead going to detail a few tactics for how I overcame my own initial mental blocks:

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Talking to Customers

1. Build a frame around learning, not pitching

“Go talk to a customer” was about as useful as “Build something people want”. My big question was: “What do I say to them?”. Based on the prevalent advice at the time, selling or pitching your product was the only option. So I practiced my pitch and prepared a set of responses to dispel possible objections.

In a pitch, since you’re doing most of the talking, it’s very easy for customers to pretend to go along with what you’re saying or outright lie to you. You only find out later that they never went back to sign-up or log-in to your product. Also, because pitching tends to be very one-sided, there’s a limit to how many reminders you send before realizing that they were just not that in to you.

The problem with starting with a pitch is that it is predicated on having knowledge about the “right” product for the customer (Problem/Solution Fit).

Before you can pitch the “right” solution, you have to understand the “right” customer problem.

Once I understood this, talking to customers became a lot easier. I simply shifted my frame from pitching to learning. In a learning frame, the roles are reversed – You set the context, but then let the customer do most of the talking. You don’t have to know all the answers and every customer interaction (interview, tech support, feature request, etc.) turns into an opportunity for learning.

2. Create a script

While exploration is a critical aspect of talking to customers, you need to bound the conversation around specific learning goals. Otherwise, you can easily blow off a lot of time and end up with an overwhelming amount of unactionable information.

Unlike a pitch, it doesn’t help to tweak your story after every interview. You need consistency and repeatability to instill some method to the process. Scripts help you do that. I created a script for my initial customer interviews and have since then created scripts for every possible customer interaction – problem interviews, solution interviews, pre-launch interviews, feature request interviews, usability tests, etc.

Here is a sample “Problem Interview” script excerpted from my book:

The problem interview script is the very first interview I run with a customer when vetting a new product idea. There are 3 primary things I want to learn/test in this interview:

1. Who is the prototypical early adopter? (Customer Segment)
2. How badly they want this problem solved? (Problem)
3. How do they solve it today? (Existing Alternatives)

The first two questions help identify whether you have a problem worth solving. The third arms you with knowledge about solution and price anchors you will need to position against.

The hardest part of the script is crafting the 2 minute problem story that sets the context. The rest is listening and steering.

3. Start with people you know

Finding people to interview can be challenging at first. Start with people you know that fit your target customer profile. Then use them to get 2 or 3 degrees out to find other people to interview. Not only does this help you practice and get comfortable with your script, but it’s an effective way for getting warm intros to other prospects.

Once you have customers, the process becomes easier. In my last post, I described how I inject customer interviews into the product development process. The key is segmenting your customers at various stages of the user adoption cycle so you know who might be most likely to accept your request for a conversation. For instance, feature requests and bug reports are low hanging fruit. Customers who cancel are harder to talk to you but may reveal “conversion-changing” insights if you can get them on the phone.

Customer Development is fundamentally about building a continuous feedback loop with customers throughout the product development process.

4. Take someone along with you

My first problem interview was with my wife for a photo sharing service I was building targeted at busy moms. I also asked her to tag along with me during the interviews which not only helped me connect better with other moms but it kept the learning a lot more objective which I talk about in the next section.

5. Record your learning

Talking to customers is a form of qualitative learning and unless you strive for objectivity, it’s easy to gather just enough answers (or morph answers) to convince yourself you are on the right path.

An effective practice I used was taking someone along, recording separate results immediately after every interview, and then debriefing later.

To speed things up, I created an online form that took us less then 5 minutes to fill out:

Click to zoom

At debriefing, we went over the last batch of interviews and compared notes before summarizing our learning and making a final entry into our tracking system.

Learning is Addictive

Talking to customers is nuanced and there is an art to listening – listening for keywords, picking visual cues, testing whether customers are lying, getting commitments, etc. The good news is just using a script gets you 80% there and you quickly get better with practice.

What you should start to see fairly quickly is that the return on effort from a focused 15 minute conversation far outmatches any learning you get elsewhere. This is especially true for quickly weeding out weak ideas and for gaining insights that can only be afforded by peering back at your product through the eyes of your customer.

That’s what got me hooked.


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