What is Customer Development?

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How to Build a Continuous Feedback

Loop With Your Customers

One of the top reasons why products fail isn’t because we fail to build what we set out to build, but because we waste time, money, and effort building the wrong product.

In other words we don’t fail to develop the product but customers for the product.

But it’s worse.

Even though building a product is the purpose of a startup, product development actually gets in the way of learning about customers.

This is a bit counter-intuitive and best explained with a picture:

Traditional Product Development Cycle

The classic product-centric approach front-loads some customer involvement during the requirements-gathering phase but leaves most of the customer validation until after the software is released.

There is a large “middle” when the startup disengages from customers for weeks or months while they build and test their solution. While we are learning a lot about product development, we stop learning about customers during this time. It is during this time, that the startup is vulnerable to either building too much or being led astray from building what customers want.

This is the fundamental dilemma described by Steve Blank in “The Four Steps to the Epiphany”, in which he offers a process for building a continuous customer feedback loop throughout the product development cycle that he terms “Customer Development.”

You Simply Can’t Ask Customers What They Want

Even though customers hold all the answers, you simply cannot ask them what they want.

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

A lot of people cite the preceding quote and declare it hopeless to talk to customers. But hidden in this quote is a customer problem statement: had customers said “faster horses,” they would really have been asking for something faster than their existing alternative, which happened to be horses.

Given the right context, customers can clearly articulate their problems, but it’s your job to come up with the solution.

It is not the customer’s job to know what they want.
—Steve Jobs

Customer development isn’t simply talking to customers or running surveys, and focus groups but a collection of learning tactics that when deployed correctly yields the fastest way to both learn and build what customers want.

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