How should Innovators Really Talk to their Customers?

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Make this moment count

You should listen to your customers. No, you shouldn’t, because “if I asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said: faster horses” (Henry Ford).

So, what is it?

Here’s the deal.With an innovation, you are trying to discover, build and tune the fine mechanics of a business model.

Business model is a machine that will repeatably acquire customers, and delight them enough to part with their hard earn money.

And at the center of this discovery process is a very human customer. And a very human activity: talking to them.

Yet, Mr. Ford was right: you cannot outsource your innovation to your customers. You cannot just go out and ask: what product should I build?

Here’s how to – and how not to  – do it.

#1 Don’t Sell, Convince or (God Forbid!), Argue. Listen

This is as obvious as it is easily forgotten.

In our eagerness to convince, we may ruin the opportunity to learn.

We need the customer to feel encouraged to give us their honest opinion and feedback, rather than defend themselves or argue.

Eagerly listen and show true empathy and understanding. Show genuine interest. If you are really passionate about the product, you’ll need to be passionate about the market, and in the center of that market is that person sitting in front of you. They are the most important stakeholder, and you want to know them as much as you can.

Ask follow up questions to drill down to the root-causes.

It’s okay to take charge of the conversation, but the try and let the customer talk 80% of the time.

#2 Don’t Ask Them What they Want

Not because we don’t care about what our customers want. It is about what Henry Ford taught us.

The responsibilities are divided like this: you, the visionary, own the solution, and the customer owns the problem.

It takes lots of imagination to think up a product. It takes a big leap of faith to believe the product will effectively solve the tough customer problem. Your customer is already doing their best to deal with it.

I’ve done a couple of interviews during the early, vague stages of my idea. I distinctly remember a potential customer telling me something along the lines of “yes, this is certainly a challenge, but I just don’t see how a software tool could solve this”. When I later started showing, in a clear and visual way, how my solution would look like, the reactions were very different.

#3 Validate The Problem You are Solving

Ash Maurya in his book “Running Lean” suggest you  start by saying “what I want to do now is to describe the problems we are solving and see if they resonate with you. Does that sound good?”. Then, for each of the problems:

  • Describe the problem: in my experience as a/working with <customer role>, I’ve observed we often struggle with <short problem description>
  • Ask: does that resonate with you?
  • Listen, write down, and observe their body language (to assess the level of difficulty). Pay attention to the specific words they use to describe the problem
  • Ask: why is that difficult? Here you want to drill down to root causes. Often, people will describe things about their work or everyday life without giving you the context. You want to drill down and make sure you really understand the problem from their point of view
  • Rate: I like to ask my customers to rate the problems on scale from 1 to 5, 1 being “irrelevant”, 5 being a “must have” . This allows you to rank problems, and it often surprises me

Take some time to prepare by describing the top 2 or 3 problems in clear and simple words. From your customer’s perspective.

And you know that solving the right problem can make you richright?

#4 Understand Their Workflow

You need to understand how your customer works today.

The perfect place to start is while talking about the problems you want to solve. Just ask:

How are you dealing with that today?

Then probe deeper to really understand how they work today, what tools and services they use to aid their work.

#5 Validate Your Solution

You’ll need visuals in addition to words. Live product or screen shots / mocks.

But don’t just walk through the features. Prepare a story.  Describe an experience. How will their life be different with your service? How will you address the problems that frustrate them today?

Watch out: there is a great chance your customer will not really understand you. And they might not admit it. No one likes to look stupid.

This can make for a very discouraging and frustrating conversation.

Here are the questions to ask after telling your story (thanks Ash!):

  • If our product were free and available now, would you sign up and use it?
  • Are you missing something important?
  • Which of the aspects resonated with you the most?
  • Which could you live without?
  • Can we work together with you to organize a pilot project?

This technique can provide lots of information and save you wasted months of building products people don’t want to use.

#6 Validate Pricing

A straightforward test is simply asking the customer if they would be ready to pay $X for the product. To borrow Steve Blank’s idea, you might ask: “if this product were free, would you install it tomorrow?”. And then follow up with “Unfortunately, it’s not free, it costs <an outrageously high price>“. Steve testifies that some customer’s response was to say “come on, you got to be serious, I would never pay more than <their actual available budget> for it”.

Here’s some other ideas. Put up a landing page that contains three pricing schemes, and count and compare clicks. Or set up an A/B test, and show difference prices to different visitors.

People building B2B products can draft a non-legally binding letter of intent based on specs and foreseen pricing, and try and get their customer to sign it. If a customer is ready to try your product in a pilot case, can you agree with them on success criteria, which if met would lead them to a purchase of your product?

Don’t forget to simply ask if there is budget available, and who has to approve purchases.

#7 Validate Channels

Try to fish out how and where do the customers look for solutions today.

Ok, so the problem we talked about clearly resonates with you. Did you already search for solutions? Where? How? Via a search engine you say? Which keywords did/would you use?

In addition, for B2B, you might inquire to see if there are specific roles in the organization whose responsibility is to find, purchase and evaluate new systems / technologies.

#8 Don’t Forget the Close

Your interview should not be too long. Try to do it within 15-30 minutes.

At the end, make sure it’s okay to follow up. You can ask if they would be interested to see a demo once the product is ready. Things have been going well on this and previous interviews? Try to close: to get them to agree to a pilot project. By making an explicit request, you may learn things you wouldn’t otherwise.

Very important: ask for referrals, other people from the industry to talk to.

Hey, But There is a Difference Between What People Say and What They Do

You are absultely right! As soon as possible, you want to put a product or a service in your customer hands.

Yet, you cannot skip talking to people! It’s the fastest way to  learn if your idea makes sense.

You can vet an idea by making 10 phone calls in one afternoon.

How do you interview your customers?

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