Customer Development

Asking the right people the right quesions.

By Tracy Lasseter

In honor of National Small Business Week, Sticksnleaves provides the following tips and tools for getting the most out of your customer development engagements.

What exactly is customer development?

Customer development is the practice of gaining insights into what consumers want, and then developing a solution. This is sort of the opposite of product development. Rather than building something and seeing if there is a market, customer development finds a problem within a market and then builds a profitable solution around it. Not only does this help you better target your market, it will save you time and money that would have otherwise been wasted on building an undesirable product. If you are willing to listen, and flexible with your ideas, customer development will be your most powerful advocate.

When it comes to setting up a customer development meeting, there are guidelines to make the most of your time and efforts. Here are the 4 steps this blog will cover:

1. Finding the right people
2. Asking the right questions
3. Pitching the right solution
4. Following Up

Finding the right people

Before you formulate your questions, it is important to find the right people to talk to. Asking the right questions to the wrong people may not get you the insight you need. A good place to start is with people you know. Not only will they be the most willing to help you out, you probably already know a lot about their problems. They will also be most comfortable being candid with you, so there will be none of that first-meeting awkwardness.

Once you believe you have found the right contacts, use the following questions to get to know the person a little better. Don’t spend too much time on this section, it’s just a way to get a better understanding of their position and day-to-day.

1. What is your current position? What role do you play in the company?
If your product covers a broad range of people, it would be a good idea to speak with people from every department. At the end of the meeting you might be able to get another connection!

2. What does a typical day look like for you?

3. How much time do you spend doing x?
X in this case being something they mentioned from question 2 that might apply to your product.

Asking the right questions

Remember, at this point it is not a sales pitch. This is a time for you to gain insight into what is currently working (and conversely not working) for potential customers. In the beginning, keep away from questions such as “Would you use this product?” and “Do you like this?” People are programmed to be nice (especially those you consider to be friends). What we want is to glean information from them about how your product can improve their workflow. By following the problem and not the product, you will build a solid foundation for your business.

The best way to go about this is to start with what current processes the customer has in place. Remember, this is what you are trying to improve upon, so seeing these structures as your competition will allow you to get the most out of your interview. Plus, people love talking about themselves and their problems! Use this to your advantage -- if you can get them ranting about what isn’t working and what they wish for vs. what you believe to be the solution it will gain you insight into whether your product is in fact viable.

Some questions to get them started:

1. What is your current process?
This being the process you believe your product replaces. This is a great warm-up, it gets people talking about their current position. It is less opinion based than the following questions so it will put them in the right mindset.

2. What about this process is working for you?
Use “Why?” to dig deeper into this question. Asking at least five “why” questions will typically uncover the real underlying issues the customer is facing.

3. What is the greatest challenge you face at your job? Anything else? (repeat as necessary)
This may not necessarily apply to your product or industry, but it gets the ball rolling on complaints and problems, which is what you really want to be collecting.

4. What is the greatest challenge you face when it comes to x?
X in this case being your industry, the area you are trying to improve upon. Remember, you aren’t trying to lead them to your solution, you are trying to see if your solution is the right fit for potential clients. This way, you are not only coming to the answers organically, you may just pick up some great insight into adjusting your product to better fit your target market. Another helpful tip is to reply to this information with comments like “that sounds time consuming.” This builds empathy and also eggs the person into a rant. People are going to be more open and honest if they feel you understand their frustrations.

5. What solutions have you tried in the past? What worked? What didn’t?
If they haven’t tried anything to fix their current problems, they really don’t care about having a solution. This may be an indication that they will be uninterested in your product.

6. What do you believe will be the right solution to your problem? How would this make your job easier/more efficient?
If they mention any of the solutions you believe your product will solve, you’re on the right track!

Pitching the right solution

Now is the time to see if you have the right answers to their problems. Start by summarizing the problems they’ve stated they have, and then show them the solutions you have come up with and give a brief pitch of your product. This is a time to sum up the challenges they have mentioned up to this point (it’s also a good way to show you were listening!). Start by discussing the problems that you believe your product will solve and get confirmation from the customer. Next you will give them a rundown of what solutions your product has to offer.

1. Be sure to ask “Does this solve your problem of x?”
This refers back to any of the issues they mentioned before.

2. Are you willing to pay for a service or product that would solve these issues? Can you quantify how much these problems are costing you? How much do you believe a solution would save you and your company?
Whether they say yes or no, be sure to get clear answers as to why. This will either result in understanding that this is not your customer or getting insight into how to better serve your client base. Don’t be afraid to probe on price, but don’t get frustrated if they can’t give you a number! It’s hard for people to formulate a price they attach to software, but they’ll know what makes sense when they see how much they’ll save or earn because of your solution.

Following Up

Give the customer time now to ask any questions they may have. This is also a good time to collect any additional information from them. For example, has this person come up with their own solution? Are they willing to share that with you? Do they know anyone else that may be interested in what you’re offering or that might have insight into other solutions?

After your interview, be sure to follow up with them on a periodic and consistent basis. As you give them time to think outside of your discussion, they may be able to provide some new, valuable insight. Be sure to also send a thank you as they have taken time to sit down and discuss these things with you.

A few helpful hints:

1. Take good notes!
You’ll be doing several of these interviews, so you will want to have details. This will also allow you to recognize patterns. If you feel you can’t have a natural discussion and take notes, feel free to bring someone along who can do this for you. You can also ask their permission to record the interview so you have all of the details for future reference.

2. Make this a natural conversation.
Even though this is called an interview, don’t make it feel like one. Allow the conversation to flow naturally and don’t be afraid to allow the person to go off on a tangent as this could be where you find the juiciest bits of info. The questions in Step 2 are mostly a construct for the discussion and a way to get the respondent back on track (let them go down that rabbit trail, just not too far!).

3. Less talking, more listening!
This is about them, not you.

4. Be open to new problems and ideas.
No one hits the target on the first try, and not being open to new ideas could result in missed opportunities or a product that has no interested buyers. Be flexible!

Now Get Going!

With these guidelines you can get the most out of your customer development interactions. Remember, this is a learning experience, so be open to new ideas and experiences. Let the market’s needs set the guidelines for your product and you will be on track for success.

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