The Art of Customer Development

I recently crossed paths again with an excellent summary (from Mike Fishbein – link below) of key questions when developing a new product or exploring improving an existing one. It reminded me of how useful it was to be validating a potential new product idea back in 2013.

At that point I was desperately seeking a new product to hopefully facilitate a do-or-die pivot of my failing activities & experiences marketplace start-up (The Social Experiences Club). Although we had launched in 2011/12, it wasn’t on the back of much customer insight and their problems, needs, challenges etc. In fact, it was based on a tonne of assumptions. Some of these were tested (off-line by running a specific live experience/activity with paying customers), but the wider product concept (central place to discover and book all sorts of experiences) was not.

Back then there wasn’t a ‘handbook’ on running a start-up in the Internet/mobile era or properly managing customer development or producing tangible evidence of why the problem you’re solving is such a major problem for a big addressable market. Lean Start-up was only in the very early stages of traction and certainly no-one in London was talking about it. In hindsight, that lack of customer insight was one of the key reasons (and there were quite a few) for eventual failure.

In 2018, there are now a significant number of free (or cheap) online resources & services at the disposal for any budding entrepreneur to test, validate & build MVPs for that side project or next big thing. What an amazing time to be around and have an idea. The same old challenges remain however: to (a) find and solve a problem that is important enough to a significant number of people, and (b) stop watching Netflix in your spare time & get out there and work hard to find out if your idea has legs. Check out the questions below with thanks to Martin Fishbein

Customer Segmentation
Depending on how you obtained the interview/how much background you have on the person, you may need to make sure they are within your customer segment, and/or understand more about their demographic. I usually try to keep it to a max of three.
What do you do professionally?
Who handles [process you’re improving] at your home/office?
Tell me about your role at [company]?
How much time do you spend on [process you’re improving]?
[Specific questions related to your product/customer] – for example, do you have kids?

Problem Discovery
Questions to validate your hypothesis about a problem, or to learn about problems.
What’s the hardest part of your day?
What are some unmet needs you have?
What product do you wish you had that doesn’t exist yet?
What tasks take up the most time in your day?
What could be done to improve your experience with [process/role]?
What’s the hardest part about being a [demographic]?
What are your biggest/most important professional responsibilities/goals?
What are your biggest/most important personal responsibilities/goals?

Problem Validation
If your customer did not talk about the problem you wanted to address, use the below questions to begin validating/invalidating that your customer has the problem you think they have. In addition, it’s often not enough to just solve a problem, sometimes it also needs to be one that people are highly motivated to solve. Some of the below questions can help with that too.

Do you find it hard to [process/problem]?
How important is [value you’re delivering] to you?
Tell me about the last time you [process you’re improving] – listen for complaints
How motivated are you to solve/improve [problem/process]?
If you had a solution to this problem, what would it mean to you/how would it affect you?

Product Discovery
Questions to help generate ideas or to validate your idea. The below questions are intentionally very open-ended. By asking yes or no questions specifically related to your product, customers may feel inclined to agree with you or not be critical. By asking more open ended questions, you can be more confident that they’re giving you honest input. If in response to the questions below, your customers tell you they’re looking for similar to what you have in mind, you might be on to something.

What do you think could be done to help you with [problem]?
What would your ideal solution to this problem look like?
If you could wave a magic wand and instantly have any imaginable solution to this problem, what would it look like? – I’ve found that about 80% the time the answers I get to this question are not very informative – solutions that aren’t feasible or most certainly wouldn’t be profitable. But the other 20% of the time there are some really informative responses that make the other 80% acceptable.
What’s the hardest part about [process you’re improving]?
What are you currently doing to solve this problem/get this value?
What do you like and dislike about [competing product or solution]?

Product Validation
Questions to validate/invalidate your idea.
What do you think of this product? – this question is intentionally vague. Listen to whether they talk about wanting to use the product or how it could be improved. Given how vague the question is, the former is positive, while the latter may be a sign that improvement is needed.
Would this product solve your problem?
How likely are you/would you be to tell your friends about this product?
Would you ever use this product?
Would you be willing to start using this right away?
What might prevent you from using this product? – might reveal ways that you could improve the product. Potential hurdles might be budget, time, perception’s of the product’s value, a competing product, etc.
Will you pay $x for this product? – see if they will put their proverbial money where their math is. Often times when you ask this question, no matter how small the price, you will start hearing key insights that you wouldn’t have heard otherwise.

Product Optimization
Questions to help you improve your idea or product.
What could be done to improve this product?
What would make you want to tell your friends about this product?
What’s most appealing to you about this product?
What might improve your experience using the product?
What motivates you to continue using this product?
What’s the hardest part about using this product?
What features do you wish the product had?

Ending Interviews
Questions to ask at the end of an interview. You may also need to ask for their contact information if you don’t already have it.
[Summarize some of your key takeaways] – is that accurate? – I usually do this throughout the interview.
So based on the conversation, it sounds like x is really hard for you, but y is not. How accurate is that?
It sounds like x is very important to you, while y is not. How accurate is that?
Is there anything else you think I should know about that I didn’t ask?
Do you know anyone else who might also have this problem that I could ask similar questions to? – small form of validation if they’re willing to give you referrals
Can I keep you in the loop on how the product develops?
Can I follow up with you if I have more questions?

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