Developed by serial entrepreneur Steve Blank, customer development is a process for discovering and validating market demand for an idea, determining the right product features needed to meet customer needs. Customer development is used to help build products that customers want and avoid spending time and money on products customers don’t want. It can be used to identify problems and new startup ideas, to test ideas, and to optimize ideas and existing products.
In an age, where technological advancement has made it easier than ever to build a product, the question is no longer whether a product can be built, it’s whether or not it anyone actually wants it. Below are ten key principles and tips for practicing customer development effectively.
1. Don’t pitch your idea at first
Pitching an idea instead of doing a thorough customer development process will result in lesser learning and getting biased answers that can lead you down the wrong path. The goal of customer development is not just to validate or invalidate an idea, it’s to learn what’s valuable to customers and optimize the offering. When pitching an idea, people won’t want to tell you your idea stinks because their natural inclination is to agree and compliment you. In addition, you will miss out on learning key customer insights. After you feel confident that you’re solving a real problem, pitching and pre-selling should be used to get real validation.
2. Try to prove yourself wrong
By nature, people want to be right. People don’t like to fail or get rejected. In the case of a startup, an entrepreneur may have a “vision” for what they want to build and they want to accomplish and are eager to bring it to life. However it’s important to remember that you don’t want to waste your time and money on something that people don’t want and can’t become a business. Proving yourself wrong can save you a lot of time and money.
3. Talk less, listen more
The goal of customer development is to learn from your customers about how you can build the best product possible. Learning happens when you are listening, not when you are talking. Your ears are your most valuable tool. You will of course need to do some talking to guide the conversation, but in general, listening is an extremely valuable skill to have as an entrepreneur.
4. Ask open-ended questions
Open-ended questions get people talking way more than yes-or-no questions do. Yes-or-no questions lead to short and binary answers. The goal of conducting customer development interviews is is to learn what you need to build products people love. Open-ended questions will help you gain the right insight.
5. Get real proof
Get real proof to gain confidence that you’re truly building a product that people want. Proof can come in the form of pre-sales, referrals to people they know who could be customers, following up to get multiple rounds of interviews, or even just an email address. Saying something is great is a lot different than actually paying for it.
6. One-on-one and in-person is best
Many people rely on online surveys, secondary research, focus groups, or even anecdotal interviews with people that aren’t actually customers. However one-on-one, in-person interviews are best. Focus groups can lead to biased responses, especially if it’s about a personal matter.
In-person interviews will help you obtain a better sense for their enthusiasm and emotions.
7. Abstract everything by a level
Abstract everything by a level to gain deeper insights and to avoid biased responses. Do not assume anything. Pretend that you know nothing about your customers and are learning everything for the first time. For example, if you want to test whether someone will use a nutrition tracking app, ask about nutrition. If you notice customers start talking about the problem you suspected they have before you ask them about it specifically, you can be more confident you’re on the right track. When you start talking about specific problems or solutions, customers are more prone to agree with you. Abstracting everything by a level will allow your customers to talk in more detail, which means you can gather deeper insights.
Mike Fishbein is the author of “Customer Development for Entrepreneurs” and does new product and business development at Casual Corp, a venture studio in NYC. You can connect with him at https://twitter.com/mfishbein.
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