This article is part of the 8-part series of evergreen topics that all startup founders are confronted with. It is based on what the mentors actually teach startups during the StepFWD pre-accelerator. 

Our thanks go to Letitia Stefan CEO at Nifty Learning & Raluca Apostol CPO at Nestor, for helping founders be prepared to talk to their customers! 

Let’s begin

The best founders maintain a direct relationship with their customers, as no matter the stage you are in with your startup, your customers have the information your business needs in order to push things in the right direction. 

The ‘trick’ here is not to blindly follow the ‘customer is always right’ axiom, but to try to discover what they want and they really need, and to make the distinction between these 2 things so you can base your decisions on solid data!

Before you move forward with this process, you should definitely read the most practical, popular, and easy to follow “how-to” resource on the topic out there, namely The Mom Test. This short book will shift the way you approach customer development and will teach you “how to talk to customers & learn if your business is a good idea when everyone is lying to you”.

User interviews

Extracting valuable information from your (potential) customers is usually performed through user interviews. Although there are a multitude of resources available on how to go about this process, there are 3 major things you should focus on before actually doing them.

  1. Research the problem first → Spend some hours doing your homework! If you don’t, then you will lengthen the process that follows and you’ll appear unprofessional in front of the people you interview. Start with what you know or have experienced before, learn about the problem space, talk to experts, research existing solutions (i.e. use tools such as the Capterra for B2B software, or customer ratings & reviews for B2C ideas).
  2. Define your ideal user profile → Talk to the wrong people = you get bad data = you make poor business decisions. Segment your potential customers into user personas: who is she, where she lives, what she does today, how she solves the problem now. This will be a trial and error process, so refine until you get your ideal user.
  3. How to find them → Start with your contacts that fit the personas, ask for warm intros, attend industry events, join a program that can help you with introductions, and do some cold contacting

You should also own it to yourself that you will make mistakes along the way (hey, it’s a new thing you’re trying out so it’s normal that this will happen). Being aware of what are the most common mistakes that people make and actively trying to overcome them will speed up the whole process. 

  1. Talk specifics, not hypotheticals 
  2. Talk about their life, not your idea, solution, or features
  3. Listen, don’t talk – we have 2 ears and 1 mouth, so this is the proportion of listening vs. talking 

Key Takeaway! 

Prepare, prepare some more, and be aware of what mistakes you should try to avoid.

Talking to users 

Now that you have your game plan, it’s time to start talking with people. The interview should feel like you are having a conversation, so aim for phone, video, or in-person meetings, and avoid performing interviews through email, text chat, or surveys

Here are some practical ways to convince the customers to tell you what they want and need.

  • Prepare a script with all the points you want to address
  • Engage in the conversations, don’t do a checklist
  • Find their pain points by encouraging them to talk about their life
  • Identify what’s the biggest problem they have right now
  • Take notes / record where possible 

And do make use of these 5 great questions you can ask in every user interview.

  1. What’s the hardest part about [doing this thing]?
  2. Tell me about the last time you encountered that problem?
  3. Why was that hard?
  4. What, if anything, have you done to try to solve the problem?
  5. What don’t you love about the solutions you’ve tried?

Key Takeaway! 

It should feel more like a conversation and less like an interview.

A successful validation

Make sure that you filter out the data you don’t want, by eliminating:

  • People that don’t currently have or actively search for a solution
  • Those you aren’t sure they experiment the problem
  • Information that is false, misleading, or not actionable

How do you know you found your ‘ideal customer’, extracted the right information, and you can move forward from there?  By defining a customer development goal: number of interviews, a time frame when they are done and what you expect to learn, and sticking to the plan.

Key Takeaway! 

Base your decisions on the right data.

If you need advice on how to approach your customer development process, we’ve invited Raluca & Letitia for 1-on-1 sessions on April 8 to which you can apply here.