How to Structure (and get the most out of) Customer Development Interviews

Running a startup puts a ton of responsibilities on your plate. From marketing to sales, ghetto-HR to accounting, development to project management, you’re wearing a million hats.  We all know that Lean Startups methodology and customer development are important, but *actually practicing* it can be hard (if you’re not familiar run to CustDev.com *right now* and get Brant and Patrick‘s book The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development ASAP!).

As you commit yourself to “getting outside the building” to talk to your customers and truly quest for Product-Market Fit, it’s essential you make the most of those discussions. One of the hardest things for newcomers to customer development is structuring their questions for customer development, so I’d like share how I structure interviews to maximize their effectiveness.

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How to Structure (and get the most out of) Customer Development Interviews

A few others have written about how they do interviews, so definitely check out Cindy Alvarez and Sachin Aggarwal’s thoughts on the subject. 

I structure my custdev interviews in 3 parts – People, Problems, and Your Solution. Depending on the person, this question flow generally takes me 30-45 minutes to go through. (Note: This structure is best suited to B2B customer development, but with a little creativity, you can definitely adapt this for B2C interviews)

1) People – Aka – Who Are You?

Before you get into anything about problems or your solution, you need to figure out who you’re actually talking to. This both warms up your interviewee with some softball questions and gives you an opportunity to build some rapport with them.

Some example questions you could ask:

  • What is your name and role at your company?
  • How do you fit into your company’s department structure? Overall in the company?
  • What is your budget like? Who has to approve your purchases?
  • How do you discover new products for work? Do you need any approval to try them?
  • Have you tried anything new recently?
  • What is a typical day like on your job?
  • How much time do you spend doing [task X]? (Task X being anything they mentioned in their typical day that stood out)

Do not shortchange this opening section of questions! You don’t need a novel on their daily life, but you *do need* enough to be able to understand their role within their company, who key players are and a general baseline of their sophistication. All of this will help you later pattern match who the user type that is most receptive to the problem you’re solving and the solution you offer.

2) Problems – Aka – What are your greatest pains?

This section is where you try to find out whether the person has the problem you believe you’re solving.  Your goal is to not lead them to your problem. The less you lead them while still hearing your problem being mentioned the more validation you have!

Some sample questions you could ask:

  • What are your top 3 challenges you face in your job?
  • What are your top 3 challenges you face in your job related to [industry X]? (Industry X being the one your startup is in)
  • If you could wave a magic wand and instantly have a solution to any of those problems…what would the solution be?
  • Dig deeper into their typical day on anything that sounds painful or expensive. (You can add some hyperbole here to get them to rant a bit by saying things like “that sounds inefficient…” or “that sounds expensive…”)
  • How have you dealt with or solved [Problem X]? (You’re looking to find out if they’ve hacked a solution together themselves. If they have…ask for a copy of it!)

People love to talk about themselves, so let them go nuts here and really rant about their problems (i.e.- Shut up and listen!).  Generally, people are terrible at proposing solutions, but you want to hear generally what they envision as solutions or see what they’ve cobbled together themselves.

Notice, you haven’t mentioned your solution or problem yet. If they don’t mention your problem specifically, then as you finish this section of questioning, you should directly ask them if what you think is a problem is a problem for them. Whether they agree it’s a problem or not, you want to then probe why it wasn’t one of their top problems.

3) Your Solution – Aka – See if your idea survives customer interaction

If in your discussions in part 2 your problem you think you’re solving comes up naturally from your interviewee you’re on the right track! Bonus points if the way they describe solving it with their “magic wand” remotely resembles what you’re doing.

No matter what happens in part 2 you should discuss with them what you thought the problem was and what your solution is. Getting validation that they wouldn’t be interested in the idea is just as helpful as finding out they love it; either they’re not a customer or you are learning what your customers want instead of it.

Some sample questions you could ask:

  • Walk them through the problems you believe your solution solves. Do they agree?
  • Does [your solution] solve any of their problems?
  • Would you be willing to pay for our solution? How much? (Don’t be afraid to probe for the pricing you know you want…”Would [X] be reasonable?”)
  • If they’re willing to pay your price and like the idea then…”Would you be willing to start right away?”

If all goes well and you really are solving a pain, then your customer should want access to the product right away. More likely, you’re going to learn a ton about what they do and do not want and your idea will begin evolving.

This basic structure can carry you a long way towards some great validated learning about your idea and the market’s desire for it.

A few last things to remember:

1) Take Good Notes or Record Everything!

- Once you’ve interviewed 8-10 people, you should be going back over all of your notes and look for patterns. This includes especially looking for patterns in the Part 1 section to see what all the people that agree you are solving their problem have in common. You should summarize your notes then and share with your team.

2) Have other team members sit in on some interviews

- A good customer development focused company will have everyone involved in the process. Performable, pre-HubSpot acquisition, had their engineers spending 30% of their time on the phone with customers. Nothing helps someone do their job better like understanding who they’re building/selling/marketing for.

3) Be conversational

- It shouldn’t feel like an interview! They should feel like they’re just having a conversation with a friend about their problems at work. The more comfortable they feel with you, the more they will open up.

4) Go off script

- The best stuff comes when you dig a little deeper on something that strikes a chord in the discussion.  The script is there to be your roadmap, but there’s no reason you can’t return to it after a 5 minute digression about a specific pain or discovery about how the company operates.

5) If they’ve made an MVP…ask to see it!

- Nothing gives you more insight to a customer than what they’ve hacked together themselves to solve a problem. The best thing you can do is ask to see it, which will give you an idea of what they’re hoping a solution will provide. These people are also the strongest candidates to be great, helpful early adopters of your product.

6) Always follow up

- It’s just common courtesy to thank people for their time and help, but it also opens the door to follow up with them in the future if your product changes and is a fit for them or to invite them to your beta.

7) End with an ask

- Always end your interviews by thanking them and asking them for something. It may be to get a copy of their MVP or even better, ask for an intro to someone they know that might be interested in what you’re working on. In my experience, these intros have an 80-90% success rate in becoming new customer development interviews, whereas cold emails only have a 10% success rate.

8) Be open to new problems! That’s how great products are born.

- As Steve Blank has said, “No idea survives first interaction with a customer.” Don’t be afraid to shift your focus from your first idea to what you’re actually hearing customers want.  If you probe in part 2 and find a burning problem…find out how they currently solve it and what they’d pay to solve it.

In the end, you want to find a “hair on fire” problem, not a “nice to have problem.”  Think about it this way: If my hair is on fire (literally), and you’re selling buckets of water, I’m definitely going to buy your product. But if I’m cold and wet, I’m not likely to buy your bucket of water right now, but would consider it in the future.

Find customer pain and a solution they desire and will pay for. Rinse. Repeat.

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs doing customer development interviews?

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