Talk to customers: the first date

You’ve finally launched your product off the ground, but the results aren’t as expected. You need to figure out why.

Fellow founders, advisors, and experts all tell you the same thing: “talk to customers.”

“Thanks! Sounds simple. I’ll talk to them and let you know how it goes,” you say.

But as you get closer to it, doubts start to creep in: “It’s a bit scary. It’s the first time I’ll talk to them. Am I supposed to talk to all of them? What should I ask them? What if they ignore us? Worse, what if they trash the product we worked so hard to build?

There’s a lot of nuance in talking to your customers. Here are some actionable pointers and a few essential things to keep in mind to help you get started.

Clearly define the purpose of the interaction

If you want to make a great first impression, you need to be prepared. Too often, when startup teams are trying to connect with customers, they forget why they are doing it.

What are you trying to learn? What will you do with these insights?

Customer interviews are most effective when they are designed for diving deep into a specific topic. The goal is not to gain general knowledge about your average customer but to understand their needs, problems, motivations, fears, and behaviors.

The clearer your purpose, the easier it will be to determine who to talk to, how to structure your questions, and analyze the results.

All it takes is one

I often hear, “Let’s send this survey to our whole list: the more feedback, the better.”

Wrong! Contrary to quantitative research, your sample size doesn’t matter at all when gathering qualitative data. What you are looking for is depth.

Selecting your audience is as important (if not more) than the questions you ask.

Avoid “mixed bags.” One good feedback could change the trajectory of your company.

Many poor ones could lead to a slow and painful death.

Keep it short and convenient

Would you invite someone to a seven days road trip for a first date? Probably not.

I know it's tempting to ask a lot of questions to understand your customers better. “You can't ask enough.” But asking too many questions is a bad idea.

  • Customers aren't going to take the time to answer all your questions.

  • Even if they do, you won’t be able to follow up and act upon all the answers.

Every question you ask is expensive. So don't ask unless you genuinely care about the answer. And it’s not because Apple or Nike can send 20+ questions that you should do it too.

Don’t put pressure on respondents. Make them feel comfortable.

Most questions should be optional and there’s no point for stressful deadlines.

Here below is a good example: “even a two-word answer is appreciated.”

Don’t dictate the conversation

Talking to customers is a conversation, not a sales pitch. Your goal is to hear what customers have to say, not force them into saying what you want to hear. Prioritize open-ended questions and avoid leading questions that will influence answers.

If you ask someone if they like your product, they will tell you yes or no (most probably yes, to be nice). That's not that helpful. What action will you take based on that? If you ask them what they like about it, what frustrates them, or what problems they're having using it, you can get actionable information that will help improve your product. Here are some of my favorite questions to ask:

  • Before [your product], how did you [action related to the problem you solve]?

  • In your own words, what are the differences between [incumbent solution] and [your product]? What's the one thing you're able to do that you weren’t before?

  • What made you realize that you needed something like [your product]?

  • How did you find out about [your product]?

  • What might have prevented you from choosing [your product]?

  • When using [your product], what are you ultimately trying to accomplish?

  • What, if anything, holds you back from using [your product] more?

  • How would you describe [your product] to a friend or colleague?

Understanding other people's experiences requires empathy. And that’s not something you develop with a simple "yes" or "no" (even in a swipe left/right world).

And they lived happily ever after?

There are only two possible outcomes after a first date. The two individuals may agree to a second date or decide to stop there because of compatibility issues.

The outcome of talking to your customers is less binary.

Now that you gathered some insights, what should you do next?

Here’s a process I can recommend, but that’s not the only way:

  • Review and organize the data (for example in a spreadsheet).

  • Categorize and tag answers around recurring themes.

  • Translate the feedback into actionable hypotheses.

  • Prioritize and plan experiments.

  • Summarize it and follow up with respondents.

The idea of talking to customers sounds simple. It's convenient advice to give, but in practice, it’s complex. Like a first date, it can be nerve-wracking, the formats and outcomes may vary, but it’s a crucial step towards building a long-lasting relationship.

Now, go talk to them. Good luck!


⚠️ Use the above to gather marketing insights, not only new features :)

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