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Don’t Talk to Customers

dont talk to customers

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Interview them. There’s a world of difference.

Most founders like to say they talk to their prospects and customers. But ‘talking to’ most often means passionately selling or preaching to people. If the experience of leaving the room with everyone punching the air, but later getting no followup and not closing the deal sounds familiar — you likely suffer this bug! It’s the ‘fake yes’ that disappears not long after you do.

When you’re passionate about your product —your creation, your baby — it’s extremely difficult to ask the hard questions and passively listen to the results, without persuading or correcting. But not finding a way to truly interview customers will result in poor decision making and focussing on the wrong priorities — you may end up promoting the wrong messages, building the wrong features, and charging the wrong prices. Even if you have some people buying — do you really know WHY?

So what is a customer interview? Primarily — it is learning what the customers job to be done is, why and how they selected your product, and what (or might) keeps them with you. I’m not sure there’s one perfect approach — but here’s some sample questions that we have used with companies like Assembla and Qualaroo that have worked well.

Probably less is more on the number of questions, unless the interviewee is yes/no type responder and you need to ask a lot very specific questions.

  • Are you happy with our product?
  • Why did you purchase, what were the key factors in your decision? What does it help you get done?
  • How did you evaluate us against the competition? Who else did you consider? Why did we win?
  • If we turned the product off tomorrow, would you care?
  • If we 10x’d the price tomorrow, would you immediately leave? What would we need to do for you to pay that price?
  • Have you ever recommended us to anyone else? How do you describe us when you do that?

When we acquire a company (or finance one) — one of the first and most valuable things we do is interview customers. Every time we do this, we see a similar set of outcomes:

  • Customer says “I’ve never spoken to anyone from your company before, I really appreciate being heard!”.
  • Customer asks for a specific feature and it turns out it already exists. They can get what they are asking for, we just didn’t do a good job showing them how or discovering it was a need.
  • Customer is frustrated, about to churn, and the simple act of engaging and listening to them reverses their decision.

This is one of the luxuries a new CEO or new owner-operator gets: their lack of knowledge about the product and lack of history with it’s creation and evolution, means they truly can ask hard questions and unemotionally deal with the answers. Doing that in business is a real super power — the answers to many of your strategy and positioning challenges are in your customer base (they know why they use and pay you…)… discovering that is pure gold.

The best way to do this as a founder is to get someone else to do it for you. Every new hire you make, ask them to do 10 calls like this — taking notes and recording the calls (if the customer agrees). If you’re not hiring — contract someone for a couple of months to do this. You can listen to the calls after the fact.

If you can make this an ongoing process — I’m think you will be amazed at what you discover about the position your business occupies in the customers mind (and that’s all that really matters — not what you think it is or want it to be); land some low-hanging revenue opportunities; and figure out how to prioritize your major next initiatives (or change them entirely).

So — don’t talk to customers about yourself or your product ‘and how it benefits them’ — find someone who can dispassionately interview them about their own key drivers — act on what you learn — and do this regularly.

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