The other day I was talking with an entrepreneur in the Google Ventures portfolio who told me he had conducted more than 200 customer interviews. His company had just launched a new product, and he was trying to gauge whether there was demand for the product, what features customers wanted in it, and which competitive products they had used. He was (correctly) confident about the market opportunity here. But as we continued talking, I had some questions about the interviews:
- Did he plan interviews to answer specific questions?
- Was he screening interviewees, to avoid wasting time?
- Were people able to walk him through their day-to-day routines and show him the products they use?
- Was he showing prototypes (even free prototypes) to people?
- Was he getting real reactions to his product?
Unfortunately, the answers were no, no, no, no, and no.
He wasn’t doing customer interviews, he was doing sales.
I think it’s fantastic this entrepreneur had talked to so many potential customers. That puts him ahead of teams who work for months on a product without getting out of the building. But getting out of the building isn’t enough. It’s a good start, but to truly learn what people need and validate product concepts, there are a few things you must get right:
Figure out your questions
What do you want to know? Plan a set of interviews to answer specific questions or test specific assumptions.
Talk to the right people
Who can help you answer these questions? While talking to anyone outside your company is better than nothing, put in the extra effort to find people who represent your target customers.
Write an interview guide
Get organized. Use your questions to create a plan for your interviews (here’s a worksheet). A consistent format will make it easier to summarize your findings later.
Get reactions to a prototype
What can you show your customers? Even a competitor’s website or your own website is better than nothing. A prototype you created for the interviews is best. (Here’s how we do it at Google Ventures.) When people can react to something real, you learn so much more than when they tell you what they think, or what they would do.
Listen, don’t lead
Are you pitching, or listening? It can be difficult to stop selling, but it’s essential if you really want to learn. Ask open-ended questions, avoid leading questions, and be open to negative or difficult answers. Here are some tips from my partner Michael Margolis.
Summarize what you learn
Were there any patterns? Take some time to summarize what you heard in the last set of interviews.
I’m thrilled when entrepreneurs have a habit of talking to their customers. It’s important to get out of the building. But I always suggest a little extra effort to do these six things--the investment will come back to you in better and faster learning.
[Illustration: Business via Shutterstock]