Customer Discovery: Early Interviews

Introduction to Customer Discovery

There are two stages of customer discovery in the venture realization process: 1) problem experience and; 2) solution experience. In the early stage of customer discovery, you are looking to validate assumptions about whether your venture idea is something specific customers need, want, and are willing to purchase. These assumptions are mostly associated with what is sometimes called the “problem-solution fit.” You’ll want to examine whether your beliefs about the customers’ current experience with the problem and solution requirements are correct.? 

These early engagement goals are to learn as much as you can about the customers’ experience with the problem you are hoping to solve with your product or service. During this phase, you learn specifics about the frequency and degree of severity of the customers’ experience with the problem, sometimes referred to as customer pain points. You’ll also inquire about how the customer currently solves the problem, acquiring information about competing solutions, your potential competitors, and how much the customer pays for these optional solutions. In asking about current solutions, you learn what the customer values the most about these solutions and what might be missing.

After probing customers on their experience with the problem and current solutions, you can move the conversation to your proposed product idea— – your solution. During this part of the customer discovery session, you describe the proposed solution to solicit feedback from those interested in solving the problem. You learn whether your product idea may alleviate or reduce the customer’s experience with the problem if developed. You ascertain whether your solution improves current ones and whether your proposed product offering may meet or exceed expected benefits by asking the right questions.

As you enter the second phase of customer discovery, you shift the focus from the customer’s experience with the problem to your proposed solution in the second phase of customer discovery. You want to know if your product idea creates a significant value for the customer that is significant enough to want and is willing to pay for the product. I will discuss this second phase of customer discovery in detail when addressing minimal viable product design and development in future posts.

Preparing for Early Customer Interviews

Once you have defined your target customer and market, you can prepare to engage them directly. This early customer engagement is a critical step in the venture realization process. These early interviews’ primary objective of the early interviews is to find evidence that your assumptions about your target customer are indeed correct.

The primary objective is to validate your preliminary assumptions about the target customer profile and the problem they are hoping to solve. You should structure the interview to explore essential elements of the customer’s profile and experience related to the problem, solution, desired benefits and& outcomes, and purchasing process.

While you can conduct the customer interview semi-informally, preparation should be structured and well-organized. I recommend that you start by listing the core assumptions you have about the target customer and their experience with the problem to be solved or job-to-be-done. Are there critical demographic characteristics that you need to validate during the interview? What do you see as the problem? How important is it that your customer finds a solution? Are there other solutions, and are those solutions missing something the customer wants or needs? How much is the customer willing to pay for the solutions?

Once you have identified your core assumptions about the customer, identify any measures or metrics to quantify the customer’s experience.? For example, can the customer provide an estimate of the problem’s pain point? If the customer spends X amount of time on a task that they feel is onerous, how much time do they spend? This response will quantify the problem. Upon further exploration, you can then explore how much time current solutions save the customer. Are customers satisfied by the time savings? If not, what degree of time savings would be considered valuable? The answer to this will provide you with a measure of the customer’s perceived severity of the problem and what gain they would expect from a new solution.

As part of these interviews, it is also essential to validate your assumptions about the target customer profile. You must record the selected demographic information and behavioral characteristics of each interviewee. Do they fit your initial assumptions about the customer? It does not matter whether you focus on a specific customer segment; in fact, diversity can be useful at this point. You will begin to see how people with different demographics and characteristics perceive the problem, solution, and expected value.

The Interview Questions

Now you are ready to generate the questions you plan to ask during the customer interview. I suggest that you create a short series of questions that guide the customer to describe their experience as a story. For example: Tell me about the last time you experienced said problem or job-to-be-done?. As the customer describes their experience, probe for details about the problem, its timeframe, the severity of pain points, specific actions, and the customer’s emotional state throughout the experience.

Your questions should be mostly open-ended, allowing the customer to openly and freely drive the conversation without being led by any of your preconceived notions. I have listed some starting questions for each area to get you started. Once you have created your interview script, it is time to identify people who meet your customer profile.

After you have structured your interview questions, you should conduct 2–3 test interviews as a practice run. During these test sessions, you can see how the customer responds to the questions. You are soliciting the kind of information required to validate your assumptions about the problem, current solutions applied, and the desired benefits of an effective solution for hoped for by the customer. For these test interviews, you can practice with people you know, as long as they generally meet your target customer profile.

Finding Initial Interviewees

Once you have refined the interview questions based on these practice sessions, then identify the first ten customers you plan to speak with regarding the problem. These interviewees should be individuals that meet your general customer profile as you currently understand it but who are not previously known to you. You are now looking for actual early customers who are actively looking to solve the problem and have an urgent reason to speak to someone about their experience in an unbiased manner. This selection criterion is the only way to maximize your learning about the customer’s needs and solution requirements. 

As a starting point, list ten potential customers and their contact information. Once you have your questions organized, schedule a time to speak with each of these customers. Of course, you will need to talk to many more customers during the discovery process, but these first ten people can provide you with a sense of whether you are on to something or not. It also helps to evaluate whether you are asking the right questions to the right customers.

It is essential to acknowledge that business-to-business customers (B2B) can often be challenging to pin down and schedule time on their calendars. You might be lucky to find even a small number of business owners or executives willing to meet with you in some cases. Your experience with engaging B2B customers can be an authentic learning experience for you. The responsiveness or lack thereof are data points and early feedback for you to assess. It would be best if you did not jump to immediate conclusions. You will be looking for evidence as to the business’ interest in solving the problem. Is there a strong interest and immediate need to solve the problem, or is it low on a priority list? Are you targeting the right business segment, or are you reaching the right decision-maker? Again, don’t jump to conclusions; take early responses as data to be interpreted as you solicit more and more information.

After you have had the opportunity to interview the first ten target customers, you can take stock of what you are learning about the customer, the problem, its current solution, and what value they will expect from practical solutions. Summarize what you have discovered to date, assess where you stand by validating your core assumptions, and decide how to proceed with your business model’s continued development. Conduct a debrief after every 10–20 interviews until you begin to see common customer response patterns. 

There are many other elements of the interview process to consider. These considerations include finding your target customers to interview, articulating the purpose for the interview, and the most effective ways to conclude the interview.

Finding your target customers can be challenging. For this reason, I ask aspiring entrepreneurs to assess early in the process the degree of access they have to potential customers. Even in the best of circumstances finding a large number of willing interviewees is difficult. There are many ways to reach your target customer, starting with your network of friends, family, and professional acquaintances. Linkedin and other social media platforms can be useful at the start. You want to capitalize on your network to help introduce you to people you don’t know— – their friends, families, and connections. Depending on the problem you are trying to solve, there are always specific online communities or associations to recruit target customers. Students have great success with placing targeted ads on social media platforms to solicit interested parties. You learn a great deal from understanding where you have the best success in reaching your interviewees. Keeping track of where your potential customers heard about the interview provides early insight into the more effective ways to access them in the future. This informations will help you create an early market entry strategy and inform you what promotional channels will be most effective.

Introductions and Closings

The next vital element to consider is the optimal way to introduce the purpose of the interview. You will want to consider how to introduce yourself and the reasons for wanting an interview without biasing how the target customer will respond to the questions. I always worry that if customers know that you are an entrepreneur, they will want to know what your product is and how it works, and so on. For this reason, I suggest that you introduce yourself as someone who is researching a specific problem and looking to understand it better from people with the proper experience. This introduction allows you to stay focused on the problem and not lead to questions about your specific solution.

There are a few essential questions that you can ask as you conclude your interview session. Start with a recap that communicates to your potential customer that you have listened carefully. It also gives you a chance to check if there is anything else on the customer’s mind. Try this: – “In summary, it sounds like this part of the job/task is quite challenging to deal with, while some of the other aspects cause less concern. Is there anything else about this task/job/challenge that I should have asked?”
The second ending question ascertains if they are interested in following your progress and learning more about your work. Something like: – “Thank you for sharing your experience with me. Would you be interested in staying in touch? I want to share the findings from the research and any next steps planned in the future with you.” Of course, this questioning line helps to validate exactly how interested they are in the problem and your work on it. A final question can focus on expanding your respondent pool by checking if they are willing to refer you to someone they know who is experiencing the problem. You may ask: Try – “Do you know anyone also interested in solving this problem? Would you mind providing an introduction?”

Next Up

The next post will take a look at how to expand your knowledge about your early customers through surveys. 

For more on this subject and other entrepreneurship topics, get a copy of Patterns of Entrepreneurship Management, 6th Edition.

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