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Defining a successful customer conversation

I've been exploring the ideas published by Rob Fitzpatrick in The Mom Test. Although he's speaking to startup founders, many of his ideas have strong application for all customer research and business development. 

When talking to customers about our business, we have to get information, even if that it's a "no," because NO is valuable feedback. Here's a range of things we ought to ask for:

  • Hard data about the customers business (i.e., sales are down/up 20%)
  • Goals the customer is working toward
  • Obstacles the customer is encountering
  • Other people we should talk to (actual connections, not theoretical)
  • Workarounds the customer is using
  • Actual amount of money the customer is losing to a problem
  • How is the customer currently handling challenges. 

Seedcamp: Tips from Rob Fitzpatrick on how not to Fail at Customer Interviews, 2015-Sep, by Michael Zirngibl

Every successful customer conversation or interview needs to have a commitment of sorts by the customer. ...

If your interview does NOT end with a ‘NO’, you as the startup founder most likely haven’t done a good enough job or wasted an opportunity asking for the right amount of commitment.

This is the startup founder version of the Sales ‘ABC’ (-> Always Be Closing), but frequently is forgotten, since a lot of founders have a tendency to feel that simply getting ‘confirmation’ from potential customers is sufficient validation for their own brilliance.

The feedback on your product you received from a person who is not willing to give you any meaningful commitment in return for your time, does not deserve any prioritization.


Rob recommended that each of the key signals listed below (along with strong associated emotions) should immediately prompt a set of smart and focused follow-on questions to further clarify the customer situation and hopefully lead to a realistic assessment if and how your product fits into the specific context.

Numbers – if the customer mentions a specific metric critical in their business

Goals – if the customer is able to articulate a key objective (especially ones that affect them personally)

Obstacle – if the customer mentions specific real world challenges that prevent them from being as smart, fast or efficient in their job as they could be

Person – if the customer mentions a specific person or role in their organization that is particularly impacted by an inefficient process

Workaround – if a customer mentions specific ‘hacks’ or other steps they take to get to a specific result or to circumvent an inefficient process

Actual Amounts of money – often the ‘kingmaker’ of all interview results – if a customer can identify a specific amount of money lost repeatedly because of inefficient processes (that could be addressed by your startup’s product).

Rob concluded his session by putting his finding and recommendations in the broader context of a S.P.I.N. selling (Situation, Problem, Implication, Need-payoff) strategy, one of the most commonly used sales methodologies used in the Western world and shared with us the most important question for every customer interview:

“What are you doing about [it] now?”

The more efforts, resources or money the customer puts into workarounds to address a specific problem, the better your chances that they will jump at and pay for your startup’s solution, when you’re finally ready to address their specific needs. 


The pitfalls of being a problem solver

When I arrived at Columbia Business School, I was delighted to discover that every subject was just about solving problems. Instead of explaining things, we we always expected to propose solutions. Of course, the problem with business school is we seldom had the opportunity to execute a solution, and even if we did, we weren't around long enough to see if it really worked. 

When I look back, I realize I have often gotten hung up on my solution. But now I've found the right perspective... there's always another problem (and sometimes it's coming from our solution). 

Medium: The BOOTSTART Manifesto, 2016-Jan-4 by Ash Maurya

Love the Problem, Not Your Solution

It starts with a fundamental mind shift. Your customers don’t care about your solution but their goals. Identify the problems or obstacles that get in the way of their goals, and you identify the right solution to build.

Having more passion for your solution than for your customer’s problem, is a problem.


"Problems are inevitable and solvable" says optimist Chris Anderson

Just getting ready for today's problems!

Ozy: The Man Behind TED Talks on Persuasive Speaking, 2016-Apr-19 by Neil Parmar

Optimism is the stance that problems are there to be solved, that problems are actually solvable and that if you want an operating manual for life, you carve two tablets: One of them says problems are inevitable, and the other says problems are solvable. It’s kind of a great way to stay calm and keep moving.


Investors have a lot of investments, but entrepreneurs have only one life

Recently, I've been talking to many people about possible projects and jobs. They are distressed when I tell them my hourly rate. They respond... so consider that you're hardly making anything now, wouldn't a lower rate be better than nothing??? Uh, no. (Explained below.)

VentureBeat: Why I turned down 500k, pissed off my investors and shut down my startup, 2016-Jun-9 by Tim Romero

I am not particularly risk-averse, but I pay attention to risk and reward. As an investor, I probably would have told me to take the money and try to make it work. But the risk-reward equation for investors is different than it is for founders.

I was deciding whether this venture was worth committing to another year of 70+ hour weeks. I need a higher level of certainty than investors do because my time is more valuable to me than their money is to them. Investors place bets in a portfolio of companies, but I only have one life.

Thinking of you, Orlando...


Advice to heed before you give or take advice

Sharing our problems and challenges is a great way to build trust. Unfortunately, that behavior inspires many people to try and solve our problems. If you have that inclination please squelch it. And if you can't, consider these words. The whole article is highly recommended--learn the context of this advice!

First Round Review: Advice is Cheap--Context is Priceless, 2016-April by Hiten Shah

Good advice takes pattern recognition and selection, but with that, comes the tendency to rigidly categorize people alongside their situations.

So here’s the mantra of the advice giver: don’t react. Ask yourself how to advise in a way where you’re not judging, so others will remain open to what you’re going to say. That starts with you being open to what they’re saying, too.