Customer Development Interviews How-to: What You Should Be Learning

I wrote earlier about finding people for your customer development interviews.

Once you’ve found people for your interviews, you’re probably thinking, “Great, I can ask them if they’d use my product!”


OK, you’re thinking, “then what should I ask them?”

A better way to think about it is, what should I be learning from this interview?

It’s really important to understand the philosophy behind the customer development interview, particularly because it runs so counter to entrepreneurial instincts.  Be direct. Act. Get stuff done.  You ask questions, you get “70% good” information, you decide.  But when it comes to identifying a problem and potential solutions, the direct approach doesn’t really work.

Why? Because people are too polite to say ‘no’.  Because people can’t imagine technologies that don’t exist yet.  Because people overestimate how much effort they’re willing to put into something.  Because people think incremental, not disruptive.  Plenty of reasons.  Let’s accept this and move on.

So, what should I be learning from the customer development interview?

  • How is your customer currently dealing with this task/problem?  (What solution/process are they using?)
  • What do they like about their current solution/process?
  • Is there some other solution/process you’ve tried in the past that was better or worse?
  • What do they wish they could do that currently isn’t possible or practical?
  • If they could do [answer to the above question], how would that make their lives better?
  • Who is involved with this solution/process?  How long does it take?
  • What is their state of mind when doing this task?  How busy/hurried/stressed/bored/frustrated? [note: learn this by watching their facial expressions and listening to their voice]
  • What are they doing immediately before and after their current solution/process?
  • How much time or money would they be willing to invest in a solution that made their lives easier?

The important thing about these questions is that they set up an environment where the customer is the “expert”.  They avoid yes/no answers, and give people the opportunity to tell a story – one that may trigger them to think of related problems they’re having, or may trigger more questions from you to ask later.

These questions are applicable for both consumer and enterprise products.  (I’ve used this question list on B2B internal tools, B2B2C consumer-facing apps, and B2C widgets.)

Can you give me an example?

These questions make a lot more sense when applied to a concrete example, so I’ll make one up: an online grocery shopping application. Your hypothesis is that busy households need a better way of making sure they don’t run out of things and don’t have to make a zillion trips to the market.  You’ve found customers to talk to – now you need to understand how they feel/behave when it comes to grocery shopping.

“Tell me about how your household handles grocery shopping…”

Whether they describe a detailed or haphazard process, this is your competition.  This is what you have to be substantially better than, in order to get customers to change their behavior.

“How is that process working for you?”

If you’re lucky, a customer may launch immediately into a rant on how they’re always running out of Cheerios or spending too much because they have to buy milk at the overpriced corner store.  If not, you may gently prompt them with triggers like “Do you generally have the ingredients you need to make dinner?” or “How much time do you spend shopping?”

Validation check: they might not care enough to change their current habits, even if they’re not 10o% optimal.

“Have you tried other approaches, like online grocery delivery or keeping a list on your iPhone?”

Customers who have tried other approaches = a good sign that this is enough of a problem that they’re motivated to fix it.

Validation check: Even if your customer thinks they spend too much time grocery shopping, if they’ve never tried any approach to fix this, then they don’t care enough to try your product. (On the other hand, if they have tried other things, you should try to learn why these other approaches didn’t help or were unsustainable.)

“If you could improve anything about your grocery shopping routine, what would it be?”

If customers don’t immediately have an idea, you could gently prompt with “spend less time, less money, have fresher/healthier foods on hand…?”

This question is going to prompt people to jump to solutions (like “I want a cost comparison tool”), rather than articulating their problems, so you need to immediately follow up with:

“If you had a cost comparison tool, how would that make your life easier?”

(basically, the 5-Whys approach)  You want to discover what’s at the root of this suggestion – is it more important that they pay the lowest prices, or do they want to cut down on trips to several different grocery stores, etc.

Validation check: if they really can’t articulate why this solution would make their lives better, it probably won’t.

“What people in your household buy groceries?”

These are the potential stakeholders of your solution.  This can also open up insights – if your customer says “I do all the shopping, but I wish my teenage kids could pitch in too”, that’s an area ripe for product exploration: how can we help division of labor? how can we shift simple tasks from the time-constrained/expensive resource to a “cheaper” one?

“What do you do immediately before you go grocery shopping?”

This is a great way to find ways to differentiate your product – to most people, grocery shopping starts when you walk through those electronic sliding doors.  But to your customer, it might start with asking your wife and kids what they need, making a list, looking up recipes online, or getting the baby changed and buckled into her carseat.

(Your product probably won’t solve for the baby thing, but it gives you insight into your customers’ state of mind – how busy they are, how stressed, do they only have one free hand to use…?)

“What do you do immediately after you go grocery shopping?”

Again, to your customer, grocery shopping isn’t over until the frozen foods are in the freezer and the cans in the cupboard.  This may reveal new product stakeholders: the 8- and 10-year old who never go to the grocery store, but who unload the car and put things away.

“Would you be willing to spend some money to get a cost comparison tool or other tools that would make your grocery shopping easier?”

If the customer says yes, suggest an amount (“say, $10 a month?”)

Validation check: If the customer says ‘no’, or says ‘yes’ in a hesitant way, they’re not going to use your product.

And finally…

After all these questions, feel free to ask about your specific solution and how interesting the customer finds it.  Give them the opportunity to ask questions of you.  You never know where inspiration will strike!

55 thoughts on “Customer Development Interviews How-to: What You Should Be Learning

  1. I was wondering if you ever considered changing the page layout of your blog? Its very well written; I love what youve got to say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for only having one or two images. Maybe you could space it out better?
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  2. Great post, Cindy.
    We’re launching a new service, as much to get experience and test startup theory as to test the service itself. We’re in the early stages and balancing reading with doing, and this is a great “Coles Notes” to customer development questions.

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