Having a hard time getting face-to-face meetings with prospective customers?

Most likely, the people you’re asking aren’t too busy.  You’re just not asking them the right way.

Most people are happy to help with feedback or advice.   But we’re often multitasking.  We’re probably reading emails on our phones while doing something else.  We try to avoid making mistakes.

And the busiest people have limited time and they would prefer to spend that time on helping you with your interesting challenges, not on trying to decipher a meeting request or figure out administrative details.

It may seem presumptuous to not ask for a favor AND ask that it be done in a specific manner in a specific timeframe.  But it’s actually making life easier for the person you’re asking.  Hammering out where and when to meet, or which format to write up an answer in, or which tool to use is not flexibility, it’s busywork. 

To be as considerate as possible and maximize your response rate, here’s what you do:

1) Tell me Who and Why

State who you are and why you’re contacting the person.  If you have a shared contact or subject matter, this is where to state it:

  • “My name is Cindy Alvarez, and I’m the product manager for KISSmetrics.  Hiten Shah suggested I talk with you about ______.”
  • “My name is _________, and I’m a designer who is interested in startups.  I’ve been reading your blog and was hoping I could talk to you about ________.”

This may sound ridiculously obvious, but I can point you to a bunch of emails in my inbox that didn’t start this way.  Yes, I can read the subject line of the email; I can google someone.  Why should I have to?  (Remember, people are universally busy and distracted.)

2) I’m hoping to learn…

Give a 1-2 sentence summary of what you are hoping to learn or accomplish from this exchange.

I don’t like committing to meetings or calls where I don’t know what the person wants.   I may not be able to help (Which wastes time for both of us.  Also makes me feel stupid, and if you’ve been reading this blog for long, you know that “avoidance of feeling stupid” is pretty much the driving force of human motivation.)

  • “I have been trying to do customer development and would like to hear more about how I should do _________ and __________.”
  • “I’d like to get some honest feedback on my ________ document.”

3) Here’s how we can connect…

Give 2-3 options of when, where, and how to meet so the person can easily just pick one.

This involves a little bit of proactive research on your part.  Figure out which city the person lives/works in (not always possible, but you can certainly try).  If you’re in a metro area, you’ll want to find venues that are convenient for both public transit and cars (i.e. readily available parking).  You’ll want to make sure there is enough space that you can get a table.  You may need wifi.

Does this sound like a lot of work?  It is, and that’s why you should do it instead of implicitly tacking it on to the favor you’re asking.

An example may look like this:

I’d love to get a half-hour of your time to talk over coffee.  Does one of these suggestions work for you?

  • 9:30am on Tues, May 10 at Greenhouse Cafe in West Portal [yelp link]
  • 3pm on Thurs, May 12 at Farley’s Coffeehouse in Potrero Hill [yelp link]
  • 11:30am on Fri, May 13 at Starbucks near the Metreon [yelp link]
  • Feel free to suggest another time — my limitation is that I don’t have a car, but I can get anywhere within San Francisco between 9am-4pm.

This gives the recipient all of the necessary information they need to make a decision: expected time outlay, times they can check against their calendar, locations (so they don’t schedule back-to-back meetings on opposite ends of town).

Odds are, this will eliminate the need for playing email tag to set up a meeting.  But even if they can’t accept one of your suggestions, you’ve laid your limitations so that they can easily propose an alternative that is likely to work.

(Second only to “avoiding feeling stupid”, I think that “avoiding back-and-forth emails” may be another of the main driving forces of human motivation.)

So, what’s the +1?

It doesn’t affect your odds of landing an initial meeting, but it certainly increases your odds of getting future ones.

Say Thanks AND Summarize What You Learned

Most people are pretty practiced at sending a thank you note after a meeting.

But what really stands out is when someone takes the extra few moments to summarize what they’ve learned from you.   This tells me a couple things — one, that you were actually listening; and two, how I could continue to help you in the future.

An example might look like:

Thank you for your time today!  I was particularly grateful for the next steps you laid out in terms of how to interview additional customers and what survey questions we can ask to learn ______ and _______.  I’m going to share my notes with my team, and we plan to start on ______ next week.

When we have a draft of _______ ready, may I share it with you?  I’d love to get your feedback and ensure that I’m applying what I learned from you correctly.

And yes – someone who has already spent their time talking to you really is interested in continuing to do so.  Think of it like investing: having bought a couple shares of you, I certainly want to see your stock price continue to rise.

Find this post useful? I’ve written much, much more in my new book, Lean Customer Development.
You should get Lean Customer Development now!

Who are the customers of your product?

Whether you’re practicing customer development or you’ve identified a market segment through other means, you probably have a pretty clear idea of who will be using your product.  At the very least, you have a good guess. You know their pain points, what frustrates them, their highest priorities.

  • So, that customer is 100% empowered to purchase your product, right?
  • He’s 100% capable of downloading, installing, or configuring your product, right?
  • She has 100% support in requiring her coworkers to learn a new tool or adapt to a new workflow, right?
  • He has 100% confidence that his family will change their behavior to use your service, right?

Well, then you’re all set!


I can think of very few purchasing decisions – even consumer products that are primarily used by me – where I am the only stakeholder.

For the other 99% of us, there are hidden customers that we need to understand as well.

Do you know the pain points, frustrations, time constraints, and priorities of:

  • The boss (who approves spending)
  • The developer (who is going to have to install this thing and probably change some configurations somewhere)
  • The security/privacy officer (who needs to understand how this thing works and make sure it won’t violate some contractual obligation they have in place with their partners)
  • The co-workers (who are going to have to learn this new thing)
  • The family members (who are used to what they’re already using)
  • The peers (whose social approval or lack thereof can affect purchases or ongoing usage)

The first few items are pretty software-specific, but even for a physical product there are other stakeholders.  You’re asking them to understand something, learn something, or change their behavior in some way — and even if it’s a small way, it is an effort.  Ignoring them is like asking them to sabotage your sales attempts.

The importance of the hidden customers varies tremendously with price and sales/distribution model.

If you’re working in a multi-sided market, then you have to develop each customer base.  Some businesses try to capture one “side” first, and then use the clout of that audience to appeal to the other audience.  (i.e. most free consumer services that plan to monetize via advertising, sponsorship, or ‘we’ll figure it out later)  That feels risky, though, and the whole point of customer development and lean startup tactics is to reduce your risk.  A better approach may be the one that marketing company LaunchBit did – to zigzag back and forth between talking to and offering MVPs to a couple of advertisers, then a couple of content providers, and so on.  (I feature LaunchBit in a sidebar in my book, Lean Customer Development).

But for many organizations, the other customers are not the primary stakeholders.  That’s why they’re likely to be “hidden”!  Uncovering them requires you to ask a lot of “who” questions when you conduct your interviewers: Who else has this problem? Who do you work with in this situation?  Who needs to approve purchases like this?  Then be sure to ask your interviewee for introductions to those people!

Find this post useful? I’ve written much, much more in my new book, Lean Customer Development.
You should get Lean Customer Development now!