With existing customers – whether they’re individual consumers or multimillion-dollar organizations – you have the burden of existing expectations and ongoing relationships.  Whatever happens in your customer development interview, you’re going to have to answer their phone calls or emails tomorrow.

That doesn’t have to be painful – in fact, customer development will often strengthen those relationships.  But there are some things to keep in mind if you want to maximize how productive your conversations are.

Large enterprise customers

  • Expect anything they see to look ‘good’. This doesn’t mean that you need to show a working app — trust me, big company folks are plenty accustomed to being sold products by PowerPoint deck — but it does mean that you should spend a few hours or days turning your Balsamiq wireframes into visuals that are simple, specific, and polished-looking.   Don’t use lorem ipsum (fake text), take the time to write the actual text that a customer might see.  Don’t use clip art.  Correct your typos.   If you don’t, you’ll immediately take a credibility hit.
  • Need a memorable narrative. These folks are constantly being pitched.  They don’t trust lists of features. They tune out jargon like “best-of-breed”.  What they’ll remember is a story. Tell a story that shows that you understand their business and their day-to-day work: “Let’s say you have a sales rep, Jill, and here’s what Jill does each day when she…”
  • Might be offended by “no”.  Companies who pay out million-dollar purchase orders often expect that money to buy them some clout.  This means that saying “no” may end the conversation abruptly (or cause them to escalate a complaint up to execs, pronto). It’s critical to show that you are listening and understanding their concerns.  Then use some careful wording to say ‘no’ without saying ‘no’.
  • Are often pleasantly surprised by being asked “why”. All enterprise customers have been burned by hearing “yes” and then finding out that that “yes” has a lot of exceptions or additional cost.  Having someone who actually listens, and asks thoughtful questions, may shock them into revealing a lot more about how their business works.
  • Offended by being told what to do. A multimillion dollar widget-making company does not want to hear from you that they’re making widgets wrong.  Be humble.  Showing off or trying to pull rank will fail.  Acknowledge that the customer is the expert, and you’re the one trying to understand.  (Note: this is always good advice.)
  • Have a lot of stakeholders. The end-user is probably not the buyer.  The decision-maker is probably not the implementer.  You will need to talk to a lot more people in order to validate your assumptions.   You will also need to approach them in different ways (the way marketers perform due diligence or assess your credibility is usually very different from how the IT department does it.)

Existing customers

  • Are really easy to get in touch with. There’s a perception that customers “don’t want to be bothered”, and I don’t know where this comes from.  This has never been my experience!  As long as you’re clear that you’re not trying to sell something, current customers are usually eager to talk to you.  Remember, they have already invested a lot of effort in learning your product – it’s in their best interest for you to thrive as a company.
  • Their top priority is their current product/service. Have you ever been to a concert where the artist kept playing all the songs from his new album instead of the greatest hits that you wanted to sing along with?   Start by answering their existing questions, and make sure you learn as much as possible about how they’re using your current product or service.  Once you’ve covered that, they will be far more receptive to answering questions about potential new use cases or products.
  • Hate change. Hold off on the mockups for as long as possible.  You want the customer to recognize that they have a problem first, before you threaten them with something new and different.
  • Need reassurance that you’re not going to de-prioritize or drop their current product. If they think that answering your questions might cause you to stop working on your current product (remember, the one they have already invested effort in learning), it’s going to be a short and pointless conversation.  You can cut this off before it starts by immediately reassuring them that their current product is safe, that this is early/exploratory research.
  • Are biased by what they’re already using. They have strong opinions on the solutions they want, and are highly motivated to push those solutions instead of talking about the problems.  I can’t emphasize this enough.  What they’re using, works. They’re already paying you for it.  Talking about changes, upgrades, redesigns, improvements – all of these raise customer hackles.  You must focus them on describing their existing behaviors and tease out their problems.

It can sometimes feel awkward to ask existing customers for a formal interview.  Luckily, you don’t have to.  I recommend piggybacking on your existing customer touchpoints.  Account managers can observe and ask “why” questions during their scheduled calls.  Customer support staff can continue a conversation beyond the initial request.  Social media managers who are already monitoring tweets and comments can spot good customers to interview or subjects to follow up on.

Find this post useful? I’ve written much, much more in my new book, Lean Customer Development.
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You can practice customer development on all types of customers.  But you can’t treat them all exactly the same.

“The rules are different when you’re talking to large enterprise customers,” say enterprise organizations.

This doesn’t work when you’re dealing with customers who are already using your products and have certain expectations,” say small business owners.

“You can’t experiment when you’re subject to laws and restrictions,” say product people in heavily regulated industries.

Yes and no.  YES, the techniques I write about on this blog WILL work on your customers.    NO, you can’t blindly apply them in the same way to all types of customers.

So how DO you approach your target customer?  What tactics will you need to adapt or omit?

In this post, I’ll talk about interviewing these customer types:

  • Consumers.  B2C. Someone who is going to directly pay for your product or service.
  • Small business owners.  Someone who is an expert in their field but likely to be technically novice (or just ambivalent towards it)
  • Technology startups. Someone who seeks out novel solutions and embraces change.

Much of “what works” in customer development is universal – it’s social psychology. But as I’ve worked with and mentored companies across a huge variety of customer types, these are some “differences” patterns I’ve noticed.


  • “Cold contact” methods are much less effective. Consumers tend to be more suspicious that you’re trying to sell them or scam them; they can also be fearful that a cold email means their privacy has been violated somehow.
  • More likely to be polite than honest. Talking to a person in a consumer context is seen as more of a social engagement than a business one — and most people have been trained to be pleasant and avoid conflict in social situations.   Any question that can be answered with “yes” — will be.  “How” and “why” questions will allow consumers to be more honest without feeling uncomfortable.
  • Cost matters much, much more. It’s also more situational.  It only makes sense, right? If I’m paying for a product myself (as opposed to charging it to my company), I’m going to think a lot about parting with my $5 or $500.   (The opposite also applies: I might tell you a product isn’t worth the money, but after a tiring emotional day I might deem it worth a spur-of-the-moment splurge.)
  • Time is undervalued. Most people are terrible at estimating how much time they spend on a certain task, how much time they waste, how long they spend on various activities.   In a work environment, we are more likely to have deadlines, be paid hourly, fill out timesheets – any of those activities make people at least somewhat more aware of their time usage.
  • Don’t forget about “external stakeholders”! Just because a consumer doesn’t need to seek approval from their boss or finance department doesn’t mean there aren’t additional people who can and will veto your product.  Family members may refuse to use a new product; friends may express disapproval of changes.

Small and mid-sized non-technology businesses

  • Be specific and concrete.  You’re competing with the customers already walking in the door and the processes that already work ‘good enough’ to service them. Asking about specific tactical activities and outcomes is more likely to engage SMB folks than aspirational/”vision” concepts.
  • Too busy to simply be motivated by “feeling smart”.  I originally wrote this as “less motivated by…” That’s not quite accurate: it’s just that SMB owners are too busy to only appeal to their vanity!  Offer them value like answering questions, sharing data, sharing curated content, making introductions for them – that’s how you’ll get them to agree to give you some of their time to talk.
  • “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mindset. If consumers are more likely to say “yes” (even if they don’t really mean it), SMB people are more likely to say “no”.  There are fewer people to absorb the impact of a learning curve or cleaning up a failed experiment.

Technology startups

  • Harder to keep them focused on PROBLEM not solution. We can’t help it.  We spend our days building and designing, so we naturally slip into talking about solutions.  You’ll need to actively refocus the conversation, maybe many times, on the what/when/why questions.
  • Easiest to reach via “cold contact” methods. As long as you’re brief, non-spammy, and respectful, you’ll get a high response rate from emails, Twitter, and follow-ups from finding people on social media/topical forums.
  • Overly optimistic/aspirational. We set really high goals for ourselves, which often means we’ll tell you about all the things we want to do, intend to do, aspire to do … but never actually get around to.    Like the consumer segment, if we can answer ‘yes’ to a question, we will.
  • We like sounding smart AND information. You can get an initial conversation with a technology startup person just because we love talking and thinking about stuff.  But you can build an ongoing relationship by following up with a summary of your learnings, intel on what other companies are doing (anonymized, of course), or offering us sneak previews of what’s coming next.


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