3 ways to kickstart “customer development thinking” in less than 5 minutes

Customer development interviews take too long.*

Here are 3 exercises you can try today, that take less than 5 minutes each:

  • Respond with “how will…?” (like “why?”, but better)
  • Coworkers are customers, too
  • Who’s our customer? (2-minute alignment exercise)

Respond with “how will…?”

Whether you have one prospective customer or millions of engaged customers, you’ll get feature requests.   Next time you’re in that conversation, don’t answer with “yes” or “no” or “we’ll put it on the roadmap” – that’s a lost opportunity for learning.

Next time a customer asks for a feature, respond with “how will…?” – like this:

I see, you’re wondering when we’ll add the ability to customize our widgets. 

Just to be sure I’m clear on your needs…

Could you talk me through how that will make your life better?

Let’s break down those 3 sentences:

  • First, you acknowledge their request and confirm that you understood it correctly.
  • Next, you add some ‘verbal padding’ – without some pleasant filler, your how/why question may come across as accusatory or condescending.
  • Finally, you ask about the customer’s desired outcome.  At the end of the day, what do they want to happen / to be able to do?  How do they want their life to be better?

Not sure how this will work?  Here’s a video example:

 “How…?” > “Why…?” 

We’ve all heard of the “5 Whys”, and also – it’s hard to ask why without sounding accusatory.  It’s also easy to answer a “why?” question with “because your competitor offers it” or “because we’ll need it in the future” – answers that don’t reveal anything about the customer’s root problem. 

When you ask “How will that make your life easier?” or “How will that enable you to work differently?”, you’ll get to that root problem.

Coworkers are customers, too

Internal tools and processes are the fastest way to experiment with customer development! You’re surrounded by customers (your coworkers), they’re well aware of their pain points, and you can run and observe experiment results cheaply and quickly.

We tend to ignore internal tools and processes – not our core job responsibility. When something isn’t working well, we complain, find a hack or workaround, and get on with our jobs while the problem persists. Instead, we can use internal problems as customer development practice.

Coworker: Our bug filing process is so broken!

You:  Can I try something?  Pretend I’m a new person on the team – can you walk me through how you file a bug from start to finish? 

They might give you a funny look, or ask why, and you can tell them, “I’m trying to practice how I ask questions like this for when I talk with customers” and unless they’re in a hurry, they’ll probably oblige.

As they talk/describe, ask the follow-up questions that make sense:

  • What part about this takes the longest / is the most error-prone?
  • What would make this easier for you?
  • When do you typically do this task?
  • If you could wave a magic wand and make any part of this easier – doesn’t have to be possible – what would you change?

You’ll build a valuable skill that you can use in your “real job” – and more often that not, you’ll discover that you can feasibly fix something!

Who’s our customer?

When your whole team is aligned on who you’re building for and what problem you’re trying to solve, you’re unstoppable.  It’s also really hard to get aligned and stay aligned as new information comes in.

In your next team meeting or standup, you can use 2-3 minutes to do a quick exercise using the chat sidebar in your conferencing app.  (I’ve used FigJam or Mural when the team is already accustomed to working in whiteboard apps, but if not, the chat window works for anyone.)

2-minute alignment exercise (fits into any existing meeting)

You can say: I’d like to ask folks for 2 minutes to do a quick exercise and try something quickly.

I’m going to ask a question, and I want everyone to write their answer in the chat window but don’t hit send.  Then we’ll all hit return at the same time so everyone’s response appears at once.  I’ve got 3 questions and we’ll do one at a time.  OK?

First question: Who is our most important customer?    As in, we obviously want lots of types of customers to use and love our product – but if we had to only pick one customer to delight, who would that be?

Everyone have an answer?  Hit return – now! 

Second question: What is the most valuable problem we are solving for that customer?

Everyone have an answer?  Hit return – now! 

Third question:  What would an early indicator of success look like?  As in, if we see this behavior from customers or this metric, we know we’re on the way to solving the problem.

Here’s what will happen: you won’t all have the same answers.

In fact, some folks’ answers will be so different that you’ll wonder if they were in the same meetings and read the same docs as you.  This is normal.  It’s fixable. But most teams don’t realize that these misalignments exist, and so they have to work harder and longer and make more mistakes.

Sometimes there’s “one right answer” to these questions. Sometimes this leads to a longer conversation.  And in all cases, it saves time over the course of a project.

* Customer development interviews take too long – whaaaaat?

Let’s face it, when you’re just starting out, there’s a ton of overhead – you’ve got to:

  • find some customers
  • contact them
  • hope that at least one agrees
  • deal with scheduling and potentially time zone issues
  • figure out some questions, and then
  • conduct the actual interview. 

And you may be doing all of this while your peers or manager are skeptical that it’ll be worth the time.  No wonder I often hear “we keep meaning to talk to customers…”, “we’ll do some customer interviews once we’re finished with this crunch time…”.

Don’t let “perfect” be the enemy of “good — and done“. Try these steps above as your approachable starting point, today.