All Customers Are Not Created Equal – Consumers, SMBs, Tech Startups

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.