Don’t Forget the Hidden Customer(s)

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!