Found|Read – simple, effective advice. I know it works as I tried it.

The Secret…

(not Oprah’s) … to talking to customers before you have a product — or even a company

By mike simonsen, July 20, 2007  —  3 Comments

Everyone founder knows they need to “talk to customers” and “get customer feedback” before they get too far. The other day on FOUND|READ Wil Schroter pointed out that you should talk to customers as one of the first five things to do.

What’s less well understood is that customers often give lousy feedback. They’re unimaginative, stuck in the status quo, and distracted. They already manage their day without your product, and life will go on if you don’t exist. Henry Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers, they’d have said they wanted faster horses.”

How to guarantee that you’re getting good information out of your customer conversations?

It took me many years of pitching vaporware for venture-backed startups, and then co-foundig my own firm to discover The Secret: Use the Present Tense.

When conducting reconnaissance with customers for your as-yet-unbuilt product, speak about it in the present tense. This is what the product does. This is how much it costs. (Even though it doesn’t, yet.) And be specific.

Definitely never ask: “What do you want the product to do?” or “How much would you pay?” Customers have no idea what they want. But they know they don’t want to pay for it.

Rather, when you use the present tense, you get immediate, usable feedback. In fact, the more specific you are about what your product “does” now, the better your results will be.

Compare the two techniques: Hypothetical v. Present Tense

You: “What what would you like our product to do?”
Customer: “What I’ve been thinking about is…X, Y, Z.” (Read: something totally wacky and way outside your vision or expertise.)

Present Tense:
You: “We’re building our company, here’s the problem we saw. So we built Product X. It does this and this and this.”
Customer: “But does it do X, Y, Z?” (Read: completely obvious incremental feature that you’ve totally missed so far.)
You: “Not yet, but that’s a great idea. Tell me more. How/when/why do you need that?”
(By your next customer meeting you can decide if the product “does” that too!)

The corollary is that describing your product this way, using the present tense draws out important pricing information you need, too. When a customer has a product that meets at least some of his needs, his next question is, “How much does it cost?”

Again, the right way to handle this is not, “How much would you spend?” He wants it to be free. The right way is to say, “It costs $X.” Your most valuable insight is in his reaction. Did he jump out of his chair? Cringe? Write it down? (Now we’re getting somewhere!) Again, specificity implies action-ability to the customer. Usable insights come from actions.

By the way, it’s perfectly OK to say the product isn’t yet available. Because the absolute best result you’ll get when talking to early customers is a question –”When can I get it?” (Bingo! Stop the Release 1 feature set right there.)

The present tense gives the customer a concrete object to grab onto. Using the present tense shows you’re for real. Customers don’t buy ideas, they buy things. Once he has the thing, you’ll learn what you came to learn. What his needs are, how your product fits his needs, and how much he pays for these types of things. Mission Accomplished.


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