How the Customer Interview Illuminates Innovation

Often our most painful experiences lead to our best lessons. Here’s a story of an awkward moment that inspired one of the most widely used practices in modern innovative thinking.

Steve Blank is the creator of the original Lean Startup methodology, a movement that started in the early 2000s and is now used by modern startups as well as established companies. At its core is the iterative development of products, where each iteration is highly informed by customer feedback. This iterative feedback is what Blank calls “Customer Development.” Blank is famous in Silicon Valley, having been a serial entrepreneur beginning in the 1980s, and his ideas around understanding and speaking with customers have become a mantra for startups. But he originally got the idea from a tough and abusive boss.

In the late ’80s, Blank was an experienced marketer within the computer science industry and he had recently joined Ardent, a supercomputer startup. One morning Ardent leadership met to discuss the specs for a new supercomputer design. They explored the necessary trade-offs between what would be feasible and what the customers (in this new market) might want. Engineers around the table dove into computing details like double-buffering, 24 vs 32-bits of color, etc. And Blank, as the marketer, chimed in with the customer point of view as he knew it, “I think our customers will want 24-bits of double-buffered graphics.” At that moment silence filled the conference room. The Ardent CEO turned to him and asked, “What did you say?” Blank, feeling very proud of himself, repeated the statement and confidently went on to add all the reasons why customers wanted this feature. The 15 leaders around the table remained silent. CEO Alan H. Michaels, who had a long history of startup successes, responded quietly, “That’s what I thought you said. I just wanted to make sure I heard it correctly.”

And then everything changed for Blank. Michaels continued, but this time he screamed, “You don’t know a damn thing about what these customers need! You’ve never talked to anyone in this market, you don’t know who they are, you don’t know what they need, and you have no right to speak in any of these planning meetings.” Blank went white with shock and embarrassment. Michaels kept going, “We have a technical team assembled in this room that have been talking to these customers since before you were born, and they have a right to an opinion. You are a disgrace to the marketing profession.” Blank felt about ‘6 inches tall’ and then it got worse, “Get out of this conference room and out of my company, you’re wasting our time!” With that, Blank shrunk even more and got up to leave, when Michaels then added, “I want you out of the building…talking to customers, find out who they are, how they work, and what we need to do to sell them lots of these new computers.”

When Blank reflects on this moment he says that he did not appreciate the yelling, but adds, “…I’ve learned over time that the smarter the person you are dealing with and the larger the ego, sometimes the message has to be delivered with more than a memo. If it had been a memo I wouldn’t have heard it.” And with Michaels’ direction, Blank went out of the building and spent time with customers, one-on-one. He met with the inventors of the IBM 360, he went to Brown University, Boeing, NASA, and spoke with potential supercomputer customers.

This experience became the basis for Customer Development and the Lean Startup. As Blank puts it: “No facts exist inside the building, only opinions.”

This might seem obvious, but in my experience working within established companies, as well as startups, very few people commit the time and due diligence when connecting with their customers and end users. There are two challenges that continually get in the way:

1) The curse of knowledge, a psychological phenomenon where we forget what it was like to not know everything about our product, and this “curse” results in wrongly predicting what our users want, need or even understand.

2) Connecting with customers is not about yet another focus group or just sitting down with your product user and ask for their opinion. Rather, Customer Development is about conducting well curated one-on-one conversations.

Today, more than 20 years since Michaels schooled Blank on understanding customers, there is a new formal process to the one-on-one customer interview. Past methods are riddled with dangerous biases. You cannot simply ask people what they want because that rarely leads to an innovative solution. As Henry Ford is quoted saying, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said, a faster horse.” And old-school focus groups are compromised due to compensation and ‘group think’. Even during one-on-one conversations, if you frame questions a certain way, as in, “So do you like this chair?” you will almost always get a, “Yeah, sure.” Even if they hate it.

People are also incompetent historians of their own behavior. They’ll say they lead a healthy lifestyle, despite smoking on weekends and eating chocolate croissants every morning. People will say they’ll pay for something but then at the moment of purchase everything changes. People will even be wrong about their problems, saying that finding a new solution is a top priority, when in fact they have a mile-long list of other urgencies ahead of it. So how do we receive accurate data in our discussions with customers?

There are many ways to write up the basic questions and much depends on the product, but the ever present rule is never mention your product. The customer interview is not about you or your product but rather about them, uncovering their needs and their unmet desires.

Here’s a list of the standard rules for interviewing customers in the lean customer development model:

– No leading questions. Instead ask open-ended questions. e.g., Don’t ask, “Are you a healthy eater?” Ask, “Tell me what you ate for dinner last week?”

– Focus on stories and experiences. e.g., “Tell me about your last trip.”

– Focus on past behavior. e.g., Don’t ask, “Will you do more of X in the coming month?” Ask, “How frequently did you do X last month?”

– Do not lead the interviewee. e.g., Don’t ask, “Do you like this app?” Ask, “What do you think about this app?”

– Ask “Why?” or “Tell me more” often.

– Use silence. People will open up more when you remain silent.

– Pay attention to anything that surprised you, any contradictions, and any failure or success stories.

– Pay attention to emotions. When you see an emotional reaction, stop and ask a question about it.

Here is a standard set of questions that can work for most products and services.

Tell me about your recent experience with [insert specific task, procedure, product, experience].

Describe the best part.

Describe the worst part.

Tell me more about that.

What have you done to solve that problem?

How satisfied are you with that solution?

How important (urgent) is it for you to find a better solution? (Relative to other current priorities, ask them to rate importance on a scale from 1-5)

Why is that?

I heard you say x, y, z [summarize some key statements] — is that accurate?

Is there anything else you would like to tell me about your [experience/process]?

Try these rules and questions with your next customer conversation, and if you haven’t started scheduling regular calls with a sample set then I recommend booking a day to do it. I know the time and resources spent on having these conversations will pay off not only for your current products and their successful use, but with innovative sparks into the next decade.


Source: core77

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