Talking to customers, especially early on, is the easiest way to create a product that people want. That’s how to deliver value. Your idea for a business might be great, but if you don’t know the words your customers use to describe their problems, or if the thing you’re solving is five inches away from the real problem, customers aren’t going to buy because you’re not striking the nerve. In fact, you’re missing the nerve completely. Asking them questions will help you cut that nerve wide open.
Since picking who to target will require a post of it’s own, this week I’ll just assume you already know a little about who you want to sell to. When I did this, my idea was for “pre funded startup founders.” I found their names by browsing the “Show HN” section of Hacker News, a place where new startup founders solicit feedback from the community on brand new companies. I went to the homepage of each site and guessed the founder’s email address based on his online information (it’s usually firstname.lastname@example.org). You can do this for any product. Go to a forum or a Facebook group where people who could use your product hang out, and click around til you find their emails.
Do that to get a list of 30 email addresses to contact. Then, get to work. Having multiple targets will stop you from getting depressed when the first 15 don’t respond.
1. Draft the email
Step one is writing an email that people want to respond to. This means making it short enough that it actually gets read, and making your customers interested by correctly identifying their problems. The goal of this initial email is only to get them on the phone, don’t try to close the sale on the first email.
This is the email I used. It got a 30% response rate from 40 people and got me on the phone with employees from Kissmetrics, Stumbleupon, Udemy and a few others. Tweak this so it fits what you’re doing:
Customer Development Script:
Subject: Hi from Alex
When I saw your company in <magazine or blog> I was blown away by what you guys are doing. Then I looked at your site, and realized you have a great app, but very few customers.
The good news is I’m working on a product right now that will help founders like you get more users to their sites. It would be great to get your opinion on a few things to make sure it’s the best product ever.
The call won’t take more than 10 minutes, and you don’t have to prep.
Are you free this Thursday afternoon or Friday?
Thanks again Steve,
P.S. If it’s easier, I can send you the questions via email.
2. Make sure you have a real Call to Action
Notice that last line? It’s “are you free this Thursday afternoon or Friday?” DO NOT GLANCE OVER THIS LINE. If you don’t have a strong call to action at the bottom, nobody’s going to get on the phone with you. At best, you’ll get emails saying “What questions do you have?” which will start an exchange that lasts for two days and ends with the potential customer ignoring you.
The worst case scenario is nobody replies. If that happens, rewrite the call to action, make sure it’s there, remove as many mentions to yourself as possible, and send emails to the same list again because they still have no idea who you are.
3. Get on the phone
The emails for setting a time are pretty easy to do. First, a customer will respond to your initial email with something like “Yes” or “Call Thursday at 10am,” here are scripts to deal with both cases:
If they don’t suggest a time:
Perfect! Can I call at 3pm Thursday?
If they do suggest a time:
Great! What’s a good number to call at 10am?
Now you’ll have a time scheduled and you’ll be ready to speak to future customers.
4. Ask the right questions
Once you get on the phone, it’s very important you not blow the opportunity. I mean, it’s fine to mess up a few times as long as you’re learning, but if you’re going to talk to customers, the goal should be to find out two things:
1. Is there an actual need for what I’m selling?
2. Would they buy right now?
Ask customers what they’re already doing to solve the problem and you’ll find out the answer to both questions.
Let’s go back to our driving traffic example. To answer the above questions, the customer interview would look something like this. Use these questions as a guide.
Sample Customer Research Interview:
<Alex dials, Steve picks up>
Steve: This is Steven Walsh.
Alex: Hi Steve, it’s Alex. (Note: If you sent the reminder above, he’ll be expecting the call)
Steve: Oh hey Alex. What’s up?
Alex: Nothing much, man. Alright, let’s get started. So, what are you doing right now to drive traffic?
Steve: The company does a little bit of SEO, some Google Advertising and we’ve been answering questions on Quora a lot.
(THIS IS IMPORTANT- if the customer is already trying to solve your problem on his own, congrats! That means it’s a real problem)
Alex: And how’s that working out for you?
Steve: I’ve seen some growth, but obviously it could better. SEO is very time consuming to learn, and it takes time away from me actually trying to grow the company.
Alex: What if you had somebody do it for you?
Steve: That might work, but I don’t really want to hire somebody, I mean, I’m just starting out and I don’t think it’s that necessary.
(THIS IS ALSO IMPORTANT. He doesn’t have the money to pay you. Therefore, when you make your list next time, try for a different market. In this case I was going for pre funded startup founders, so next time I’ll make the list geared toward funded startup founders instead. You always want to make sure your customer has enough money to pay you, otherwise, the problem isn’t worth solving).
Alex: Alright Steve, thanks for your time. I’ll follow up via email and I’ll keep you in the loop about what’s going on with the product.
(Offer to follow up, that way if he ever gets funding, you’ll have an “in” in the future, but besides that bail and go find a customer set that will actually pay you).
Steve: Alright man, take care.
5. Analyze the answers, look for repeated words
So let’s assume you went back and did the process again with funded startup founders.
Perfect. Now that you’ve spoken to them on the phone and took notes complete with “quotations” around actual words they use to describe their problems, you’re ready for the hard part: analysis.
Go over the answers you got and look for any common patterns. When I did this, I found that a lot of people knew what SEO was, and were trying to do it themselves, but didn’t have the knowledge necessary or were too busy with other things to give it the right amount of time to work. That left the market wide open for a consultant of some kind.
The reason I didn’t move forward was because I knew, and still know, very little about SEO. So, that’s the final lesson here, when you pick a problem in the first part, make sure it’s something you can actually do.
In the future, I’ll write another post outlining how to take this user feedback and change your product to fit what you learned. This will help you sell a lot more. I’ll also write more in depth about how to test your ideas, so stay tuned for that eventually.
Talk to you soon!