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Culture / Software Development

Entrepreneurship for Engineers: How to Talk to Customers

Reaching out to potential users of the product you're building and learning their problems can help prevent your startup from building the wrong tool.
Jun 4th, 2022 6:00am by
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Entrepreneurship for Engineers is a monthly column by longtime New Stack contributor Emily Omier that explores the concerns of developers who want to build tools for other developers — and build a business around their innovations. We welcome your feedback, and ideas for future columns.

There are plenty of nightmare scenarios for a startup founder, but spending a huge chunk of venture funds on a product that no one likes or uses is certainly one of them. Not only is it extremely dispiriting, but most startups don’t have the runway to survive if they get their first product launch totally wrong.

“I don’t want you to spend all this time building the wrong product,” said Michele Hansen, co-founder of Geocodio and author of “Deploy Empathy,” a book about customer conversations. “Build the right thing from the get-go. And the way to do that is to talk to the customers, or the potential customers.”

Talking to customers (or potential customers) is critical to understanding what they care about (and what they don’t), what they would pay for, what pain points they struggle with and what features are table stakes. The results of customer conversations will tell you what your product should do, how you should position it, what language you should use in talking about it and who you should be selling to.

Customer development is so important that startup founders will sometimes describe their daily activities as back-to-back calls with current and prospective customers.

So you know you have to talk to customers. But how?

Identify Your (Potential) Customers

Who you should talk to depends on what stage you’re at as a company and what goals you have for customer research. When you’re developing a product, it’s important to talk to people who likely feel the pain you want to solve.

For example, Hansen gave the example of an application like Calendly — if you were developing a calendar app, you’d want to talk to people who schedule a lot of appointments.

On the other hand, when you’re doing ongoing customer research, it would simply make sense to talk to a certain percentage of your new customers every month. And even more established companies often combine ongoing customer research with project-based research.

Being clear on the goal of your research — whether it’s just keeping your finger on the pulse of your customer base, developing a new product or deepening your understanding of a particular market segment — is the first and most critical step in determining who you should talk to.

Start Small

There’s no reason to get overwhelmed by the process of customer interviews, according to Hansen. But, she advised, set your expectations. First of all, getting people to agree to talk with you is a numbers game.

“If you send an email out to 100 people, like 90 people are not going to reply,” she said. “That’s fine.”

Don’t take it personally. You also don’t need to talk to 100 people — instead, start with five. This is actually how user-research professionals work, by interviewing five people and then reevaluating.

Talk Less, Listen More

Particularly for people who are used to sitting behind a computer all day, the idea of running a customer call can be daunting. But running a good customer interview is a skill that can be learned — and being particularly extroverted isn’t necessarily an advantage.

Acknowledging that talking to customers is tough at first is also important. “It’s really hard to have empathy for other people and try to understand them if you don’t first recognize what our own feelings are,” Hansen said.

That said, customer-development interviews are probably easier than you think. For one thing, the best conversations do not require you to talk very much — ideally, the interviewer should only be doing about 10% of the talking. And the questions you ask aren’t everything, either.

“Almost more important than the questions you ask are how you treat the other person,” Hansen said. The goal of a customer-development interview is to get information, but also to build rapport. Simply being a human being and empathizing with the person’s pain is a good place to start.

A customer development interview also isn’t the same as a cocktail party conversation. “People who are more socially comfortable will actually have to check some of their social instincts,” Hansen said.

If a customer says they’ve really struggled with something, it can feel socially appropriate for the interviewer to respond, “Oh, me too!” But that turns the focus from the interviewee to the interviewer and detracts from the overall goal of understanding what the interviewee is experiencing.

Also, of course, in normal conversation, we don’t let one person talk 90% of the time. Awkward pauses are an important tool in interviews, too, because they encourage the interviewee to continue talking.

The most important thing to remember about customer-development interviews is to just do them. “You might tell yourself, ‘Oh, I don’t have time,’” Hansen said. “When you’re really saying, ‘I don’t have time to figure this out,’ which is really, ‘I don’t have time to acknowledge these feelings I have related to figuring this out.’”

Customer development interviews might be awkward, especially at first, but they ultimately prevent you and your team from building a product that nobody buys.

Do you have any topics related to entrepreneurship you’d love to see covered? Reach out on Twitter and let me know.

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