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Customer development is critical to success, but grossly underutizlized. Here are the top four reasons I believe this is so:

  • We’re biased toward our own gread ideas.
  • We feel that our industry knowledge entitles us to skip vaidating those ideas and jump to creating products.
  • We don’t know how to find customers before we have a product.
  • Most of the information to date on this topic is long on telling you why you need customer development, but short on telling you how to do it. As a result, most people don’t know where to start.

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On a smaller scale, we’re not as good as we think we are, either. Most of our ideas don’t increase value for customers or companies - Microsoft estimates that only around one-third of their ideas improve the metrics they are intended to improve. Amazon tests every feature and fewer than 50% work; Yammer’s numbers are roughly the same. Netflix and Intuit don’t claim any higher proportion of successes.

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Basic Customer Development Questions:

  • Tell me about how you do [task] today …
  • Do you use any [tools/products/apps/trickts] to help you get [task] done?
  • If you could wave a magic wand and be able to do anything that you can’t do today, what would it be? Don’t worry about whether it’s possible, just anything.
  • Last time you did [task], what were you doing right before you got started? Once you finished, what did you do afterward?
  • Is there anything else about [task] that I should have asked?

Once a customer talks, I’ll respond with open-ended questions that are triggered by what she just said:

  • Can you tell me more about how that process goes?
  • Who is involved in making that decision?
  • Last time you did [task], how long did it take?
  • Where did you most recently go to buy [product]?
  • May I ask, why did you come to that conclusion?

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To get the most accurate answers from your customers, frame your questions to ask about specific events or decisions and focus on the present or recent past:

  • Tell me about the last time you used something like [product].
  • In the past month, how many times has this situation occurred?
  • Last time this happened, how much did it cost your company?
  • Last time you made a significant decision how did your family react?

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Away from Features - Back to the Problem

You’re saying that you’d like [feature]? Could you walk me through when and how you would use it?

[Listen to her answer, then transition from feature back to problem]

So, it sounds like today you have the problem of [problem], is that accurate? Can you tell me more about this problem? I want to be sure I fully understand it so we can work on solving it.

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*Customer*: We can’t buy until we have your assurance that you’ll build an additional feature X.

*Sales*: I’d like to make sure I fully understand your needs so that I can bring this feedback back to our product team. Can I ask you a couple of questions about feature X and how it would help you and your company?

*Customer*: I’m hearing lots of complaints from our internal employees who use the product because you haven’t built feature Y.

*Account manager*: It sounds like you’re hearing from some unhappy people. I want to be sure I’m clear on the issue - can I ask more about the context? What are employees trying to accomplish that they are unable to do? If they had feature Y, how would they expect to use it?

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Can I wask what task you’re trying to accomplish when you use this functionality? I’m asking because I want to make sure that I’ve given you the most useful answer possible. If there’s an easier or better way to do what you need to do, Iwant to make sure I get you that solution.

Appendix A: Questions that Work

  • Tell me about the last time you [task]
  • IF you could wave a magic wand and change anything about how you perform this task, what would it be?
  • What tools do you use for [task]?
  • When you started using [tool], what benefit were you expecting?
  • How often do you do [task]? Let’s say, how many times in the past month?
  • When this occurs, how much additional time or money does it cost you or your company?
  • Who else experiences this problem?
  • When you do [task], is there anything you do immediately before to prepare?
  • Would you be willing to help us by participating in user research or beta testing?
  • When you use our product, what’s the first thing you do with it?
  • What’s the most useful thing tha tyou regularly do with our product?
  • If you had [requested feature] today, how would that make your life better?
  • Other customers have told me that they experience [problem] …