March 16, 2010

Is it Broken? Does it Need to Be Fixed? Ask Your Customer

I thought I’d share what I am most passionate about when it comes to the development of new startups. It’s pretty simple: talking to and listening to consumers (or customers). This is not revolutionary but that is the point. When is the last time you talked to a customer or a user of your product? Hopefully, today. Talking to consumers is the cleanest, easiest thing we can always count on regardless of the stage of a company to get an honest assessment of where you are. When we get busy, confused, or strapped for time, it’s easy to overlook and Steve Blank, who I’ve been pointed to multiple times as the popular product management guru, has said that it can actually be difficult to bring yourself to get outside and talk, especially, if you’re busy building product. But, I think there is nothing more refreshing than hearing what a customer thinks, and counting on this cannot be underestimated.  There is really nothing else—cash, co-founders, developers, board members, bloggers—to reliably always give you instant clarity like customers can at any point during your company’s lifetime.

I value customer conversations not only because they are easy to access, but also because they expose nuances of a problem. It’s easy to say ‘if something is broken, fix it,’ but it’s not easy to assess how broken something is or how badly it really needs to be fixed. It’s also easy to convince ourselves that something is broken. It’s even easy to build a product quickly. What happens next is that we realize how much we need to build and we simply set out to build it. We may bubble up to talk to customers again when we have time but too often, conversations cease to drive product development, product positioning, revenue model, and refinements. In talking to entrepreneurs who have failed (which is not a horrible thing), they didn’t fail because there wasn’t a problem to solve. They failed because they didn’t understand the depth (or lack thereof) or severity (or lack thereof) of the problem. And, the answer to this only lies in the market: in customer conversations. Within 10 minutes, I think you can instantly tell whether you’re hitting the market opportunity.

Several years ago when I was a product designer, we had completed the design of a new version when the company decided they would defer development of the product to a new offshore team. The only problem was that the team had not been hired and so would take at least 6 additional months. I went on to work on another project but realized that the new calendar gave me some time to go back and reaffirm that the design was the best it could be.  I spent that time talking to customers, asking them open-ended questions about what they like dislike about the product and what they would like to have in their wildest dreams for a new product. I didn’t talk about design. I talked about their problems. The changes I made from there were subtle in terms of design but revolutionary in terms of customer acceptance.

How to communicate with customers is the often the gating factor. Steve Blank is right that it is uncomfortable at first if you’re not a natural born sales person. ‘I don’t have time’ or ‘I would rather assess behavior through metrics‘ reasons will only push the answer out further. A simple 15 minute conversation to talk about a customer’s reasons for usage is enough, and customers like to talk. If a customer can’t tell you what is inconvenient in their current process, there isn’t a problem. Or, if you ask a customer if they will use the 4th feature on the third tab of your website, you aren’t asking your customer anything other than if they like the site design. It has nothing to do with whether they will use your product.

I think this is all we can hope for and all we should look for in customer interviews: affirmations that we’re going in the right direction or hesitation when something is not clear or clearly not valuable. This is our salvation when we hit a rough point, but why do we often wait until then? So, even if you talked to a customer today, when is the last time you asked a customer what would really disappoint him about your product?

Dayna Grayson is a Principal with North Bridge Venture PartnersThis blog post was originally published on February 11th, 2010.  You find this post, as well as additional content on her blog titled Primary Entrepreneur.