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Pickup lines for start-ups – how to really talk to your customers

It may not be the most glamorous or enviable task, but talking with customers prior to building your product is critical and should be mandatory for all start-ups.

Customer interviews should be used to test the fundamental assumptions that underpin the business model. As an entrepreneur, your primary job is to find a feasible and scalable business model. Customer interviews are a valuable tactic in this quest.

Getting customer interviews right can be challenging and like most things the devil is in the detail. The four steps below will ensure you get the most from your interviews.

Define the purpose for the customer interviews

What are the critical things you need to understand from interviews? This comes back to the assumptions your start-up is built on. Start by validating the riskiest assumptions first. In most cases the first assumption you need to validate is that a set of customers experience a specific problem. This generally means that from your interviews you are looking to understand who your customers are, the problem they experience and their current behaviour – amongst other things.

Make a plan to attract prospective customers

Be clear about who the audience is and who it isn’t. Creating personas to document your target audience’s profile will help. Then think about how to source interviewees. The first stop should be your network. Make sure you leverage online channels LinkedIn, Meetup Facebook, forums and blogs. For B2B there are helpful tools like Data.com and Open Corporate that provide contact information for individuals based on their role. Always ask each customer you interview to refer two others. Remember to measure the effectiveness of each acquisition channel as this will help when you begin marketing your product.

Ask the right questions in the right sequence

In the preliminary stages, most of your questions should be qualitative and open-ended as you learn about the customer’s worldview. Initially, we are aiming to understand their current behaviour, pain points and the existing way they address the problem. Once we have clarity around the problem, we can be more quantitative as we test our solution, pricing and acquisition channels. Once you have your script, make sure you test it a couple of times before starting the interviews. Ensure you are getting quality responses that relate to your purpose. Ultimately the feedback needs to help you validate or invalidate your assumptions so ensure the feedback will allow you to do this. If not, make changes.

Be empathetic and inquisitive

Customers want to know you care about their problems. Ensure you are an active listener, encouraging them to divulge all their relevant knowledge. Don’t forget to probe around the periphery to ensure you completely understand what they are saying, but more importantly why they are saying it. Although it’s simple, “why?” is one of the most powerful questions in your interview arsenal.

Engaging with customers is a critical step for any start-up. Not only do you get insightful feedback that will enable the development of a compelling product, but you will also build a pipeline of engaged, qualified prospects that you can target once your product is ready for market. 

Mark MacLeod-Smith is the market validation executive at The Icehouse. He works with start-ups to help them test and validate their business models and obtain early customers.

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