Finding Customers

with Cindy Alvarez

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An invitation to a narrative

Cindy Alvarez

Lean Evangelist, UX Expert, Master of Experiments

Lessons Learned

Really focused customer development could just take a week.

Lean customer development is not a one-shot deal. Your actual customer changes over time.

Invite people into a narrative about how they use or do a certain thing. Then connect the dots.


Lesson: Finding Customers with Cindy Alvarez

Step #10 Continual: An invitation to a narrative

I wish that people would have faith in the process. That's one. I guess people who say, "Well, how am I going to find people before I have a product?" I get this very, very often. "This is impossible. How can we find you when we don't even have a product yet?" And I say in the book, a little snidely, "Well, how are you going to find people after you have a product?" Just because the thing is built does not mean that people are beating a path to your door. So there's this sense of, "Well, I can't possibly talk to people until I've done something." And that's just not true. I wish that I didn't have to keep repeating that and convincing people of this fact, but it is something that comes up constantly.

Another that becomes even more funny to me is, once you get into companies who actually have some customers already, they say "We don't have anyone to talk to. We don't have access to our customers." This is probably less of a concern for small start-ups, but I work now for Microsoft, and I work a lot with large enterprise companies. I can't count the number of times people have said "We don't have access to our customers."

Yes, you should talk to your customers all the time. But one thing I've said is that, if you are a start-up, or you are thinking of starting a start-up, there's a point before the point-of-no-return, which is before you quit your job, before you rent office space, before you hire an employee, that's a really important time to devote to customer development and really making sure that you're on to something, here. That this hypothesis has legs. There's no guarantee it's going to be a success, but you've been able to validate that there is a demand for this. That there is a problem. That there are people who have money and time and are willing to talk to you.

So that's when you would really make a big investment in customer development. And when I say "big," a lot of times I think people worry, "Does this mean months? Does this mean years?" No. This could be a week. Honestly, any single entrepreneur with a dedicated week could get in front of enough people and talk to them to where you had a very strong sense that, "Yes, this hypothesis I feel very confident in, or this other hypothesis is not going to work, and I'm going to have to figure out something that does." So that week-long investment, before you start burning the bridges, burning the ships, definitely.

As you continue, this is always kind of a sounding point. And you might do smaller cycles. So you kind of have big customer developments, and then smaller, then smaller, then smaller, then smaller. Because, as you're thinking about features, you could still talk to people, but you're not necessarily going to need a 40-minute interview. It might simply be, "While I've got you on the phone. Can I ask you one quick thing?" And they give you a two- or three-sentence response, and you think "Does that map to what I believe?" But that can be ongoing.

Then, as people build products, a lot of times I suggest that, when you're sending out sales people or the people who are doing your customer support, those are your emissaries. They have a great opportunity to talk to customers because they're already talking to customers. They don't need to say "Look, I'd like to interview you and ask you a bunch of detailed questions." They can just kind of throw a question out here and there. And if they know the things you're wondering about, then they have a very good sense of when to do that so it feels natural. So it's not "Wait, let me officially survey you," but "Hey, you mentioned something about this concern you were having, or this feature you were interested in. Can I ask you something?" You can do that. Those little five-minutes-at-a-time chunks, you should always be doing.

You often hear the alleged Henry Ford quote, "If I had asked customers what they'd wanted, they would have said 'a faster horse.'" People have used this to basically say, "You shouldn't listen to your customers" or "You shouldn't practice customer development." What I would say to that is, that's completely true. If Henry Ford had gone and said to someone, "How's your horse doing? How could your horse travel be better? How could your commute to work be better?" People would have said, "Faster horses." Because that's the way humans are. We tend to think incrementally. We're not experts on a technology or what can be done in the world, so we don't jump to things naturally that seem impossible to us.

You think about things like the TiVo or Siri, no normal person would have said "The VCR sucks, invent TiVo." They would have come up with things that were a little bit better. "Well, you could have this better interface. You could have this kind of knob. You could have this incremental solution." People are terrible at this. People are terrible at telling you what they want, that they actually are going to want when their paycheck comes up. People can't really hide what they need. They will talk about frustrations that are in their life, they'll talk about past behaviors. People can talk about that very honestly.

A lot of times when people ask "What questions should I ask?" I actually say, "The first and most important question isn't a question, it's an invitation to a narrative." "Tell me about how..." and let people run with that. It's not, "Do you want this product?" It's "Tell me about how you solved this problem in the past." If you wanted to figure out TiVo, you might say "Walk me through how you record shows today." You would see people's frustrations. They would tell you about how the last time, they were convinced that they had the time right but they got AM and PM mixed up. You would find out that they keep losing the remote. There would be things that would come up, and there would be commonalities to people's stories of "In my actual life, this is what I actually did and the problems that I faced."

If you take those problems, you can see that there's an opportunity. It's not direct. They're not drawing an arrow straight to the solution. It's more like there's a lot of dots, and if you look at the negative space, that's where your product opportunity is. It's like, "Here's all the bad points here, here, and here." And you can see that there's this little wiggle area where we can fix this. So that's what I talk about. I say a lot of times, "You're looking for past behavior. You're looking for people's stories. You're not looking for what people want, because everyone's bad at that." Even people who build products for a living, like me. I'm no good at doing this, either.

The other thing I would say is that lean customer development is not a one-shot deal. I kind of talked about that before, but it's not something that you do and you check off the box and say "Okay, this is done. I talked to customers, we're good." Because that's not going to be the case. Not only are there going to be more questions that arise, but I think the other thing that's a little bit more insidious is that your actual customers change every 6 months, 12 months. It's like you can't step in the same river twice.

Technology changes, and the big players in technology change in such a way that they actually change the mindset of your customers. Facebook has changed the way average consumers feel about privacy. Google has changed the way average consumers feel about ability to move between applications quickly. The iPhone changed the way people think about installing apps or solving their own problems. Your customer base may believe one thing and have one set of problems, and 8 to 12 months later they may be completely different people. So you need to be revising constantly, and make sure you're still aware of that.

When Lean Startup erupted, it was amazing. I was like, "I've done this." I was in the unique position of being an expert on something that was brand new. But it was amazing because, for me, it's been something that's worked. It's been something that's worked that I can rely upon, but without the language to point to it, I got a lot of skepticism. As I said earlier, people say "How do you know you're going to find something?"

I remember interviewing for product manager jobs and talking about "This is how I validate ideas," and having people look at me and say, "Well, what if you don't find anything? We can't take the chance that you would come in here and run a product, and not find out anything. We just have to ship product." Which, to me, is so backwards. We have to build something whether or not we know people are going to buy it? What? And Lean Startup put some language around that, and kind of made everyone realize how ridiculous that was. So it was a tremendous relief to me "The Emperor has no clothes, and now we all know it."

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