Finding Customers

with Cindy Alvarez

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Finding Customers

Getting an interview

Cindy Alvarez

Lean Evangelist, UX Expert, Master of Experiments

Lessons Learned

Finding people to interview is often the toughest part of the whole Customer Dev process.

Conduct a brainstorming session to come up with places your potential customers will be.

Always ask the customer you are interviewing for a lead or introduction to the next person.


Lesson: Finding Customers with Cindy Alvarez

Step #2 Finding Customers: Getting an interview

Sure, finding customers is probably the most daunting part of this. Peoples' first thought it "I can't do this, I don't want to talk to customers," but they actually get over that fairly quickly, especially when they realize that there are some very simple questions to ask and some tricks to getting people to talk. But how do I even find people? It can seem impossible. And so a lot of times I recommend that people start with a brainstorming session and just throw things out. But the first thing to do is to use that magic wand question on yourself.

If we could just magically figure out where are customers would be, where would they be? A lot of times you know a little bit about your potential customers, you know they are a product manager. Well where do we find people with this specific job title? We can look on LinkedIn, we can find people who have this job title, we can connect to them, we can buy InMails, we can send out these notifiers to them. You might say "Well our customers are parents." Well, where are parents? They are in doctors waiting rooms, they are at Gymboree’s, they're at playgrounds. There are places in the real world where you could casually approach someone or put up a flier or find some way to get in touch with them.

A lot of people talked about coffee shop testing. That can see intimidating because you don't want to accost people. One of the things that a woman on my team has done with great success is to go into a coffee shop that's not too busy, walk up to the barista and say "Hey, I'd like to do some research. When anyone who comes up and orders a coffee, I will pay for it of you send them over here." That way the interaction is such that no one has to directly say no and people can feel free to get their coffee and leave. But the barista can say "That young lady over there would like to talk to you for 10 minutes. She'll buy your coffee, if you're cool with that I've got a tab open, if not, you just pay for it and go." She'll get a reasonable number of people who, maybe because of curiosity or maybe because they want a free coffee and happen to have a few minutes, will go over and talk.

If people are a fan of something, runners are going to be standing around at the finish line after a 5k, people who go to dentists are going to be in dentists' waiting rooms. Literally listing out all of those things and then trying them out one by one. The other thing I think is that people worry about this as though it is scaled linearly. You think "Oh my gosh. It took me a day and a half to find my first person. If I want to talk to 20 people it's going to take a month." It doesn't actually they way, because the first person who talks to you is going to give you clues about where to find more people. In fact they might even introduce you. If you have a good conversation, I always finish by saying "Hey, is there anyone else I should talk to, could you introduce me? Would you be willing to forward on an email?" And a lot of times people will. So you find the first person, you find the second person, you find the third person. After that, the people start finding themselves. So that initial hump is very hard, but it gets much easier.

So finding out who the right people to talk to are, that's another one of the things that's tricky. I think that there's a little bit of faith, you have to take a little leap of faith. But I would say, when you're thinking about who your target market is, there are three things that you're trying to balance. There's the person who has the most severe problem. These people have this problem and it's affecting them so painfully that they're going to be desperate to solve it. There are the people where there's the biggest market. You might have the people with the most severe problem, maybe that's a niche market, that’s 1% of the population. That might not be what you want to go after. But there are people who have maybe the second biggest pain but there are a lot of them.

The third is the people who are the most equipped to start solving the problem. So if the people who are in a lot of pain have no money or can't get a hold of a budget or are severely time constrained or are incredibly hard to get to, then that might make them less desirable. So you look at those three things and, as an entrepreneur, you have to figure out where the sweet spot is between the biggest problem, the biggest market and the biggest ability to get started right away.

I always recommend people get started a little bit smaller than they think they should. If you are ambitious about your product you want everyone to use it and you think "This is a product for everyone." And it might be eventually. But in the short term, talking to everyone is not very useful because, for almost everyone, unless you are Facebook or Apple or Google or someone else who has the distribution problem just solved, you need to start with people who care a lot, who are super passionate, who will recommend you and who other people will go to and say "What to do list should I use?"

There are people who know about this and go on and on in detail and that is really your best starting point. So you think about what is the smallest segment, then you talk to them. At this point you're still basically trying to decide whether it is or is not. So you talk to a subset of people with a fairly tight description, you talk to two, three, five. Generally I say, if you have talked to five people and none of them have shown extreme emotion, its probably no the right market.

Another issue with finding customers is that, a lot of times, people will say 'That is fine for software." This is something that is very common, in software you almost always have people's email addresses or you can find them online. What about physical products? How do we find people then? It is trickier. But for any physical product there is either an offline space where people are when you can approach them or there is someone who is writing online about this offline product and that is a person you could, A, interview and, B, ask where you can find more of these people. Alternatively there is the slightly scatter-shot approach that can still work that is literally using something like Craigslist or Mechanical Turk or an "Ask your target market" to do a screener and say "We're looking for people who do this."

A long time ago when I worked for Yodlee the financial services company, we would want to do research on people who were customers of our customers, and of course they wouldn't give us access. We would say "We would like to talk to Bank of America customers" and Bank of America would reply "No, we're not giving you any email addresses" which makes sense. So I would literally post on Craigslist say "I'd like to do a survey of Bank of America Customers, here is the place that you can go and here is the screener." So I would get some large number of responses. Out of that large number, some fractional percentage would actually be legitimate and worth talking to. But that was a pretty easy way to find people.

So for anyone who is a customer for anything or a potential customer for anything or identifies in some way, there is some point at which you can ask to talk to someone who meets these criteria and that's harder. You might have to get in front of a thousand eyes in order to get 15 people but, you can get 15 people. It has never been easier in the course of history to get in front of a thousand eyes between Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter.

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