12 Tips for Early Customer Development Interviews

Giff Constable startups

UPDATE: Click here for a revised list of tips or read my book on custdev Talking to Humans


Last night kicked off an interesting experiment in New York. The Lean Startup Machine is a weekend-long customer development bootcamp where participants pitch their ideas, and all 50 people break into teams around the most popular ideas. Instead of a hackathon, the goal is to do as much customer and business validation as possible, and design some kind of MVP (does not have to be a working prototype), by the end of the weekend. I think it’s a fascinating experiment, and a great way to get people out of idea-centric comfort zones.

leanstartupmachineLean Startup Machine teams brainstorming (1am Friday night)

Eric Ries kicked it off, then Brant Cooper, Josh Knowles and myself gave short introductory talks. I walked through Aprizi’s experiences in the trenches of “lean startup”. I’ll post the deck soon with some explanatory text, but wanted to start with this slide (note: I added the last bullet this morning).

12 Tips for Early Customer Development Interviews

1. Work to their schedule: be flexible to the customer’s schedule, not your own

2. Get psyched to hear things you don’t want to hear: if you don’t do this, you might find yourself selling or convincing, or even hearing what you want to hear. Remember, the goal in this early stage is learning and validation, not a sale.

3. Disarm “politeness” training: people are trained not to call your baby ugly. You need to make them feel safe to do this. My approach was to explain that I needed their honesty so I didn’t build something nobody wanted to use, which seemed to resonate with folks.

4. Start with behavior, not feedback: start by asking about the person’s current behavior and processes in your “problem space”. Only after you’ve covered this ground should you get feedback on your proposed solution. Another interesting follow-up set of questions is to ask about competitors (even if indirect), and how those competitors were discovered.

5. Ask open ended questions: do no ask a yes/no question such as “do you like Nextag?”  Instead ask “are you interested in deals? how do you discover deals? what do you like or find frustrating in this process?”

6. Listen, don’t talk: try to shut up as much as possible, and try to keep your questions short and unbiased (i.e. don’t embed the answer you want to hear into the question). Don’t sell — that is for another time!  Don’t rush to fill the “space” when the customer pauses, because they might be thinking or have more to say.

7. Encourage but don’t influence: if you stay *too* quiet, some folks might start getting uncomfortable, thinking that they are boring you or you are judging them. You can keep things rolling with little motions of encouragement, such as nods, “I see”, “interesting”, etc. But do not say things that might steer or influence the interviewee.

8. Follow your nose and drill down: anytime something tweaks your antenna, drill down with follow up questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for clarifications and the “why” behind the “what”.

9. Parrot back to confirm: for important topics, try repeating back what the person said. You can occasionally get two interesting results through this. In the first, they correct you because you’ve misinterpreted what they said. In the second, by hearing their own thoughts, they’ll actually realize that their true opinion is slightly different, and they will give you a second, more sophisticated answer.

10. Thank them: (self-explanatory)

11. Ask for introductions: at the end of every interview, see if you can get leads to another 1 to 3 people known by the interviewee.

12. Write up your notes as quickly as possible: the details behind a conversation fade fast, so if you haven’t recorded the session, write up your notes and color commentary as soon as you can. I brain-dump into a shared Google Doc so the rest of the team can see it.  (Note: I typically have not recorded sessions, for fear of making interviewees more self-conscious or careful, but other entrepreneurs have said to me that, while it takes some rapport-building at the start, pretty soon people forget about a recorder.)

If you are interested in this topic, check out Cindy Alvarez’s posts on finding people and conducting interviews.

Well done to Trevor, Ben, Kyle and Josh for organizing this event.  As I was walking to the subway in the wee hours of the morning, I snapped this shot of the New York Stock Exchange with my iPhone: