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8 tips on how to conduct a productive customer validation interview

By Thomas Cheah • October 30, 2014 • Filed in: Business Start-up

The popular customer validation mantra, “Get out of the building” that is coined by Steve Blank, is the most fundamental and core process to discover and validate a great product idea, as well as to find your early adopters. Although talking to customers and getting their feedback sound like an easy feat, but do it effectively so that we maximize our learning objectives takes a lot of practice. Most entrepreneurs fall into the trap of pitching their solution to the customers prematurely. In a pitch, you do most of the talking, and you learn very little about the customer behavior. It’s also very easy for them to agree with you. (Or they pretend to be agreeable.) The flaw in starting your customer validation with a pitch is that you assume you have the “right” solution for them. For that, you have to understand the “right” customer problem first, which is the first phase of customer validation interview. (Or problem interview to be exact.) Asking the right questions is key to make sure you have problem worth solving before investing months or years of effort into building a solution.

Tip 1: One person at a time

Many entrepreneurs tend to do focus group or surveys as they seem to be more efficient. The problem with focus group is they will turn into “group thinking”, and survey only works when you know the right questions to ask. People often feel more comfortable and open up to express their personal view in a one-to-one interview. Survey is bad for exploring areas that is outside your initial understanding.

Tip 2: Plan your questions beforehand (but don’t memorize)

The goals should be based on your hypotheses, assumptions, and learning objectives. Prepare a script can help you to organize your thoughts, but don’t memorize or worst read in front of your customer. Be natural and follow the flow of the conversation, even it means deviating from your original script.

Tip 3: Ask questions that learn about customer behavior first

Most entrepreneurs tend to ask questions to see if their customers like certain features. Remember, during the first phase of customer validation interview, our goals is to learn about how your customers react to the problems that you are trying to solve. You want to ask questions that help you to understand their pain and urgency of the problem. Getting them to share with you how they had attempted to solve it in the past can often uncover useful insights.

Tip 4: Be ready to hear what you don’t want to hear

The core principles of customer validation is, if the product idea is going to fail, you want it to fail sooner so that you can pivot earlier. (The famous innovation axiom, “Fail faster, succeed sooner!”) You need to set the right frame of mind that this is a learning process with the outcome of validated or invalidated, and not a sales pitch. (An exception is when you are doing the pricing validation during the “solution interview.”) Don’t ask questions that imply an obvious answer that you want to hear.

Tip 5: Give them the green light to criticize you

Most people are polite and are not used to “call your baby ugly.” You need to let them feel at ease of doing this. My approach is always to give them an opposite opinion on every opinion that I ask, “There are customers told me that this is really useful, but there are also told me this is actually a no brainer. What is your personal opinion? There is no right or wrong.”

Tip 6: Ask open ended questions

Open-ended questions give you more insights into the desires and motivations that can help you understand the customer behaviors. Do not ask too many yes / no questions. For example, instead of asking, “Do you use FoodPanda?” You should ask them, “What motivates you to use FoodPanda?” “What food you usually order?” “Why you don’t use it for your dinner?”

Tip 7: Talk less, ask why and listen more

You should be talking less than half the time. Ask them a question and then shut up. Give them time to think. (I know, it can be uncomfortable to you.) Probe deeper than the first answer that you hear from your customer by asking the five whys. This will help you to uncover the root cause of their statement to understand the underlying fears and desires.

Tip 8: Ask for introductions

At the end of your interview, ask your customer to see if they can introduce you to 1 to 3 people who meet your early adopters demographic and criteria. This will help you to find more prospects for your next interview.

After the interview…

  • Document results immediately after each interview.
  • Read between the lines of your customer responds – Take note of their body language and the words they use, then use your human judgement to analyze their behavior.
  • Look for common patterns after talking to 10 to 20 customers.
  • Refine the demographics of your early adopters – Identify those who expressed strong responds on the problem you are solving. Drop customer segments that are the least promising.
  • Refine your problem hypotheses – Add newly discovered “must-have” problems into your script. Drop those that you get strong “don’t need” signals across the board.

Customer validation interview is just one of the activities in building your own startup. There are many things that you need to do right in order to build a successful startup. You can go through the Startup Checklist Test to check if you are on the right track.

About The Author

Thomas CheahThomas Cheah is the Principal CTO-for-hire of Procto. He helps business owners and executives to innovate their business model thru strategic technology management so that they get 80% of the benefit for 20% of the cost. If you have innovative ideas but do not the technical expertise, he is your partner to validate and build your digital business models. Thomas believes that constant business innovation is increasingly important in today's business environment so that our business is prepare for rapid change of customer behavior, rising cost, and globalization in order to stay ahead (or away) of competition.

Learn more about Thomas.

 

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