Guide to lean customer development

A key component to our customer-driven strategy is maintaining an ongoing conversation with your customers. Customer interviews are an easy...

A key component to our customer-driven strategy is maintaining an ongoing conversation with your customers. Customer interviews are an easy, low-cost, method of collecting customer feedback. It provides rich insight as you’re hearing it “right from the source” and it also creates an atmosphere that has customers feeling valued by your organization.

In this post, we focus a lot on the value of conducting customer interviews. We find that it’s an incredible way to not only gather insights, but to create a great and lasting relationship with your customers. Regardless of what data collection methods you employ, we highly recommend that it is supplemented with customer interviews. We’ll talk about how to conduct a successful interview in a moment, but first, let’s discuss how we can remain objective while collecting customer data. It starts with understanding and avoiding our own biases.

We’re not going to go into the complex nuances of how our brain works or the theories of working memory, but it’s important to understand the consequences of how our cognitive bias effects our interpretation and analysis of customer data.

Guide to lean customer development

Reducing cognitive bias

Cognitive bias effects the way we process information, creating patterns and rules to help us make sense of the world. Like assumptions, biases are not a bad thing, but they can be incredibly powerful if they remain unchecked.

Below is not an extensive list of the dozens of biases that exist, but common biases we’ve encountered with our teams:

We tend ignore information that contradicts our assumptions and search for information that supports it.
  • When information is lacking, we fill in the gaps with our own assumptions rather than reality/facts.
  • We think everyone thinks like us and from the same perspective.
  • Something that is uncommon or unusual stands out, increasing its importance (even when it’s not).
  • We tend to notice change and even when it’s not significant, we tend to place emphasis on it.
  • We overlook things that are ordinary, even when common behavior is problematic or an area of opportunity.
We are more likely to notice the first and last thing we heard or saw, which doesn’t make it the most meaningful.

By being aware of your cognitive bias you can reduce, but not eliminate, the effects it has on your data. Here’s are some things you can do to help reduce bias:

  • Writing and tracking your hypotheses will keep you honest (and less biased).
  • As best you can, try to write as much as the customer says, verbatim. Try not to summarize or paraphrase as it can often leave out crucial details that exemplify the customer’s sentiment. If you plan to record your interview, you should let the customer know, before you start recording.
  • Try to invalidate your hypotheses. Listen for signals that are contrary to your beliefs.
  • In a group, have other team members review your interview notes and pull out interesting insights
  • Resist the temptation to drive to conclusions too soon. Wait until you have read and made sense out of all the customer interviews. You’re likely to remember what was interesting about the first and last interview. By assessing all your customer interviews together, you’ll give each interview equal weight and consideration.  
  • If you find that you missed an important detail, don’t fill in the gaps with your what you remember from the interview. Follow up with participants and clarify. Typically, customers don’t mind, they want to help and they’ll respect your desire to make sure you’ve understood them

Finding Customers

To maintain a great customer feedback loop, where you’ll be engaging with customers, eliciting their feedback, iterating on concepts, and responding to your customer’s problems with valuable solutions, it’s important to create a system to help you find customers to interact with.

We’ve found that social networks like LinkedIn, Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook are great networks to leverage when trying to find customers. You can also leverage local user groups, meetups, or conferences to help build your rolodex of customer contacts.

Leveraging your product’s existing support channels can be helpful as well. If you have support forums or a support hotline, you may consider using these resources to identify customers with a certain motivation or problem. We also find that offering more support can be a great, inexpensive, way to get a customer to talk with you. For example, if a customer is having an issue with logging in, you could put them in contact with a support technician to help them. Once the issue is resolved, you could ask if the customer would be willing to share a few more moments of their time to go over some of questions. Customers tend to be more agreeable if you’ve just helped them with an issue they were having; so, it’s a great way to turn a customer support call into a customer interview.

 Be personal and authentic

Probably one of the most difficult tasks you’ll have, when reaching out to a customer, is to overcome their belief that you’re trying to sell them something. We’ve all been inundated with countless telemarketers, sales promotions, or “giveaways”, to the point that we’ve created a “noise filter”, automatically disregarding any communication that sounds like a sales pitch.

Unfortunately, when you try to contact a customer, you’ll have to overcome those filters to get a customer’s attention. Here are some tips that can help.

Update your online profile

Depending on the tech-savviness of your customer, you might consider how often they will be looking you up on various social networks. Therefore, it’s a good idea to ensure, if they do look you up online, that your social networking bios are up-to-date. For instance, if your reach out to a customer as a representative of your company, make sure your LinkedIn and Twitter profiles have been updated to show that you work for the company.

We’ve also found that an updated profile picture makes a big difference. It may sound funny, but having a nice profile picture, with your smiling face, can go a long way in a customer believing that you’re a real person who’s interested in your feedback.

Favor depth over breadth

It may be tempting to do an “email blast” or mass communication as it can seem as a sure-fire way to “catch” the most number of customers in a single communication. The problem with this approach is that these communications tend to find their way into customers’ spam filters, or completely ignored altogether. It’s tough to be personal and authentic when your email sounds like it has been formatted with the broadest possible audience in mind.

We like to do a bit of work, investigating a potential customer, prior to making the first contact. It can take more time up front, but it tends to produce a higher quality group of participants than mass communication.

For example, let’s say we’re working on an app that puts medical students in contact with hospitals offering open residency programs.

We could search Twitter to see if anyone has posted about residency programs and come across a blog post that discusses frustrations with the process. The post has been retweeted over 1,000 times and has been liked nearly 5,000 times. This gives us an indication that this article resonated with our customer base.

We could reach out to the author to tell her we appreciate the article and ask if she’d be okay with us contacting her regarding an application we’re building to help students find great residency programs. If she’s written a blog post about it, there’s a high likelihood that she’s passionate about finding a resolution to the problem and has a desire to partner with us in resolving it. This type of communication is meaningful and personal. It sounds less like a sales pitch and more like a genuine interest in what the customer is trying to achieve.

Additionally, we could look at the thousands of people that liked or retweeted her article, cross-referencing those users with their LinkedIn profiles to determine whether their professional background aligns with the type of customer we’re looking for.

Therefore, a single tweet could foster many high-value customers for upcoming interviews.

Some people refer to this as “Internet stalking”. We like to think of it as “smart recruiting”.

Reward participation with “exclusivity”

If you work on a product team, you should absolutely mention that in your communication. We find that customers like the idea that they’ve been contacted directly by the people who make the products they use. Be sure to tell them why they’ve been selected and be specific about how you believe they can help you and other customers.

Cindy Alvarez suggests that there are three things that we’re all motivated by the same basic desires1:
  • We like to help others
  • We like to sound smart
  • We like to fix things

We find this to be true as well. Any time we position the customer as “the expert”, we find they have a greater sense of duty and engagement. They feel empowered and have a greater desire to get involved and offer their expertise.

We’ve even created “insider programs” or “customer councils” and invited some of our more vocal customers to participate. Customers like the distinction of being involved in an exclusive group or feeling like they have a say in the direction of the product you’re building. As a reward, we elevate their status, offering a direct line with our product team or an opportunity to see new features before they’re released.

Methods for collecting customer data

A great customer and product development strategy should include a multitude of signals to help you increase your confidence that you’re headed in the right direction. While customer interviews should be considered the core of your research strategy, you should also consider supplementing your findings with the following methods.

Surveys

Pros

Can provide a large sample size: Surveys can be completed by a greater number of respondents because they can be completed and distributed rather easily.

Easy to administer: Once the survey is completed, it’s unmoderated. In other words, the survey can be given to the respondent to be completed themselves.

Through experience, we’ve found that surveys are great when 1. You are looking to create a pool of customers that fit your demographic profile or 2. to determine if the hypotheses you validated with a small sample size generalize to a larger population.

If you have access to customers and want to determine if they fit your target population criteria, a survey is a great way to contact customers to build your rolodex. This initial contact with the customer is not an attempt to test your assumptions, but to target a pool of customers to interview.

Secondly, if you have an established relationship with your customers where you’ve tested and validated your hypotheses, a survey is a great method to see if your findings generalize to a larger or different population of customers. If your using this approach, you have learned from a subset of the customer population and know what questions to ask. Formulating the questions, as well as responses, should be fairly easy.

Cons

Writing survey questions is tricky: It can be hard to craft a survey question that will elicit the response you’re looking for and be easy for the respondent to interpret correctly. Survey data can be heavily impacted by the types of questions you ask and how you ask them.

When we first start working with teams, we find that they typically want their initial conversation with a customer to start with a survey. If they don’t know a lot about the customer, they want to gather as much information before engaging in a phone conversation. Intuitively, that seems like the right approach. Yet, the minute the team starts to write the survey, they realize they don’t know the right questions to ask. At this point in the customer journey, the team knows very little about the customer, so asking specific, directive questions in a survey is difficult.

We suggest that if you are trying to learn about the customer, interviews are the best approach. You still may not know the perfect question to ask, but it gives you an opportunity to ask clarifying questions. You them have an opportunity to update your questions for the next interview. The more conversations you have the more your understanding will grow. This will lead to deeper, richer learnings than a survey would provide.

Can lead to more questions than answers: Surveys can give you a “quick read” of a bulk of responses. They can easily tell you what respondents said, but not why they said it. We often find that when teams use surveys, they inevitably end up with, more specific, follow-up questions. That’s why surveys should be used as a tool to “test the waters” or give you a general feeling of a group. Following up a survey with a series of interviews will help you understand the nuances of their responses. Therefore, it’s good idea to conclude the survey with a question that asks, “Would you be willing for us to contact you regarding your responses to this survey?” and ask respondents to leave a contact e-mail.

Focus Groups

Pros

Can provide interesting customer interaction: It can be great to have participants interact and share with each other. In some cases, one customer’s comment generates a new idea or thought by another customer; hearing one person’s frustration might embolden someone to share a similar experience where they might not have otherwise. This type of interaction can lead to a livelier and more engaging interview session.

More interviews in the same amount of time: If you’re short on time and cannot commit to running a single interview, with each person individually, getting multiple people on the same call can help save time.

Cons

Requires a skilled moderator: It can be difficult to manage a group of people while asking for their feedback. A single comment can take the focus group “off the rails” as they spend all their time discussing something that is irrelevant to your study. A skilled moderator can gently guide the group to ensure that the conversation stays on course.

Influence of Groupthink:  Having a group of customers provide feedback can generate an engaging conversation and the sharing of alternative ideas. However, you should also be mindful of the effects of “Groupthink”; which is a mode of thinking that occurs when you’re involved in a cohesive group where members strive for agreement, rather than appreciating alternative courses of action.

During focus groups, customers may respond as a cohesive group, rather than expressing their individual opinions. You may find that customers in the group may be reluctant to say or do anything that may disrupt the group, such as voicing criticisms against the ideas or opinions of another group members3.Conclusion_janis_political_psychology

A good moderation is one that is skilled to look for signals that groupthink is occurring, such as having a strong group that persuades the group to support their opinions, a high level of group cohesion on multiple topics to avoid conflict, or lack of an opposing view because the group members lack an understanding of the topic, thus following along with the group’s responses.

Logistics can be challenging: Depending on the audience you’re targeting; it can be challenging to schedule them all at the same time. Conducting focus groups, remotely, using an online video conference solution can help reduce the friction of people coming together.

Site Visits

Pros

Gain a unique perspective: It’s one thing to hear a customer describe their environment, but another thing completely to see it for yourself. Site visits are the highest fidelity and deepest customer learning you can experience. With site visits, you can immerse yourself in the customer’s world, which can allow you to gain insights that a customer would otherwise deem unimportant or not worth mentioning.

Observe environmental factors: We often become so focused on what we can do with our products, that we forget there are external variables that effect our product’s performance. Being able to observe your product “in the wild” can offer new insights that you hadn’t previously considered. Things like office noise, ergonomics, or the layout of a physical space can give you new ideas for how to improve your products.

Cons

Costly: Depending on where your customer base is located, it can be costly to make travel arrangements. To save on cost, you may consider sending a smaller team with a set of cameras (assuming it’s okay with your customer to record video of their environment). We’ve had success using wide-angle cameras from companies like GoPro. They’re small, unobtrusive, and the wide-angle lens provides the ability to capture more of the physical space in the recording.

Difficult to gain access: Depending on your customer, it may be challenging to gain access to the work they do or visit them at their place of work. Depending on the sensitive nature of their work, you may find it difficult to get an NDA signed for you and your team to be onsite. Additionally, gaining access to the customer and their team for a large chunk of time may be difficult. You may have to coordinate a visit during non-peak periods and they may not necessarily align with your company’s timeline.

Telemetry

Pros


Large sample size: Telemetry gives you the widest possible access to your customer base. By measuring actual usage, you’ll be able to gain insight into how customers are using your exisiting products. Additionally, there is little to no barrier or friction for the customer.

A/B testing: Using telemetry you can set up experiments within your product. You can try different configurations and experiences and measure if they result in the behavior you’re looking for. This can be a low-cost way to test the validity of your ideas on real customers using your product.

Cons

Difficult to correlate with customer intent: While telemetry can give you an indication of what is happening, it does a poor job of answering why it’s happening. Inferring a customer’s motivation from their usage can leave major gaps in your understanding.

For example, let’s imagine we’re working on a website for a high-end shoe retailer. We’ve added a new “Clearance” tab and telemetry is suggesting that only a small amount of our customers are selecting it. We might infer that the location or visibility of the tab is poor; resulting in fewer clicks. It may seem like a good idea to increase visibility by making the tab more prominent on the page.

However, after talking with customers, we find the actual reason they are not clicking on “Clearance” tab is because their primary motivation, when they come to our site, is to find the latest fashions; not to pay less for shoes.

Telemetry is a low-cost way to look for signals, but interviews and focus groups can help explain the data and find deeper meaning. That’s why telemetry should be used to cross-validate results from other customer and product development research.

Conducting a customer interview

We’ve outlined many methods to get feedback from customers, all having their benefits and limitations. Over the years, we’ve used a combination of mixed methodologies to ensure that we’re developing products that customers will love. Based on our experience working with teams, we’ve found that customer interviews provide the fastest way to start learning from our customers.

Our playbook is a structured approach that moves you from learning about your customers, primarily through interviews, and identifying opportunities to conceptualizing new ideas and refining the quality of your product offerings.  The stage in this approach is to provide you with guidelines on conducting customer interviews.

One of the key characteristics to any successful interview is preparation. While it may be tempting to jump online and start asking your customers questions, you will be better served with a more structured approach. Let’s break down the things you’ll need to ensure you have a productive and insightful interview.

Screener

Before you start having conversations with customers, it’s a good idea to have the team decide on the type of customer you want to talk to. While it might be tempting to say, “we’re interested in anyone who might want to talk to us.” That doesn’t set the foundation for a constructive interview. Having too broad of a segment doesn’t allow you to focus your interview into a concise series of questions.

A screener is a series of questions that can help you determine whether a customer is a good fit for the interview you plan to have.

For example, let’s imagine we were interested in learning more about how customers were using our web portal that connects them to service providers in their area. We’ve decided that we’re interested in finding out how well the relationships have been going between our customers and the service providers they’ve contacted. We could set up a set of screener questions to ensure that we’re talking to the best possible candidates for our study:

  1. In the past six months, how often would you say you used our web portal?
  2. In the past six months, how often would you say you searched for a service provider?
  3. In the past six months, have you contacted a service provider to inquire about services?
  4. In the past six months, have you scheduled an appointment with a service provider for consultation?
  5. Are you currently receiving services from a provider you’ve contacted through our website?

If we find a customer that answered, “very often” or “yes” to the following questions, there’s a higher likelihood that he or she will have enough experience with our portal to give us better insight into the relationships that get established with our service providers.

When used for screeners, surveys can be a great tool to get specific answers to questions as quickly as possible. This will reduce the burden on the participant, making it easy for them to quickly respond to your screener. Also, it’ll help you to quickly identify if a customer is the right fit for your interview by simply scanning the survey results.

If you pursue the survey approach to your screener, be sure to include a question that asks the participant if they would be willing to be contacted by someone from the product team and to have them include their contact information. You can then filter your results based on people that were willing to be contacted.

As a team, creating a screener can be a valuable exercise in determining what qualities you’re looking for. Additionally, you can create multiple screeners and split different segments between team members. This will allow you to cover more ground and organize your team regarding who is talking with whom.

It can be helpful to have a template for contacting customers via e-mail, message boards, etc. This will give you an easy and consistent way to communicate with customers about what you’re interested in learning.

Remote vs. in-person interviews

You should determine which type of interview makes sense for your project. In-person interviews are great, because they offer an ability to catch subtle cues like body language. For example, a quick roll of the eyes, might suggest sarcasm or that the customer is making a comment in jest.

The downside of conducting interviews in-person is that it can be costly and hard to plan. Meeting with someone at their place of work or another location adds an extra burden in terms of resourcing. It’s much easier to take a call at your desk, then plan to meet someone in-person. Additionally, depending on your budget, if you decide to meet customers in-person, you may be limiting your selection to only customers in your immediate region.

Today, there are great online, video-conferencing, solutions like Microsoft Skype, Google Hangouts, or Facebook Messenger. These tools allow you to connect with anyone in the world for free. Depending on your customer base and their familiarity with technology, this can be an easy, low-cost, solution.

Calling your customer over the phone is acceptable as well, however, it should be noted that over the phone, it can be hard to tell if the customer is distracted, irritated, or confused because you miss those important visual cues.

Give time for responses

When you’re talking with customers, you may feel the urge to fill up silent moments with conversation. As an interviewer, you should be comfortable with “awkward silence” because it gives the customers a chance to reflect on the questions you give them.

If a customer says something interesting that you want to drill into, make note of it and wait until they’ve completed their comment before asking a follow up question.

Avoid leading questions

It can be very easy to lead or bias a customer to a certain response. Consider the following question:

What do you like about our product?

This question implies that the customer must like something about your product. They might not like anything! Yet, they feel compelled to find something they like just so they can answer your question. A better way to ask this would be:

What do you think about our product? Is there anything you like or dislike?

These questions are neutral. You’re interested in hearing any thoughts; positive or negative. You’re also giving the customer permission to tell you the things that they don’t like.

Remain positive

During the interview, you want to exude positivity. Continually encourage feedback and reassure the customer that they won’t hurt your feelings with negative comments. The customer may feel like they’re failing the interview, because they’re not telling you what you want to hear. So, you want to continually reassure them that any feedback is important and helpful, even when it’s tough criticism.

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Thought Leadership Zen: Guide to lean customer development
Guide to lean customer development
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