So just what is customer development anyway? As Internet entrepreneurs, we often forget that we’re not dealing with flickering numbers on a screen when we try to sell something. Instead, we’re dealing with real, live human beings who have real ideas about what they want and need from life and who will open up their very real wallets, pull out their very real credit cards and send us their very real money.
However, they’ll only do that for us if we can offer them a solution to a problem they’re having. I’ve talked about this in the past – that ultimately, you and I and everyone else who sells anything are in the business of solving a problem. A teacher is solving a problem for parents who want their children educated so that they can make a good living. Yasir, who owns Quantum SEO Labs solves your problems of getting your website seen throughout the world.
Now this is not going to be another rehash of why and how you need to figure out how to solve problems for people. Instead, customer development is actually the process of learning about the problems that your customers have and how best you might solve those problems for them.
It is the process of interviewing real, live people and then actually putting into practice what those real, live people actually have to say about the products that you would like to sell them. You do this also through various experiments and other kinds of tests but ultimately, it’s basically testing. Think of it as the next evolution of doing split testing which I’ve written about in the past.

You Can Even Use It to Find New Ideas

Of course, while the primary purpose of customer development is supposed to be to take an idea that you came up with and then figure out if there is a market for it and how best to tailor it to the needs of various people who will buy it, you can also use customer development earlier. It is possible to simply use customer development to interview customers and or test their reactions to various interactions to come up with new ideas that you hadn’t even thought of.
Remember that these days, it’s easier than ever to build a new product. Even if it requires coding, you simply hire a coder from somewhere in the third world and it can be done cheaply and easily. The problem that you need to focus on instead is, what should the product be and why would anyone want to buy it from you?

Getting Started

Okay, so now you’re sold – you love the idea of customer development and you want to get going. Just one problem. A big part of this whole process is to find people to interview. How exactly do you go about doing that? There are several options available:

  • Try Cold Calling – Depending on what your company is about, this may be as simple as grabbing your local phone book and dialing random numbers. Tell them who you are, explain that you are doing a short survey about whatever it is that you sell and ask if you can take up a few minutes of their time. Is it scary? Yup; but it works.
  • Advertise – You know you’ve got a general idea of what it is that you want to do so why not advertise? The same kinds of advertising that work for selling a product work selling yourself as someone to go to for answers. Offer a short webinar and then ask the attendees if they’d be willing to be interviewed afterwards.
  • Go to Forums – I’ve mentioned this before. If you know that you want to focus on a specific area of interest, try going to forums which focus on those areas and then ask people there if they’d mind being interviewed for a few minutes. It doesn’t take long and it can be one of your best sources of interviewees.

Where Should I Interview Them?

Where Should I meet them for customer development
Congratulations. You’ve taken the first step and you’ve found yourself a whole bunch of people whom you would like to interview for your customer development. That’s great.
Now you have a few new problems. Some of them are logistical. For example, how are you conducting the interviews? Are you coming to people’s home with a clipboard and pen? Interviewing them on the phone? Sending out a web based interview? Whatever the case may be, you’ll get different results and different information depending on how you do your interviews.
For example, many people may be reluctant to answer certain questions if they are asked in person but if you were to ask them on an anonymous Internet survey, they wouldn’t mind answering. On the other hand, you can often better gauge information about a person when you actually take the trouble to see what their reactions are.
Ask an embarrassing question and watch their reactions closely. Most people have a tell which shows you that they’re lying. Maybe it’s that they look down or away. Maybe they twitch or do something else. You’ll get none of this information if you simply do an online interview. Phone interviews provide a bit more of that impersonality which makes people a little less inhibited but you can often tell by their hesitation or their tone of voice if they’re being honest with you.

What Do I Ask?

Now that you’ve decided on where to do your interviews (well, hopefully you have), you need to decide what exactly you want to ask your potential customers. Personally, I prefer the Dale Carnegie method of accomplishing this. I used it once on a job interview and it worked brilliantly.
In essence, the Dale Carnegie school of thought is to get the person talking about what they want to talk about, not what you want to talk about. You may want to be all business like with a set of questions in front of you on a clipboard that you simply must get through. However, you’ll find that people are often very curt and circumspect when they’re asked questions this way.
Instead, try disarming them by actually asking them about their daily lives. You can guide them somewhat and ask about their daily life at the office if for example your company wants to learn about their needs for different kinds of work desks. However, the more freeform you can make it and the more you can prod them to simply talk about themselves, the more they’ll open up to you about the issues that they are facing.
As I said, I did this once on a job interview. Instead of focusing first on asking about the job responsibilities and benefits, I asked the guy what he thought of our fair city. I learned that he’d recently arrived from elsewhere so I asked questions about where he lived and why he left.
He spent twenty minutes telling me about his favorite childhood hangouts and then we finally got to the business of discussing the job. Ultimately, he offered me the job on the spot even though I’d barely said a word about my own qualifications. It was simply a matter of getting the guy to feel comfortable and to open up to me.
Be sure as well to find out about people’s problem as they relate to whatever business you are in. Believe it or not, one you get someone comfortable, they’ll almost always want to tell you all about the problems they’re facing and they’ll not want to shut up about it either. This is of course pure gold and is the very reason for doing the customer development interview. You need this information in order to structure your own products to solve their problems. Remember again that ultimately, when selling something, you are in the problem solving business.

What Should I Take Away From This?

The takeaway from customer development
A certain amount of any customer development interviews that you do will by necessity require some wasted time. You don’t really need to know about the person’s children (unless of course you are selling products designed to help them monitor their children or better understand how to interact with children).
However, you do need to allow for a certain amount of this kind of chitchat because it helps to break the ice and get your interviewee into a sharing mood. They’re nervous and not sure what exactly to expect from the meeting so you need to disarm them. Doing an interrogation style interview inevitably means that you’ll end up with a list of half true answers which teaches you very little.
Be sure to take notes whenever people start talking about the problems they encounter when dealing with the area that your company works on. If they’re talking about how tough it is for them to save for college for their kids and you run a financial consultancy, that’s a great time to take notes. Note exactly what they said they’ve tried already and why it hasn’t worked for them.
Try to glean as much information as you can from these interviews to tell you what they’d love to see done differently and then you can use that information to craft a product that suits them.
You should then compare notes with anyone else whom you are working with to build up your information. Talk to your team or if it’s just you, discuss it with a good friend. Look through the various notes of the interviews and see what kinds of common themes pop up for you.
If someone mentioned a specific issue that they were having but you haven’t seen anyone else mention it, you can either ask new interviewees about this (it may be something they hadn’t thought of) or consider whether this is likely unique to that one person’s situation. The key is to find the common denominator for people which will allow you to craft a product which appeals to all or at least most of them.

Developing the Product

Finally, after you’ve done your research, you are ready to develop the product. Once again, remember that you and I and everyone else on the planet are in the business of solving problems. This means that when developing a product, you need to ensure that you are taking into account the problems that you learned about and incorporating solutions to them into your product.
This may be as simple as developing a basic word processor for writers which doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of Microsoft Office or it may be as complicated as finding a way to cheaply get people to the vacation of their dreams. Okay, I admit, both of those can be pretty complicated to do but it seem to me at least that that it’s easier to develop a simple, basic word processor without lots of distractions than to find a way to create a product which lets people fly to Hawaii on a tight budget.
Regardless though, through the process of your customer development interviews, you will have gained valuable insight into the minds of your potential customers and will then be able to translate this into real world products which solve their very real world problems.

Bottom Line

Customer Development may not be for everyone but almost all of us are using it at some level. Whether you run a company with existing customers or you are creating a brand new startup, you are ultimately going to be trying to find out what problems you can solve for someone else. This means that you need to find out what the customers need.
Whether you do this through a formal process of customer development or you do it informally through word of mouth and the comments you hear from your customers on occasion will only affect just how successful your product actually is out there in the real world.