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Your startup can only succeed if it can provide real value for your customers. Stop guessing what are your customers’ problems or needs and what they consider valuable. Here’s a framework to help you to really listen to your customer and learn what are the problems your product should solve.

Steve Jobs famously said, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” It’s true that

your customers usually don’t know what is the solution or product they need, but they can tell you what is their problem. Tweet this

Let your customer tell you what is the problem. Don't guess.Take a look at the person missing the bus in the image. What is the product or solution he needs? An alarm clock, timetable app, marriage counseling or what? We can guess, but he can probably tell us in detail what are the problems that make him miss his bus. In other words, just talk with your customer. Once you understand the problems and needs, then it’s your job to be the visionary entrepreneur that comes up with the ingenious solution that the customer could have never envisioned.

If you make sure that you are developing products that someone actually needs, you will eliminate one the biggest reason for which startups fail. But every time we tell our startups to – as Steve Blank says – get out of the building and talk with the customers, they say that it’s hard to do. Based on our experience on working with hundreds of entrepreneurs, we’ve come up with a framework for the customer interviews. Use these five areas as your checklist for discussion topics when you are validating the customers’ problems:

  1. Needs and problems that your customers have
  2. Context for the problems
  3. Substitutes for solving the problems
  4. Value of the problems (time, money etc.)
  5. Other people that have the same problem

 

Download exclusive content: Free summary of the interview tips you can use as a checklist when talking with customers

Get the Interview Tips pdf

What is the most important question to ask from a customer?

My life's work remembered by my Mom (copyright Topi Jarvinen)As Rob Fitzpatrick said in his excellent book “The Mom Test” never ask for opinions from your customers. Ask for specific things that they know about – how they are currently doing things or have done in the past. These are things they know about, and most people like to talk about themselves.

Never try to sell your idea to your potential customers and get them to agree with you when you’re still learning about the problem. It’s really hard to get any reliable information this way, because they probably just don’t want to hurt your feelings. Just like talking to your Mom, right?

When talking with the customers, always let them to do the talking. Your job is to listen and learn. Never ask yes or no questions. Instead ask open questions that let them to describe the problems in their own words and tell you things you’ve never thought of.

The perfect question in most situations is

“Interesting, can you tell me more about it?” Tweet this

Here are some more examples of the kinds of questions we’ve found to be effective customer interviews.

Ask the customer to tell you what are their problems

A large part of business is focused on solving problems—real problems for real people. Grasp the real nature of the problem, and it can be simple to solve. You can do so by asking a few simple questions:

  • What are the difficulties you are experiencing?
  • What is the problem with [x]?
  • How often do you have this problem?

When you start talking with people, you have to teach yourself to hear the important message in their problem statements.   Try to understand:

  • What problems does the customer want us to solve?
  • What is the customer behavior or preferences today?

Remember that it’s not always the most visible and biggest problem that you must solve for your customer. In fact, all the seemingly smaller problems can lead you to areas that specific enough for you to solve. Listen to your customers carefully.

Understand the context in which problems occur

To do this you need to see customer feedback that spans beyond the basic.  You need to understand the context in which the problems occur. Questions such as these can help grow your product and your relationship with your customers.

  • Are there certain things that happen before or after the problem occurs?
  • Does the problem happen often or does it take a long time?

These should help you to understand if there are specific circumstances when the problem occurs. Also, your potential customers may have some real or self-inflicted limitations: common examples are be laws or industry regulations, language, personal preferences etc.

Try to understand how people are solving the problems today

The simplest way to place yourself ahead of the competition is by understanding customers’ needs and problems as well as by understanding what is your competition.  And your competition is not always another company. You may be also looking to improve upon an existing habit, custom or use of a product.

For example, an Indian entrepreneur just invented “edible spoons”. They work perfectly fine as spoons, and you can eat them with the food. The problem with conventional spoons was that they were a big hassle when it came to packing. He needed a substitute solution.

If there’s a real problem, people probably are doing something or using something to solve the problem already. Try to understand this by asking:

  • How do you solve this problem?
  • Is there current way good enough?
  • Do you wish there was something else available?

Then used this feedback to start to think about:

  • Who are the real competitors?
  • What are the current products not doing right?

Determine the value of your product based on their current and past actions and experiences

Nine out of ten startups fail. Most of these failures are not because of insufficient capital or poor marketing, but because they were selling something that nobody wanted to buy.

According to Fortune, most startups fail because “they make products no one wants”.  The solution to this is to focus on what your customers consider valuable. After all,

customer will pay for the value you provide, not for your vision. Tweet this

Asking your potential customer “how much would you pay for this” is not a good way to determine the value. How would they know? You’re asking them to predict the future. Instead ask about things they know about:

  • How much do you currently spend on a product for this type of need?
  • Is it a big problem for you?
  • How much time or money you waste because of this problem?

Remember, not every problem is worth solving with a new product. Sometimes the time savings, cost efficiency, new revenue opportunity, enjoyment or some other benefit of the new solution just doesn’t provide enough value to make your new product interesting. You need to understand this before you waste your time and money on a product no-one wants.

Ultimately, you need to reflect on the answers to your potential customers’ questions by asking yourself:

  • How do my customers spend money in these types of situations?
  • How do my customers spend money for similar needs?
  • What do my customers see as valuable?
  • Is it a real problem or just a small annoyance?

Meet other people—never assume everyone has the same problem

Make sure your startup is offering solution for a problem faced by a sufficiently large number of people. Simply ask your prospective customers, “Does someone else have this same problem?  Would you please introduce me to her?”

Never start building something if it doesn’t have a big enough market. And you have to figure out what is big enough for you. Usually, the best bet is to aim to dominate a niche market and grow from there, as Silicon Valley VC Peter Thiel said in his excellent book Zero to One. Just make sure that there is a market where you can provide enough value.

Make talking with customers your everyday habit

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The bottom line is very simple.  Talking with customers before developing new products will help you to build something that actually provides value that they are willing to pay for.  When you understand what is the problem that needs to be solved, you’re well on your way to becoming a successful startup.

And don’t stop there! You need to talk to your customers all the time – even when you’re running a billion-dollar business. As entrepreneur and VC Mark Cuban said:

It is so much easier to be nice, to be respectful, to put yourself in your customers’ shoes and try to understand how you might help them before they ask for help, than it is to try to mend a broken customer relationship

Topi Järvinen @topij

 

Download exclusive content: Free summary of the interview tips you can use as a checklist when talking with customers

Get the Interview Tips pdf

 

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