Don’t Just Talk To Customers, Get Them To Do Something

Successful innovation results from the combination of great ideas with sustainably profitable business models. At the heart of a sustainable business model is delivering value to customers. Without happy customers, you might make money for a little while, but this will not sustain in the long term. This ultimately means that innovators have to work with customers in order to test whether their ideas are serving a real need and if they making something people want.

But working with customers is hard. Most innovators and startup teams would rather not do it. They just want to work on building their cool new products. As innovation leaders we have to coax, persuade and cajole our teams to get out of the building and meet with customers. This is made all the more difficult if, after getting out of the building, the teams still feel that they didn’t get any value from the process.

In my experience, the worst examples are when customers say they need something and indicate a strong intent to buy it. Using these learnings, a team can then create the product, only to learn after launch that customers were never going to buy the product in the first place. These are difficult conversations to have with our teams. We told them to get out of the building and use customer feedback to build their product. They did exactly that, and their product still failed. How could this happen?

Talking To Humans

There are several layers of complexity that are involved in talking to customers. Humans are social animals who like making a good impression on others. As such, while you think the customer is answering your question, they are measuring your reactions to find out if they are telling you what you want to hear. These social desirability concerns mean that we have to take what people say with several grains of salt.

In addition to being social animals, humans are also predictably irrational. Even though there is some myth making around rational decision making, most people don’t really know the reasons they make certain choices. Most people are unaware how much their context influences the decisions they make. Instead, people tend confabulate reasons for their product choices which can be misleading for innovators.

On top of all that, people are unable to predict their own future behaviour. As such, they may not be intentionally lying when they indicate an intention to buy your product in the future. They probably think they will really do it. However, when they now have to pull out their money and pay for the product, a different calculus takes place.

According to Rob Fitzpatrick, author of The Mom Test, we have to be careful when talking to customers. To avoid social desirability, we should never ask customers questions that if we asked our own mother she would lie to us. We should only ask customers questions that if we asked our own mother she would have to tell us the truth. We should also avoid asking customers what they will do in the future or what product solutions to create. Customers own their problems and innovators own solutions. We should focus our conversations with customers on their current challenges and how they are dealing with them.

Don’t Just Stand There Talking To Customers, Get Them To Do Something!

Following the above Mom Test principles will result in better data and learnings from our customer conversations. However, we must take anything customers tell us as a directional indicator only. It should not be the only basis upon which we make product decisions. Beyond talking to customers, we have to get them to do something.

I have worked with teams who have been out of the building talking to customers about the challenges they are facing. The teams come back energized by what they have learnt and they would like to leap into making the product or service. However, this is a bad idea. Taking customers on their word alone can be a dangerous road to failure.

It is important to confirm what customers say with behavioral data. We learn about customer needs, then we confirm that they will take action to resolve those needs. This means that we have to go beyond interviews and start running behavioural experiments during which we ask customers to perform actions that show genuine interest. These experiments can range from landing pages where customers sign-up, pre-order or recommend our product to their friends. It can also be letters of intent from our business customers or even upfront payments for our product with a full money back guarantee.

All these experiments can be run before we begin building our product. I have learned that there is no limit to the inventiveness of innovators as they come up with experiments to test customer behaviour. The goal is to learn if there is a mismatch between what customers say and what they do. If we find that this is the case, we can then go back to customers and learn more about what might be stopping them from buying our product, even when they say they have the need.

Working with customers is highly valuable when it is done the right way. And so, even as innovation team resist my advice by quoting Henry Ford and faster horses, I still insist that innovation cannot succeed without input from customers. As Steve Blank says, no business plan survives first contact with customers. There are no facts in your office, so get out of the building and start learning from customers.

This article was first published on Forbes where Tendayi Viki is a regular contributor. Tendayi Viki is the author of The Corporate Startup, an award winning book on how large companies can build their internal ecosystems to innovate for the future while running their core business.