Seven things startups (and everybody) should know before talking to customers

One of my many activities I enjoy is mentoring entrepreneurs and startups. A key part of the startup playbook is talking to customers. People can validate (or invalidate) critical assumptions — and by the way, show you that the world is likely way more complicated than you think. This is a huge evolution from the days of production orientation where new firms would build what they were good at and hope the market would respond.

On the philosophy that everyone could (and should) be talking to other people, that means there are a lot of these conversations happening. But what do you need to do to ensure that these conversations both help you make key business decisions and ensure the people you talk to feel respected and treated ethically in the exchange? Here are 7 key things to keep in mind, before, during, and after customer interactions.

Before you talk to people

1. Figure out why you are talking to them. This is not just a check box in the process. What are you trying to learn? Are there specific assumptions you are testing, or are there decisions you need to make? What information will help you make those decisions, and how will these interactions enable you to gather that information?

2. Figure out who you need to talk to. Once you know what you are trying to learn, the kinds of people you need to talk to should be clear. If it is the end user or the buyer, have you defined your target market well enough to find them? Or do you need to learn from someone else, such as an expert in the overall value chain, or in certain production processes?

While you are talking to people

3. Make sure you have informed consent. Informed consent means the person you are talking to has agreed to the conversation knowing who you are, who you represent, what the conversation will be about (and how long it will take), and how you will use the information and protect their data. They also need to be able to withdraw consent at any time.

4. Show respect throughout the conversation. You are there to listen and learn, not to inform. While you may need to explain your idea, the majority of the time you should not be the one talking, only providing prompts. Be interested in what they have to say, and use positive reinforcement, like nodding to show you are listening. During this time concentrate on their answer, not your next question. Resist the urge to tell them what others have said or what you think. Be comfortable with silence, pauses in the conversation allow the other person time to think or add details. Jumping in as soon as they take a second to breathe can be seen as interrupting. Be aware of your body language as well — eye contact is important, and slouching, looking around fidgeting can be interpreted as expressions of boredom.

5. Don’t ask leading questions. I actually hate the term validation because it assumes a positive response. When we seek to validate, as opposed to simply learn, we are already putting a perspective on the research. Likewise, certain ways of wording questions can encourage a certain response. That response may be desired, but if it is not what the participant really thinks, or is only an agreement with your suggestion, you have not really learned anything.

A question like “How much time will you save with this product?” assumes that the product will save them time, a participant will seek to give an answer. A more open question would be “Do you see any benefits that this product would provide for you personally?”

After you talk to them

6. Treat what they told you with the respect due to all learning. First, make sure you thank them, verbally, with a written note, or even with a monetary incentive. But also treat the data with respect. If you don’t like what you heard because it goes against what you believe to be true, learn and iterate from it — don’t be quick to think you spoke to the wrong person

7. Treat their data with privacy. Individual user data should not be identifiable to the individual level, beyond the team that originally collected the data. Data should be stored securely as well.

Most people enjoy talking about themselves, what they do, and what they think, so it often isn’t hard to engage them in conversations and interviews. Depending on the product, it can be challenging to find the right people. For instance, finding the right person to talk to about a new component for an industrial process is harder than finding a potential user for a new organizer app. Either way, though, the fundamental principles are the same. Frame your questions well before embarking on any research, and treat your participants, and their data, with respect.