In my old company we bungled customer discovery. With good intentions we turned up our empathy and began building our target personas. We wrote them up in nice powerpoint slides and then promptly forgot about them. Except when an investor or an agency asked. Then we scrambled.
This experience led me to set up Familiarize, because try as I might I couldn’t find a tool to help build a ‘live and latest’ view of the customer, as we learnt more about them.
In my experience, there are a bunch of different archetypes when it comes to customer discovery. You might call them traps, where startups get caught up and fail in building a good understanding of their customer. And, without that, put their business at risk.
Are you any of these?
1/ The Theorist
It’s much more comfortable to live in the world of the theoretical customer. With a cute name, a photo from Unsplash and a polished powerpoint of make-believe. I’ve seen companies really go to town here – mission statements, dreams and inspirational quotes. And then stick it up on a wall; to be ignored a week later.
To be fair it’s often good for team- and empathy-building. And it’s a good place to start. But it’s dangerous to stay too long – and too out of touch with a real customer.
My advice: Get out the building, in the words of Steve Blank. And out from behind social media too. And start talking to real customers. Use your powerpoint as a starting point of assumptions to test and correct as you learn more about your customer. That powerpoint or whatever tool you use needs to be dynamic. If it’s not changed by week two you’ve got a problem.
2/ The Start-Stopper
Many Founders start with good intentions when it comes to customer discovery and building customer-centric businesses. They download a persona template and think deeply about the person with the problem they’re going to help. They book in some calls with customers and find out all sorts of great ideas to help their business. They hold a few more the following week. Then they get busy and they skip a few weeks. And that becomes months.
My advice: Customer discovery needs a workflow, a system; otherwise it falls down the list of things to do. It could be as simple as two hours set aside each week, one for a customer call and one to update the customer profile and set some new questions or hypotheses to test. Or you could use something like Familiarize to keep you on track. Some Founders end up handing this off to a team member, which is fine, although the Founder should keep involved. The customer is your business; it doesn’t exist without.
3/ The Impatient Shortcutter
This might well be the majority of entrepreneurs. They often start well, because they’ve read Eric Ries, Seth Godin etc. But they can’t believe there’s not a faster way to understand your customer. They believe they can infer insights from (usually far too limited) data. Surely a few hundred or a thousand dollars invested in some growth hacking will tell them everything. They had this problem once, so they can just use their gut feel to think like the customer.
And these “strategies” do work for some. But not for many. Building a business, and a brand and a customer base takes effort; taking short cuts on your customer feels like a risky strategy.
My advice: I understand the impatience; I’m an impatient founder too. And I have thought “just buy some awareness and see what sticks”. It’s lazy thinking. With Familiarize, I learnt quickly by working with Founders, that if the result I offered was simply a nice customer profile I would die. I have to offer real customers. Effective customer discovery leads to low cost customer acquisition. Don’t see it as research, see it as building relationships with your early adopters, who could become your most loyal customers and advocates. It’s an investment.
4/ The Spinner
Every time you talk with a customer is an opportunity to learn. But it also introduces the risk of being thrown off course by a new idea, some feedback, a complaint. I’ve seen many businesses, including my old company and my new business Familiarize, hear something from a customer (or an investor) and immediately change course. On one bit of data.
It’s tempting, especially if you are able to make the adjustment. But it’s a slippery slope to spinning out of control.
My advice: All changes to your business, product, marketing etc. need customer validation. And validation by more than one customer. The Familiarize method is all about building relationships through customer discovery, so you can quickly pull together a panel of trusted customers to test an idea before investing time and money. To avoid spinning completely, a structured approach to validation is required, where all ideas are routinely tested to avoid bouncing from one idea to the next and never satisfying staff, customers or investors.
5/ The Taker
Entrepreneurs need single-minded focus to build businesses. They are impatient, they may be under pressure to an investor or cash runway – and they are in a hurry to demonstrate product-market fit. I’ve seen Founders like this who see customer discovery as an opportunity to get what they need as quickly as possible and then shut the door so they can be left to build. “Fill in this survey”, “Talk to me on the phone”, “Answer my email”, “Buy my product”. For some reason when we feel under pressure, we forget that this wouldn’t work on us.
Customer discovery is about building a relationship; one that can flourish to give you most of the insight you need, potential customers and advocates. It can’t be switched on and off based on your timing and needs.
My advice: decide which kind of business you want to be. If you truly believe in being customer-centric and helping your customer solve their problem, then you need to invest in building customer relationships. Then it becomes about finding the most efficient way to do that. Structure and system bring efficiency, so you know where you stand each day and what you have to do by when. This is where Familiarize can help.
I hope these five archetypes help you understand some of the pitfalls in effective customer discovery. They are traps into which it’s very easy to fall – I have – in pursuit of growth and establishing product-market fit.
Find your way to avoid them and if I can help, drop me a line at email@example.com