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Good customer discovery questions

This is one of the top google searches in my domain. It’s a bit of an odd one in a way because it implies there’s something standard you could copy and paste and bosh you’ve done your customer discovery.

It belies a very common trend amongst founders to find shortcuts.

There’s nothing wrong with that of course, finding hacks and proxies that move you forward.

And there are plenty as part of the customer discovery process, when conducting research for startups.

But I’d say probably not for the questions. These need quite a bit of thought. Otherwise you could miss out on some really good advice that’ll save you time and money. And you might blow any chance of going back to that person for more advice later – or a sale.

I’m a pragmatist. I have too much of a butterfly mind to spend days and weeks on anything. I like bitesize, chunking, quick wins and scanning.

So I’ll cut to the chase about the questions.

Firstly don’t start with them. If you do, you’ll be all over the place and mostly likely confuse both yourself and your customer.

1. Start with your hypotheses

What do you believe about your target customer – their struggle, the solutions they use today, why they don’t work, what they spend on those solutions (in time and money) and what it’s worth to them to overcome or avoid their problems.

Here’s a bit of advice on hypotheses:

  • Start with the biggest unknown about your business that poses the biggest risk. For example, one founder told me about this great idea he had for a business, he formed a team, he got them coding and then he looked into patents and saw his idea wasn’t unique, and worse, was so well protected it gave him no freedom to operate. Another told me she thought of an idea that could save a company hours a day converting scientific data before uploading it into a tool. The first three customers she spoke with loved the idea, the fourth, fifth and sixth had already found a free tool online that did the conversion.

  • Next hypotheses need to be something you can measure objectively – yes/no (or multiple choice if you must). Think like a scientist running an experiment. I always say plan for your output to go into a spreadsheet not a powerpoint.

  • Simple example hypotheses begin with “I believe my customer + verb…” – purists may disagree, but I think simple is best, at least when you’re early stage.

  • It needs to avoid future or conditional tenses, since everyone pretends they’re going to be an improved version of themselves in the future. Look for evidence as validation here – for example your customer already pays for an alternative solution today, has already signed up for something, has already taken action.

  • And finally again, like a scientist, test just one thing. Don’t overload your hypotheses with more than one variable otherwise you won’t be able to rely on the data,

OK so start with your hypotheses – make sure the questions you ask are what you really need to know urgently, generate data not just insight and give you credible data you can rely on.

2. Balance open and closed questions

We’re always taught to ask lots of these when talking to customers and I’m not going to counter that. But what I am going to say is balance it with something quantitative. I speak to so many founders who are stuck between diverging customer insights. Get the insight but sum up and get confirmation yes or no to your question/hypothesis.

Bring every valuable insight you get into your hypothesis development – test how common that insight is. Build data to support the insights. Never rely on one view.

3. Use your questions to build relationships

Any engagement with a potential customer is an opportunity to build a relationship – potentially leading to a sale. Make sure you ‘give’ as well as ‘take’ in these engagements – share insights, tips etc that you may have heard from others.

Most importantly, leave the door open to go back and ask for more.

You may realise that the person you spoke to (or invited to fill in a customer discovery survey) wasn’t your target customer – and that’s fine. Note that, and adjust your data, so they don’t skew it. But for those that do match, hold on to them. The number of founders who are in the market and don’t think to go back to the people they engaged for research (e.g. the author of this article who struggles practising what he preaches) is staggering.

Ask them if they’d mind if you went back to them, can you sign them up to your email, will they send you any communications they get from your competitors etc.

See customer discovery as the front-end of your customer acquisition. These people should be the first people you announce your new product launch to – make them feel involved and special.

So that’s it

1) build hypotheses first – make sure you’re asking the right questions.

2) build data – zeros and ones, not speech bubbles for powerpoint.

3) build relationships – see customer discovery as the front-end to sales.

And finally don’t let any of this stop you from talking to customers for “another week”. Keep it informal, keep an open mind and enjoy it. Talking to customers about how you’re going to solve their problem is usually a positive experience that fires you up to go after your mission.

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