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Treat Your Customers Like Children (or your Children like Customers)

One of the more intriguing dynamics in startups and business in general, is customer communication. Customer Development is, of course, all about talking with customers to test fundamental business hypotheses, match product solution to customer problem, and in general, learn as much about them as possible in order more efficiently and effectively market and sell to them.

The tension comes from learning when to ignore your customers and when to take heed. Custdevguy reminds us that customers have their own agenda, which might not coincide with your own. Steve Blank reminds us that Customer Development is not just collecting web metrics and it's not about focus groups. I've written before that Customers own the pain, Founders own the vision, meaning that as an entrepreneur, you must tailor your vision to solve the customer's pain. That is the objective of speaking with your customers.

Sean Ellis perhaps says it best, describing the process as "honing in" on the "signal" that is the core value proposition of your product to your customer. What's valuable about this description to me, is that rather than looking at what you need to ask each customer, it provides a high-level perspective on what your objective should be and how to get there.  It's talking to enough customer and asking whatever questions necessary to hone in on the core value of the product.


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Back in November, I decided I wanted to go to do something different for the holidays this year; something fun and a little different, and perhaps a little adventurous with my two girls.  I decided that we would go to Seattle to visit my sister and her family, who have kids the same age as mine, and from there we'll rent a cabin in the woods and go play in the snow.  That was my "vision."  When I told my kids we were going to visit their cousins in Seattle, they didn't want to go. Now, I had a pretty good idea why, but I asked anyway and they gave me the ones I guessed, but others I hadn't thought of:

  1. I'd rather just stay home
  2. Usually we only get along with the kids the first day
  3. What will we do? It's just boring to hang out there
  4. They don't celebrate Christmas

Now, listening to your kids is part of being a good parent.  Always doing what they want, not so much; you could end up spending an inordinate amount of time, for example, at McDonalds.  I night characterize the 4 objections I received this way:

  1. stasis
  2. fear
  3. features aren't appealing
  4. visions don't match

As the owner of the vision, I need to somehow deal with each of these, while keeping these particular customers happy.  (If I fail, my vision fails.)

  1. I know my customers well.  This is a standard response. Staying where you are is a known experience and for many, that is preferable to the unknown even when the unknown offers big upside. This is definitely not an "early adopter" mentality.
  2. Similar to 1), but in this case a there's a specific problem with a feature that the customer can clearly articulate. Of course, that doesn't mean it's true.  In this case it's not.  I remind my customers of all the great times they have had in the past, they come back with examples of problems, etc.  Actually just talking the issues through, makes my customers feel better.
  3. In this particular case, the features weren't articulated well by mean.  In other words, my messaging was poor.  When I explained that we wouldn't only be hanging out in Seattle, that we were going to the mountains and the snow, most of the objections went away. I provided a means for my customers to perform a cost-benefit analysis.
  4. I honestly hadn't considered this point and I could see that it was extremely important to my customer.  Was it possible to fix this and maintain the vision?  In the end, it was not difficult to at all.  My sister was happy to celebrate Christmas in the cabin.  While we wouldn't have a tree, we could hang stockings and exchange a few presents.  We could even have a  White Christmas!  Problem solved.

BTW, we continued to "add features" throughout the trip that required more "customer development."  Multiple times the adults said "we're going to do this (go for a walk, snow shoe hike, etc.)," each time met with derision from the kids; each time resulting in a good time for all.  Children, like customers, sometimes must simply be (are looking to be) led.

This is perhaps a silly example, but I thought it illustrates several points:

  • Founder owns the vision
  • Communication with customers hones the vision, reveals customer pain and exposes emotional objections to features
  • Companies must reject some customer requests, e.g. those run counter to the vision
  • Companies must effectively message the value of the vision, features, etc.

Hope you all had a great season, I did!  : )

ONE COMMENT ON THIS POST To “Treat Your Customers Like Children (or your Children like Customers)”

  1. Lisa Ray March 29, 2010 at 11:42 am

    Good analogy. Good post.

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