Navigating the Landscape of Customer Discovery Requires You to Be Both Open and Direct

Editor’s note: The 2015 Lean Startup Conference is just around the corner (it’s from November 16-19th in San Francisco, and there’s still time to get your ticket!). We have dozens of excellent speakers and mentors who are eager to share their product development, entrepreneurship, and innovation stories–you’ll never see these experts in one place ever again. Learn more about them in our ‘Lean Startup Speakers’ series.

Next up is Ariana Friedlander, who is the Founder of Rosabella Consulting, LLC . She’ll be giving a talk on Mastering Customer Discovery at the 2015 Lean Startup Conference. Learn more about her here.

If you have been at the customer discovery process for any significant length of time, chances are you have encountered some challenges.  These difficulties may include getting false positives, not getting valid feedback, or simply having difficulty connecting with customers.  Such struggles can dampen your enthusiasm at best and at worst, cost you a livelihood.

Part of the challenge I have seen is that to be successful at customer discovery (which usually does not happen until after a few failures) you need to simultaneously be open and direct in the process.  Without directness, you run the risk of having conversations that are all over the place and do not help you narrow your focus.  Without openness, you miss viable opportunities that may help you get to a product market fit more quickly.

I have been teaching Lean Startup for the last 2+ years, working closely with over 50 entrepreneurs in Northern Colorado (yes, I have some interesting lessons learned about doing Customer Discovery in the emerging hemp/marijuana industry). Customer Discovery is a cyclical process.  There are points within a conversation you may move from open to direct lines of inquiry and vice versa.  From my experience, many problems stem from an inability to balance openness and directness.  

After encountering the same challenges over and over again, I sketched the Landscape of Customer Discovery to provide a visual representation of the many moving parts.  My goal is to provide a simple tool that helps Lean Startup students master the nuances of the process.  Lets get started!

Gauge Trust Building

Everything stems from trust.  Building Trust is essential to getting valid feedback.  Start by looking at the gauge and evaluating whether building trust is easy or difficult for you and the customer segments you are working with.  It is often very difficult to build trust in B2B relationships, especially the higher up the ladder you go.  Whereas, building trust in B2C is often easier.

If trust is difficult, a more open line of inquiry may be the best fit to start.  If trust is easy to build or already established, a more direct line of inquiry may be the best fit.  Mark how easy or difficult it is for you to build trust on the gauge.  Ponder the questions below to help.

  • Do you already have trust established or are you starting from scratch?  
  • How deep into potential customers’ problems and challenges do you need to go to gain valuable insights for validating your business model canvas?
  • Does talking about their problems require a lot of vulnerability from your customers?
  • What kind of relationship is sufficient for you to have trust with customers?

If you would like to take a deeper look at how to build trust checkout Judith Glaser’s work on Conversational Intelligence.  Her model, TRUST, is to use Transparency, Relationship building, shared Understanding, Shared Success and Truth Telling/assumption Testing (sound familiar).  A little transparency combined with a more open line of inquiry can make the difference between getting shutout and becoming a trusted confidant (you may be shocked the things people will volunteer when they trust you).

Check-in With How You Are Feeling

Yes, we are going to get a little more touchy feely.  If you feel like you are confidently on a path to a product market fit, you are probably itching to be more direct.  Whereas, if you feel as though you are in search of an opportunity or need, a more open line of inquiry is necessary.  

  • How confident do you feel about what you will do to create and deliver value to customers?
  • How certain are you about your customer segments?
  • What elements of your business model canvas remain ambiguous or too broad?
  • How comfortable do you feel getting really specific with the problems, solutions and customer segments you will be serving?

I have found that most people jump right into a direct line of inquiry.  They are excited, confident (why else take the leap) and feel like they have everything figured out.  After a while they become aware of what they don’t know.  They need to take a step back so that they can search for new opportunities or really build a deeper relationship with the customer.  

Craft an appropriate line of inquiry

If you have been following me thus far, you should have a strong sense of whether you are in a more Open or a more Direct customer discovery experiment.  The next step is to craft your line of inquiry (AKA experiment) accordingly.

Here are some real life examples that will help you differentiate how to best craft an appropriate line of inquiry. These examples demonstrate different iterations of a few business models.

Direct Customer Discovery Questions

  • Please rank the following problems in order of importance for you to solve as they relate to your community engagement and philanthropy…
    • Attract New Talent
    • Improve Reputation
    • Employee Retention
    • Be more strategic
  • Which of the following challenges are you experiencing that you want help overcoming in your business?
    • Getting unstuck
    • Getting past overwhelm
    • Building my business
    • Getting the word out
    • Generating a/more profit
    • Connecting with fellow trail blazers
  • What is your annual budget for professional development training per employee?

Open Customer Discovery Questions

  • Why is it important for your business to do philanthropic work?
  • What inspired you to start your own entrepreneurial endeavor?
  • What kinds of professional development trainings are you currently offering to your staff?

Before you actually draft questions I recommend revisiting your business model canvas to determine what hypotheses you need to test next. Then draft up as many questions as you can think to ask.  Put them away, do something else and re-visit. Narrow it down to your best 4-8 questions and proceed to “get out of the building” assuming you have systems for documenting your conversations and a plan for how to connect with customers.

This is Just the Beginning

Differentiating between a more open versus direct line of inquiry has empowered myself and my clients to be more resilient throughout the Customer Discovery Process.  I have worked with businesses that enjoyed success beyond their initial projections as a result of applying this approach.  I was able to exceed my goals for a crowd funding campaign earlier this year from being appropriately open and direct in the customer discovery process.

We just touched on the tip of the iceberg here.  If you look at the Landscape of Customer Discovery, you will notice there are more elements than we reviewed.  I will be sharing the Landscape as part of my talk at the Lean Startup Conference.

This is an MVP (I drew it myself) and I have been actively conducting experiments about it with my students.  If you feel compelled to, you are invited to join the conversation here to help shape the Landscape of Customer Discovery.

  1. What questions do you have about the Customer Discovery Process?
  2. What problems are you experiencing with Customer Discovery that you are struggling to address?
  3. How does the Landscape of Customer Discovery resonate with your experiences?
  4. What is missing from this Landscape that you believe is integral to successfully completing the Customer Discovery Process?
  5. Is there anything else you would like to share?


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