Customer Development interviews are no longer worth the effort

UPDATE 10/30: This post prompted some good discussions below and I encourage you to read them. My only point (which I should have made clearer) is that 1 tactic of Customer Development - doing problem/solution interviews to validate product ideas - I no longer find an effective way to engage customers. We get more insight faster by doing training or quickly building products and trying to sell them. If you disagree, I'd really like to hear about your recent experience rather than theory. Also ... my comments about landing pages are a non-sequitur ... not really worth your consideration.

A few days ago we re-launched All Aboard! as Automated call scheduling with your Intercom Users. After each pivot I reflect on what we learned, what I did well - and what I did poorly.

I reviewed our Customer Development activities and came up with the following conclusions.

While Customer Development principles are still valid, doing Customer Development interviews - that is, having 1-on-1 conversations with customers to validate demand - is no longer worth the investment.

What follows is my rationale and some suggestions for more effective techniques.

Customer Development through 4 pivots over 244 days

At the end of 2014 we noticed many SaaS companies using our other product, SoHelpful, to schedule calls with their trial customers. They called it "concierge" onboarding and reported 2-3x increases in sales through the technique.

We started interviewing other companies about concierge onboarding and hypothesized a standalone product to help SaaS teams do concierge onboarding more effectively. The initial feedback was great - customers knew they had a problem, were developing home-grown solutions to solve it, and wanted ways to do it more effectively.

Here is what we've been doing to learn more about what customers want:

What did and didn't work

Customer interviews don't have positive ROI

Interviewing customers to validate demand for a product before building it has been a popular strategy since the late 1990s. Products have traditionally been hard to build and customers had few options.

Today?

Releasing a product and seeing if customers use it is almost as fast as setting up meetings and talking to people. Moreover, customers are overwhelmed by the sheer volume of options and don't want to talk about concepts without a really good reason to do so. I found myself chasing customers and asking for time - their most valuable asset.

It took too long ... lead to superficial conversations ... and often resulted in false conclusions. I don't do them anymore.

Landing pages are only worth it as part of building relationships

Landing pages easy to build. When you could get Adwords traffic for $5/day they were a good option for testing ideas.

Today?

Ads are more expensive and landing pages get lost in the sea of noise. Most visitors inevitably disappear - and we don't know WHY. Is it a bad idea? Did we target the wrong customer? Or is our copy confusing? Landing pages alone just don't yield enough insight.

We got some insight by sending customers to landing pages and asking for advice/feedback - a way of saying "this is what we're working on". That is, they were more valuable after we got customers engaged in a dialog.

Training yields the most insight

We train customers through our email courses and 1-on-1 calls over Skype. Training was - by far - a more effective use of our time.

Training resulted in more customer meetings and more valuable customer conversations than Customer Development interviews. Instead of chasing customers and asking for time I was offering something of value - knowledge.

Email courses are also more effective than product landing pages. We try to get customers in our courses to "hit reply and tell us what you're working on." I read every response and personally respond to all of them. The exchange often results in a 1-on-1 conversation or a trial customer.

But NOTHING taught us as much as shipping products & selling

Yep.

I really wish there was an easier way to validate opportunities - but I haven't found it. You don't know what customers want. Customers don't understand their problems much less know how to solve them. I'll share a specific instance.

Our third All Aboard! pivot was "concierge onboarding on Intercom". We took the workflow in our standalone app and rebuilt it on Intercom using Intercom's API. It was exactly what customers were asking for - since they were already working in Intercom they didn't want to look at the same customer data on a different site. It seemed like the best way to solve the problem and every customer conversation confirmed that we were on the right path ...

... we were so optimistic ...

...... excited that we finally had the answer ...

until we released it. KaaaaaaaaaBOOM!

It was a total mess. We were trying to use Intercom's API in a way it wasn't designed to work. It was clunky and frustrating for customers. It was a nightmare for us to support and we hated working on it.

Shipping product lead to our fourth pivot

I realized we were making things too hard. Intercom's tools could be configured to replace most of our workflow except for one feature: automated call scheduling.

We took 4 days and ripped out everything but Automated call scheduling with your Intercom Users, our fourth pivot.

After just a few days it is already obvious that we're on the right path - a path I never would have found without shipping a product.

Further Reading

My free ebook, Beginning Customer Development

My free course, Double your trial-to-paid conversions with concierge onboarding

Hack your customer development with a drip email course

So ... why the kitten photo?

I originally wanted to show a picture of a customer's blank stare - the implication being that the entrepreneur isn't getting much out of the discussion. So I picked this picture and my readers HATED it.

So I updated it with a picture of my can, Man Tou. He is a 4-month-old Scottish Fold kitten.

You just can't hate a kitten, can you?


What the heck is Concierge Onboarding? Learn how SaaS founders, product marketers, and Customer Success VPs are doing it to increase trial-to-paid conversions and reduce churn in our free concierge onboarding course.

Photo credit: Me! This is my cat, 馒头(man tou)