One temptation to avoid when trying to get customer feedback on your product is premature automation. There are a number of excellent low cost survey tools out there (we use SurveyMonkey and Zoomerang and have been happy with both) but there is a real risk when you only have a dozen or two dozen early customers that a questionnaire may only give you the answers that you are looking for, not the information that you need.
Direct conversation, either face to face or over the phone works best in our experience. It’s important early on to ask open ended questions and to consider your product more of a hypothesis (See Steve Blank’s “Four Steps to the Epiphany” for more on this framework) than an accomplished fact. Even though your product has been debugged and is ready for rollout, it doesn’t mean you that understand the benefits that customers (much less prospects) perceive that it offers.
You should also consider instrumenting your product if it’s SaaS (or adding a “software flight recorder” if it’s on-premises software or delivered as an appliance) that with the user’s permission can “phone home” some usage patterns. In particular you want to be able to assess how much use (and what commands, command options, service areas, etc.. are being accessed) they are making. It’s not uncommon to start removing commands and command options that are little used. Two companies that offer usage monitoring software are Tealeaf and OC Systems. There are more out there, but these applications are intended to be deployed in production, there are many QA applications th at will monitor execution but they may or may not be suitable for deployment on the customer premises or as a part of your SaaS production infrastructure.
You should pay as much attention to your “dropouts” as much as your “frequent flyers.” With early customers you should be trying to e-mail/IM/Skype/call as much as construct a survey. Even up to a 100 or so early users you want to be as open ended in your data collection as possible. It’s important to discover how your customers are “mis-using” your product in ways that may indicate additional market opportunities (or at least alternative messaging around unanticipated benefits).
It’s easy to become frustrated or wish for “smarter users” when your customers look at the value of your offering differently than you do, or don’t adopt certain features or commands that you thought would be compelling. Sometimes it can help to have a third party interview customers and non-customers as they may have less of a “are you calling my baby ugly?” reaction.
One thing to focus on as you scale up and add more prospects is how your existing customers invite new folks to evaluate your offering. What is the value they promise if someone new adopts: this “language of referral” is extremely important. You should probe for it in your conversations and incorporate it into your messaging. It can help you to identify distinct types or segments of users who get different kinds of value from your offering.
Surveys tend to channel answers along pre-determined paths. This can cause you to overlook real benefits, and real problems, with your product. Surveys don’t let your customer tell you a story about your product.
And it’s stories that are viral because they can combine a real benefit with a dramatic difference and a reason to believe. Data can substantiate a real benefit or a dramatic difference but won’t give you a reason to believe. More on customer stories tomorrow.
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