Taken from “Breakthrough Thinking From Inside the Box” by Kevin Coyne, Patricia Gorman Clifford, and Renee Dye in the December 2007 Harvard Business Review. You can actually skip the article if you are looking for additional insights or elaborations on these very useful questions, it’s actually an attack on the brainstorming process as practiced by large corporations and not relevant for startups. I have numbered the questions to make reference easier.
1. Which customers use or purchase our product in the most unusual way?
Understand that “unusual” is from your perspective not theirs, from their perspective they are using it in a very natural way. Resist the temptation to tell them “you’re using my product wrong!” or attempt to snatch it back out of their hands and instead explore how you might make it even more fit for this “unusual use.”
2. Do any customers need vastly more or less sales and service attention than most.
Alas it’s typically visionary customers who need vastly less sales and service attention (in fact with visionaries it’s frequently the case that the product is bought not sold). One of the key characteristics of visionary customers is their scarcity. Customers who need more sales and service support are typically normal, it’s your sales process, marketing message, product documentation and training materials that are frequently in need of improvement. I’ve met a number of startups over the years who in effect administer an IQ test to prospects (“Let’s see if you can figure out what this is good for and how to use it”) and console themselves with the thought that “our product is not for everyone” or “we need to find smarter prospects.”
3. For which customers are our support costs (e.g. order entry, tracking, customer specific design) either unusually high or low?
Winston Churchill observed that “we shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.” The same can be true of a startup’s systems. What you are really uncovering with this question, especially if you look at the trend over time of when they were acquired, is how suitable for current and likely customers are our current assumptions about our engagement model.
4. Could we still meet the needs of a significant subset of customers if we stripped 25% of the hard or soft costs out of our products?
For software this is primarily what features can be deleted. And for a startup that has built a “Swiss Army Chainsaw” figuring out the key two or three blades to focus on can be a source of great success as is it can increase quality (much less unnecessary functionality to debug and maintain) and lower barriers to adoption by virtue of a simpler interface.
5. Who spends at least 50% of what our product costs to adapt it to their specific needs?
If you can figure out what features to add or delete, or what customer facing processes to change, you have an opportunity either to increase price (since you are lowering their effective cost) or see a large increase in usage. Adding more end user programmability into interfaces and functionality can also have the effect of lowering the cost to adapt.
6. Who uses our product in ways that we never expected or intended?
This is a variation on #1
7. Who uses our product in surprisingly large quantities?
I think there is a missing element to this question related to ratio of use to headcount or other typically usage drivers. You may have uncovered a new usage driver if your current sales and engagement model predicts a demand of that’s only half or two-thirds of use. This also assumes you have your software instrumented to measure transactions or logins, or other meaningful indicators of use. It may also be that this customer has found a way to get a very high degree of adoption that it would behoove you to understand.
8. What other firms are dealing with the same generic problem as we are but for an entirely different reason? How have they addressed it?
This systematic lateral exploration will often help you spot incipient or emerging competitors as well as potential partners or suppliers.
9. What major breakthroughs in efficiency or effectiveness have we made in our business that could be applied in another industry?
I would be a little cautious on this unless you have folks on your team from that industry or customers with operating experience in the industry. This can easily become unfounded speculation. It’s very possible to achieve a strategic advantage by moving laterally into another industry once your technology is proven, but a lack of knowledge of the details of that industry can also blind you to the unsuitability of your offering.
10. What information about customers and product use is created as a by-product of our business that could be the key to radically improving the economics of another business.
I think this is a dangerous one if it involves sharing customer information without permission. But if your customer intimacy allows you to recommend relevant solutions from other firms that your customers would welcome, then it’s clearly a basis for partnering.
11. What is the biggest hassle of purchasing or using or product?
One that’s frequently overlooked is time to become operational. If you are competing against larger firms that measure installation and bring-up in seasons (i.e. all new purchases have bring up schedules that are at least 90 days) see if you can get a customer functional in less than five working days. Hassle is actually included in your effective price, so if they have to allocate several of their best folks for two months to getting your product deployed and operational, they mentally add the opportunity cost (which is typically a multiple of the salary) of that talent to your price. I can remember walking through the bring-up history at several customers of a complex product with a startup and telling them you have a product you can charge $250K for. Needless to say they didn’t believe me, but when you factored in the opportunity of the talent that their customers had assigned for months to get the product operational they realized they could charge a lot more if they could dramatically reduce the time and effort it took a new customer to become fully operational.
12. What are some examples of ad hoc modifications that customers have made with our product.
This is actually a very good probe question to discern latent or unspoken feature requests.
13. For which current customers is our product least suited and why?
This is a variation on #11 and #12.
14. For what particular occasions is our product least suited?
This is a reframing of #11 and #12.
15. Which customers does our industry prefer not to serve and why?
The two defaults are the least skilled and the ones who pay the least. Clayton Christensen advises in the Innovator’s Dilemma that these two groups are the most likely foothold for a disruptive competitor in your market.
16. Which customers could be major users, if only we could remove one specific barrier that we’ve never previously considered?
You should be able to find example cases in or indicators in your answers to #6, #11, #12, and #13. If you have no customers of that type who are minor users it’s unlikely the category would go from non-users to major users.
17. How would we do things differently if we had perfect information about our buyers, usage, distribution channels, etc..
The other question you always have to ask when considering “perfect information” is “what is the value of perfect information?” There is an upper bound on how much extra customers will pay and how much unmet demand actually exists. Typically the more thoroughly you solve one problem for a customer the more you promote the next constraint as the one they become more willing to pay to solve.
18. How would our product change if we tailored it for every customer?
This is a variant on #17What Component Technologies in Our Products and Process are Most Likely To Be Obsolete?
19. Which technologies embedded in our product have changed the most since the product was last redesigned?
For software this would include assumptions about available memory, processor power, disk space and access, how the customer will interact and access outputs (e.g. moving beyond printouts to web pages to mobile devices). What key assumptions are built into your architectural trade-off analysis that may need to be revisited?
20. Which technologies underlying our production process have changed the most since we last rebuilt our manufacturing and distribution systems.
Another way to frame this is what key assumptions are built into your development processes.
21. Which customers’ needs are shifting more rapidly? What will they be in five years?
Not only needs but demographics. What trends can be discerned in the economic forces acting on your customers and the ecology of your partner and supplier ecosystem?
The checklist is helpful. The main thing to take away is that customer intimacy, and therefore those who are closest to your customers, is a significant source of innovative insight. Looking to adjacent industries for component technologies and methodologies to apply to your current market is another good source of inspiration. Third, assessing the total cost to acquire and own your solution, and any attendant delays and/or risks you impose on your customers, is a good place to hunt for opportunities to add value to your product.