Bill Meade: Customer Development and Schmexperts

Bill Meade (@BillMeade) is the Director of Data Science at Neal Analytics, a position he describes as, “Catalyst to a herd of genius cats, riding a machine learning cloud, into a business world about to discover analytical dreams can come true … easily. ” Bill has long experience with innovation, IP management, and customer  development. He has contributed this guest post on schmexperts and welcomes other questions on customer development as topics for future posts: please feel free to leave your thoughts, experiences, and questions in the comments. Bill blogs regularly at RestartGTD, a blog devoted to practical understanding and implementations of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” and also welcomes questions on “Getting Things Done.”

Customer Development: Don’t Confuse  Schmexperts With Experts

Customer development requires:

  1. Real Customers, preferably with the most intense need we can find.
  2. Real Products
  3. Real Context

This is very inconvenient.  In most cases, it requires:

  • We screen out most of the people we have available.
  • We have to go hunting for people with a real–and preferably intense–need for our solution.
  • We have a real product in their hands for some period of time before we get feedback, so we’re able to get a cross section of the need, and not just the veneer of need as they open the box.
  • We do our research in the real context that they use the product.

Real customer, real product, real context is a guideline I first saw captured in “Relentless: The Japanese Way of Marketing” by Johny K Johansson and Ikujiro Nonaka; it’s the reason that Japanese market researchers don’t rely on surveys.

Why Real Customer, Real Product, and Real Context Are Required

A customer development friend of mine working at Dow Corning shared the following experience with me.

Dow had received a call from a Ford engineer who was trying to solve a leakage problem on sunroofs.  When the Dow researcher called the engineer back, the engineer wanted Dow to come to Dearborn and talk to him.  When the researcher went to Dearborn the Ford engineer was ready.  Had a whole show set up to explain the problem.

The Dow researcher listened and took good notes.

But, is this a real customer? Real product?  Real context?  No.

So, the Dow researcher insisted that the engineer take him to the production line with the problem.

Customer Development Questions for Real Customer in Context

Once at the production line asking customer development questions:

  • How is it done now?
  • What does it cost?
  • What are the problems?
  • What is the value of fixing the problem?

The engineer and Dow researcher attracted the foreman’s attention.  When the foreman asked, “What are you guys doing?” The engineer who started it all replied with his explanation of the problem and how Dow was kind enough to come down and listen.  Once the foreman heard this, he replied.  “You are solving that problem?  We solved that problem six months ago.”

Don't Confuse Schmexperts With ExpertsSchmexperts: Half Schmuck, Half Expert

The moral of the story:  a lot of feedback that you get in bureaucracies from “customers” is actually from schmexperts.

You know the schmexpert: half schmuck, half expert.

  • Only knows enough jargon to be dangerous.
  • Sees every problem as a long term justification for indispensability.

Real customers, real products, real context will protect you from schmexperts and from many other factors that confound of your customer development.

The more inconvenient it is to get good customer development information, the more protection you have.  The problem with online systems is that they shield you from direct real customer, real product, and real context information.

Once you know your real customers, their context, and the products they are using, by all means take advantage of more automated and scalable methods. But don’t start there for real insights.

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“Mr. Know It All” image from “Dealing with Annoying Workplace Know-it-Alls

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