This post on B2B customer development interviews builds on one of my most popular. If you would like help preparing for customer development interviews or reviewing results from recent interviews, contact us. Here are my lessons learned from taking part in interviews where the startup planned to offer a product or service to a business. It’s a long post and is also available for download as an e-book.
40 Tips for B2B Customer Development Interviews
I have broken this into six sections and started with tips for how to conduct an interview since that is often the most challenging aspect. Preparation and follow up are equally important but don’t have the additional challenge of improvising / adapting in real time to prospect questions and actions.
- What to Cover During a B2B Customer Development Interview
- General Tips for Conducting a B2B Customer Development Interview
- Preparing for a B2B Customer Development Interview or Batch of Interviews
- What to do After a B2B Customer Development Interview
- Other Sources of Practical Guidance
- Related Blog Posts
What to Cover During a B2B Customer Development Interview
- Work from an outline of 3-5 key questions.
E-Mail these in advance and also bring a printed copy. Their name should be at the top of the paper, along with the date of the interview. The interview may last a few minutes, or it may last an hour but set expectations up front about what you want to talk about. It’s OK to ask follow up questions, but these 3-5 should form the spine of the interview.
Why: you need to focus on the essential questions you are trying to answer.
- Focus on past behavior and actual situations and events to bound the problem.
Don’t focus on hypothetical, potential, or future problems. Or at least don’t explore them until you are confident that there is a clearly defined business need or critical capability that they are looking for today. Walk through actual situations and events to develop a model for the costs and impact of the problem on their current business.
Why: businesses are more likely to pay for problems or needs that are impacting them today.
- Probe for quantities and ranges.
Wherever possible, try and get them to put a number or estimate a range on an adjective (e.g., small, large, light, heavy, thin, frequent, rare…). Write down both their adjective and their estimate for the appropriate quantity or range.
Why: you will need to develop specific target prospect selection criteria and some simple ROI or value models for your offering. These are much more useful if you can use numbers or objective criteria.
- Probe for what’s changed.
What has happened to make this problem or need more critical? Explore the environment or system(s) that the group or firm is operating in. What is the context they operate in? What trends are at work that are making the problem more serious (and what might happen to make it less serious)? Were they ignorant of the problem (or ignoring it) until a particular situation or event occurred? Have they been managing it and now need it solved?
Why: businesses have many problems. They are more likely to invest in solutions for the critical ones that are likely to get worse if they don’t take action to address them.
- Don’t talk about possible solutions until you have thoroughly bounded their problem or need.
Don’t mix how they describe the problem with the kinds of solutions that they are interested in.
Why: again resist the temptation to talk about your solution until you can talk with very high confidence about their situation, needs, and challenges.
- Bring a drawing or diagram to explain a complex concept you want to explore.
Limit yourself to one sheet of paper (or two copies, one they can keep). Put their name and the date on it so that they know you prepared it for them.
Why: a diagram can save minutes of explanation and prevent more than one misunderstanding
- Hand them a pen–and bring paper.
It’s better to sit at 90 degrees than face to face so that you can both easily read and mark up the paper. People can often sketch something that can be hard to express accurately–or at least succinctly–in words. If you are meeting in a conference room with a whiteboard, hand them a marker, sit down, and ask them to draw a picture or sketch in answer to a question. This can often re-energize an interview.
Why: it can access another modality of thinking and expression. Encouraging prospects to sketch an answer is particularly useful for mapping workflows, systems with multiple interacting components, and explaining relationships between variables that influence each other over time.
- Establish the facts then ask for opinions.
Start with concrete and specific acts and events in the past, then ask them for their perspective and opinion. Starting with the facts allows you to characterize your subject more precisely during the interview–especially if you have done a number of interviews already–or retrospectively once you have completed a number and have a richer context to place them in. Their “facts” will provide you with more context for understanding their perspective and opinions.
Why: facts and opinions are both useful. The former can be verified objectively, and the latter can give you good insights into their mental models of a problem or needs. But it’s important to distinguish between the two: if you start with opinions, you may never get to facts–and asking for facts can seem like you are challenging their perspective. But if you have been focused on facts from the beginning, it is less likely to be viewed as argumentative.
- Ask for example documents and data.
Work product and artifacts will allow you to enrich your understanding of a prospect’s description of a process, task, key input or output. This may require a non-disclosure agreement, but either way, an interview subject who is willing to share details about their work process and results is a stronger prospect than one who merely agrees to talk with you.
Why: they may not mention key elements they believe “go without saying” or “everybody knows.” Sometimes there is a disconnect between what’s in a document and how they describe it. Understanding what information they extract from a document can give insights into their mental models. A gap between how they describe a document and how you read it rarely indicates deception, the more likely case is that they have a richer context or deeper domain knowledge that informs their interpretation.
- Resist “that reminds me of when…” and swapping stories.
You can fall out of active listening mode and into reminiscing or trading anecdotes if you are not careful. Avoid the temptation to offer information that begins with, “That reminds me of the time I…” Note this is different from saying, “other people in your role or at a firm like yours have told us X, how does that compare to your experience?”
Why: there is a risk when you start talking about personal experiences that you stop listening and you lose the ability to appreciate the prospect’s point of view. If your story offers a strong contrast with their facts or perspectives, there is a risk that they think you don’t believe them or don’t agree with them. Neither outcome if good.
- If they ask for a feature, use the three-minute test.
Write down the feature request in their words and then say, “just to make sure I understand what you are asking for I would like to know two more things: what are you doing three minutes before you decide to use that feature, and what are you doing three minutes later?” With the answers to these questions, you can then explore how often the precursor events happen–and there may be more than one thing that triggers usage–and gain a better understanding of what they are trying to avoid or mitigate.
Why: there is a temptation for engineers to step into “short-order cook” mode and start taking orders for new features. It’s critical to understand when a prospect plans to use a feature and the outcome or benefit they want it to deliver.
- Six key items to uncover in a customer discovery interview. (Why: these are essential to understanding how to achieve product-market fit and engage new prospects.)
- Prospect’s description of the problem in their own words. This is rarely more than a sentence or two; capturing the essence in their own words is essential.
- A high-level description of the current work process or workflow in their own words or sketches. This forms the basis for comparing the prospect’s status quo with your solution, and therefore the context for differentiating your solution to other options available to the prospect.
- Any constraints on a solution. If you hear the same ones multiple times, you will more than likely have to satisfy them.
- How they will tell that a new solution will leave them better off: this is different from asking them to specify the solution, it’s asking for “future state” or the result they would like to achieve.
- What else they have tried to do to solve the problem: probe for why they were not satisfactory.
- Key metrics or figures of merit they would use to evaluate a new outcome.
General Tips for Conducting a B2B Customer Development Interview
- Have Two People Interview.
Both of you can take notes as you go. The second person can listen more attentively while the first one asks questions. Trade off every few questions so that the conversation stays lively and fresh. Date and number each page (or 3×5 card) of your notes.
Why: this is more time-efficient for the person being interviewed. It also enables a more effective debrief since the two interviewers can compare notes.
You should be talking perhaps 1/6 to 1/4 of the time. This is a discovery conversation. Take the opportunity to gather symptoms and a prospective customer’s perspective on their needs with respect to a specific problem or capability. You will learn much more by listening than you will telling them your ideas about the problem, their needs, and benefits you may be able to deliver.
Why: there is a strong tendency to talk about your solution or theories of the problem. The more you talk, the less that you listen and learn.
- Take notes during the conversation.
Force yourself to capture key comments and insights. Don’t rely on a recording, instead write down key phrases verbatim and read them back to confirm that you have captured accurately. You don’t have to do this right after they say it if it will break the flow of the conversation, but do confirm key points before the end of the conversation.
Why: It forces you to focus on essentials and communicates that you are listening.
- Maintain a friendly and relaxed demeanor. Smile. Breathe.
It’s better to exhibit a friendly curiosity about the customer’s perception of their needs than to become frustrated because it looks like your ideas about a solution may not work. It’s precisely when a prospect is explaining why your solution concept may not be a fit that you should be the most encouraging. Many get this backwards and are only excited when they find someone who echoes their expectations.
Why: It’s much more useful for the prospect to experience your commitment to understanding their needs than to see you confirm your ideas about a possible solution. Note that smiling works in a phone conversation even though they can’t see it: you can feel it–and they will hear it in your voice.
- It’s really a dialog, not an interview.
If you are not asking questions, the conversation can become a feature travelog (it doesn’t count if you end a five-minute explanation of your view of their problem or your opinion of the benefits of your solution with “What do you think?”). If they are not asking questions, the interview conversation has become an interrogation. The best interviews are driven by mutual curiosity: your curiosity about their needs and their curiosity about how you may be able to help.
Why: if a prospect is not asking any questions, they have little or no interest in working with you.
- Treat everyone as a potential customer.
Don’t waste their time if it doesn’t appear that you can help them or they little interest in what you offer, but leave the door open for either of you to approach the other if things change.
Why: people remember how you made them feel long after they forget the details of a conversation. Resist the temptation to move on quickly if someone does not seem to be a fit. Always end the conversation graciously. You never know when they may come back with a useful suggestion, an introduction to a true prospect, or a pointer to quality information or insights.
- Be careful if people are too agreeable.
If they agreed to the interview out of politeness or have come to believe that there is not a fit between the questions you are asking and needs or problems they are interested in help on, then a prospect may tell you whatever they think will end the interview as quickly as possible. There are two related cautions here. First, don’t ask for them to agree or praise your ideas as this can trigger their desire to end the interview. Second, only make one request at the end of an interview: if you start to rattle off a laundry list of requests, they may agree to everything but do nothing.
Why: agreeing with your suggestions and requests can be a signal they don’t see a fit and want to end the interview. The true test will come in how they follow up.
- End with a quick summary.
Outline at least two or three things you have learned from the conversation and ask if you can follow up with a more detailed summary and possibly some clarifying questions. Include any action items you have committed to–these should always be in your notes–especially any ways that you have offered to help them. Always thank them for their time and insights.
Why: this puts the relationship on a business footing and gives them a chance to correct any important mistakes on your part immediately. The summary may also trigger additional useful details or even insights on their part.
- Don’t overstay your welcome.
This allows you to come back. Take two or three minutes to wrap up by thanking them and providing a high-level summary of what you heard. Commit to providing them with a more detailed summary within a day or two. Meet that commitment.
Why: unless the person is energized by the conversation you should end it promptly.
- Leave the conversation in a place where it can continue.
Don’t treat this as a one-shot opportunity to extract as much as you can.
Why: in the best case, this is the start of a long term business relationship. Don’t preclude that possibility by treating a prospect as a disposable lab rat or someone you don’t anticipate seeing again.
Preparing For A B2B Customer Development Interview
- Your two key goals are learning and laying the groundwork for a business relationship.
Your mindset should embrace focused curiosity and appreciative inquiry. When you hear something that contradicts one of your important assumptions, resist the temptation to reject it. Say, “tell me more about that” instead. When they describe a practice or process that does not make sense or does not match your expectations, assume that they have a good reason and dig in to understand it.
Why: you cannot learn if you recoil from exploring anything that contradicts your preexisting view of the prospect’s situation and their needs. If all you are doing is confirming your assumptions, you are wasting their time and yours. If you act in a way that loses you any permission for further contact, you are unlikely to prosper. Bear in mind that other prospects in a niche market may talk to folks you have already interviewed before agreeing to talk to you.
- Prepare to be surprised.
The sensation of surprise means that you are learning. Or at least that you have an opportunity to learn if you embrace it. The entire purpose of a customer discovery interview is to allow yourself to be surprised by the answers to open-ended questions. This means you need to be prepared to explore the implications of one or more key assumptions being wrong, to be open to new insights and new ideas, and to look at customer problems and needs from another frame of reference.
Why: if you get stuck in a mode where you are “the smartest person in the conversation” who is preparing to “bring fire to the savages,” it’s unlikely you will learn very much. Assume your prospect is an expert in their business and what it needs, it may not always be true, but it’s always worth looking at the situation from their point of view.
- Be specific and use numbers where possible on your prospect selection criteria and problem definition.
Avoid terms like “small business” in favor of revenue, headcount, and key transaction rates. Develop a specific list of titles and industries that define your hunting ground for prospects.
Why: there is a strong temptation to define a large market, but you must begin in a niche, talking to businesses that will reference each other’s buy decisions. It’s OK to have two or three competing hypotheses for where you may gain early adoption. But be specific about each in favor of attacking a broad category. Most early pivots are “zoom in,” excluding more and more to find the firms that are in a lot of pain and able to decide quickly.
- Make sure that you are talking your target customers.
Be clear on your criteria for what constitutes a target customer and confirm that your subject matches. Don’t rely on hearsay. It can be useful to talk to others who are involved in the workflow or who have direct knowledge of the problem or need you are targeting, but it’s no substitute for understanding the customer’s perspective.
Why: it can be dangerously misleading to draw conclusions about customer needs from conversations with people who are not potential customers.
- Mental models are as important as facts and artifacts.
It’s critical that you understand a prospect’s mental models and the assumptions that essential roles in a workflow share. This is why it’s vital to capture the key words and phrases they use to describe a problem or need and their vision of an acceptable solution.
Why: mental models frame a prospect’s definition of the problem to be solved or job to be done. Your message and product features will need to satisfy their expectations for what constitutes a useful solution. The customer’s mental model of the process is the slowest thing to change: a new tool is always introduced in the context of the prior solution. Consider these examples: horsepower for cars, candlepower for light bulbs, “dodge” and “burn” commands in Photoshop that come from darkroom techniques. Even “cut” and “paste” edit commands come from when print jobs were put together by hand with glue and scissors. The truly novel is very hard to comprehend and very slow to be adopted.
- Be ready to name a price and a basic plan to get started–if asked.
People are talking to you because they have a problem they hope you can help them solve–or at least mitigate. It’s not because they need someone to talk to or want to take part in a survey.
Why: it can happen that you are talking to an early adopter or visionary customer who wants to get started. If you demur, you may not get another chance.
- Be prepared to share some key findings from what you have learned so far–when you are asked.
If you are looking for early adopters to act as more of a partner, you have to share some of your in-process findings. This is also an excuse to share some findings that you may not be sure of and ask for feedback.
Why: playing “I’ve got a secret” or saying, “we will send you a final report with all of our findings,” will turn off visionary and early adopters who are looking to partner with vendors.
- Spend an hour to save a minute.
The opportunity cost of getting to the right people is very high. Every time you ask a question that other research efforts could have yielded, you risk giving them the sense that you are wasting their time. Note this is different from asking them to reconcile information from conflicting sources or asking them to confirm something you read or were told by someone else.
Why: There is a short window at the beginning of most conversations, perhaps three to six minutes, where you have to establish rapport and win their confidence. So, we always assume that we only have about six or eight minutes to get to the point. Now, if it goes well, people may spend 30 minutes, 45 minutes, or an hour with you. In fact, if it’s going really well, they will start asking a lot of hard questions, and the whole tenor of the conversation changes. This means they are giving very serious consideration to your solution. Conversations with real prospects in a B2B market are often very difficult to secure. You have to prioritize your time to make the most of the opportunity when you secure one.
- Here are five information sources to consult prior to an interview (Why: to avoid asking questions that you can answer with research).
- Do a thorough review of the prospect’s website.
- Search for any articles in the last two years at least to see what kind of press coverage they have received.
- Review the LinkedIn profiles for the firm, the person you are talking to, and anyone with similar titles or in the same department.
- Review on-line postings in relevant forums for the industry.
- See if they have a blog, a twitter account, a YouTube account, and similar social media sites that are often used for business purposes.
- Maintain an entrepreneurial mindset.
Your reason for doing interviews is to create a minimum viable product that can sustain a startup and scale into a viable business.
Why: The result of your efforts is not a report or a study. Be careful when taking advice from researchers who get paid for research, not from the fruits of launching a viable business.
- Have a Plan B.
Be prepared to see this product concept fail to be validated. In the early stages, a viable team is much more important than the product. Plan to explore several ideas so that if Plan A fails, you can explore B and then C.
Why: too often, a team will continue to pursue an idea that is not working because they do not have a backup plan. Don’t keep looking for “smarter customers.” At some point, the likelihood of the current concept succeeding, even with substantial modification, falls well below the odds for your next idea. Have the plan for your next move in your back pocket because emotions may be running high when you confront the likely failure of A.
- Use your prospects’ language.
A market is a conversation. Your questions and your answers should use the same language that your prospects do. Your questions should be addressed to their point of view, not some an outside perspective. It matters if you are talking to a subject matter expert, a manager, or an executive. They will describe the same problem in three different ways.
Why: If your word choice immediately tells a prospect that “you are not from around here,” then building trust and establishing rapport will be much harder and take longer.
Summary: entrepreneurs seem to divide into two camps when it comes to interviews. There are those who want to have a conversation immediately, and those who are quite content to research for months as long as they don’t have to talk to strangers. Striking a balance is the key to maximizing your learning from a customer interview. Effective preparation and research prior to the customer interview allows you to
- Ask better questions
- Provide evidence of your commitment to developing a mutually satisfactory business relationship
- Detect when your prospect is leaving something out or perhaps coloring the situation too much. You are not a stenographer there to capture whatever they say without reflection, but if your only source of information is what they tell you, then you risk “garbage in, garbage out” in your product plans and MVP.
What To Do After a B2B Customer Development Interview
In the “Preparing for a B2B Customer Development Interview” section, I stressed the importance of maintaining an entrepreneurial mindset. If I had to pick one alternate mindset for decoding early interview results, I would suggest that you think like a journalist. If the primary outcome from an interview is that you have a much better understanding of a prospect’s operating reality–and you have been a good listener–this certainly opens the door to a follow on conversation. Because all of the startup fantasy camps want to compress customer and product development into two to three days, I think a lot of entrepreneurs are now mistakenly focused on the interview as a transaction instead of the start of an ongoing dialog. In B2B markets, developing trust through a sequence of conversations is as important to real market exploration as conducting a lot of one-off interviews.
- Debrief the same day as the interview.
Walk through the interview notes that same day with your partner, but don’t do a final summary until you have slept on it. Keep your raw notes and the joint summary (a wiki is handy for this as you can create ad hoc links between key points and phrases to issue or definition pages).
Why: there is value in your first impressions, your shared impressions, and your second opinion. Don’t lose the first two and rely on just the third.
- Follow up by E-Mail.
Thank them again. Provide a detailed summary (include their numbers and ranges) of what you heard and let them critique it (this does not mean that you have to share all of your perceptions or plans). Ask if there are other folks that they feel you should talk to, either at their company or other companies, who would be able to provide you with a valuable perspective on the problem.
Why: Introverts are much more willing to share their thoughts in writing once they have had a chance to reflect, give them a chance to do so. Extroverts can have second thoughts and follow on observations, capture them all.
- People in pain accept partial solutions.
Don’t calibrate your solution to someone who is asking for perfection. This may be their way of telling you that they are satisfied with the status quo.
Why: there is a feature death spiral that can kill your startup if you chase the superset of requirements and features that you hear your prospects describe. A minimum viable product provides a prospect enough value to justify going through the adoption and internal rollout process. You have to “land” before you can “expand.”
- Use these five key mindsets to use to analyze your findings
Journalist: collect stories and quotes to understand needs. This is a good start for your first six to twelve interviews. Be alert to what attributes are missing or underrepresented in your early interviews so that you don’t let inadvertent selection bias in your interview set encourage you to overlook an opportunity.
Detective: make sure you have uncovered the root cause of problems. If it can be arranged, visit the prospect’s workplace. Study any reports, dashboards, or other evidence related to the problem and needs that you have uncovered. The detective mindset is probably the second mindset to adopt: at least one person on the team should challenge current hypotheses and look for alternate explanations and additional information that might shift your current working conclusions.
Scientist: collect data points and data ranges and use charts and graphs to help you make sense of what you have heard. This becomes more useful as you do more interviews.
Accountant: look at the evidence for costs and the likely return on investment from a prospect with certain attributes adopting your product. This is useful in supporting a real marketing message and sales presentation.
Economist: look for trends and clusters of needs. A matrix representation, with different potential niches (clusters of related prospects) in columns and selection/sort criteria in rows, may help you untangle larger interview data sets. This can guide the selection of your first target niche if you are trying to choose from multiple viable options.
Why: you need to look at what you have learned from a variety of distinct perspectives to complement your basic entrepreneurial mindset.
- You need to keep score both on the quality of the interaction in the interview and how much you learned.
The first is a skill; the second is a measurement of your level understanding of customer need. Ensuring that all team members are proficient at interviewing allows you to involve everyone in the process and reach a working consensus on what was learned and what actions should be taken as a result. Gathering real information from viable prospects about their needs and perceptions of what constitutions an acceptable solution is critical to your ability to define and launch a successful product.
Why: mastering the mechanics of interviewing is important, but no guarantee that you will uncover a market. A poor interviewing technique may mean that some team members overlook key information, or worse, turn off a potential prospect.
- A lack of response to your follow e-mails requires a correction.
If you are not getting a response to your post-interview follow up e-mails and you feel that the interview went well, you should try leaving a voicemail. If that does not work, then it’s likely that the prospect felt that the interview was not germane to their needs, or that it was unpleasant.
Why: it’s important to measure your success in both gathering information and establishing a business relationship. If you feel the interview went well, but you get no response to your follow up then either you were talking to the wrong person, or the interview did not go well. Either possibility requires corrective action.
Other Sources of Practical Guidance
- Cindy Alvarez book Lean Customer Development
- Clayton Christensen
- Giff Constable
- Working Minds: A Practitioner’s Guide to Cognitive Task Analysis by Beth Crandall, Gary Klein, and Robert R. Hoffman
- Rob Fitzpatrick book “The Mom Test“
- Erika Hall article “Interviewing Humans” from Chapter 5 of her Just Enough Research
- Helsinki Design Labs offers an Ethnography FieldGuide (here is the English PDF version: Ethnography FieldGuide )
- Johanna Kollman deck “How to Get More Than Opinions”
- Tristan Kromer blog 12 Random Customer Development Tips
- Dave Telleen-Lawton
- Marc McNeill blog “Twelve Tips for Customer Development Interviews“
- Edward F. McQuarrie book Customer Visits
- Mikel Nino
- Kate Rutter presentation “From Cold Sweat to Hot Validated Learning“
- Frank Robinson “SyncDev Sell-Design-Build Model” (Robinson coined the term MVP)
- Saras Sarasvathy’s book Effectual Entrepreneurship (see also http://www.effectuation.org ) offers a great model for striving to create business relationships out of every interaction.
- Mary Sorber deck “Problem Exploration for Lean Startups” There are many talented qualitative researchers and entrepreneurs can learn much from their tools and expertise. Mary is someone I have enjoyed working with for many years and this deck is an excellent resource for planning a B2B customer development interview.
Related Blog Posts
- Don’t Ask Your Next Question Before You Learn From The Last Answer
- Customer Interviews: Allow Yourself To Be Surprised
- An E-Mail Conversation with a Bootstrapping EdTech Startup on Customer Interviews
- The Best Way to Get Feedback from Early Customers is a Conversation
- The Best Feedback from Your Early Customers is a Story
- Use a Wiki To Organize Customer Interviews
- Customer Interviews: Spend an Hour to Save a Minute
- Getting Better at Customer Discovery Conversations
- User Experience Research vs. Customer Discovery
- Sketching the Likeness of an Imaginary Business
- How To Determine Your Competition During Customer Discovery
- Crossing the Chasm: Look for a Niche In a Lot of Pain
- Frank Robinson’s Minimum Viable Product Definition
- Webinar Replay: Innovator’s DNA Questioning Skill
- Webinar Replay: Innovator’s DNA Associating Skill
- Saras Sarasvathy’s Effectual Reasoning Model for Expert Entrepreneurs
Image Credit: bakhtiarzein / Bakhtiar Zein licensed from 123RF.
Postscript: I wrote a blog post in 2011 “Tips for B2B Customer Development Interviews” and updated it regularly for six years. Earlier this month (Jan 2020) Carnegie Mellon B-School asked to use that post in their Lean Entrepreneurship course as a handout. I decided to curate tips from a number of blog posts, many unpublished, into what became a list of 40. I can appreciate at 5600 words that this may take a while to read. It is also available for download as an e-book.