It’s past Christmas, so I won’t use the list of 12 that becomes popular late in the calendar year. My previous post references several good lists covering prospective customer interviews. Of course, I have to weigh in with mine.
Here’s what I tell my clients and what I do when I’m the Chief Market Validation and Revenue Officer. I number them because I feel the order is important from an effectiveness and efficiency standpoint. My list is definitely more B2B-centric, but little would be adjusted for B2C:
1) Articulate what problem we solve, for whom we solve this problem, and what is the cost to them for NOT solving the problem.
Note: The problem, the target, and the value will all be refined and perhaps dramatically changed through the process. Explicitly stating your current hypotheses helps your team work through gaps in common vision and sensitizes your listening for disconnects between your assumptions and what you hear.
2) Make a list of 5-10 target customers (company names and individual positions of responsibility in the company) and start calling to qualify for the problem and set a meeting.
Note: Yes, right now…start setting up the meetings. Create a script, too. After twenty-five years of doing this, I know a script helps for the first 20 calls. The script is simple; it introduces you and the problem your company believes it is solving. The script asks with whom you should speak about solving the problem and then asks for a meeting to talk face-to-face.
3) Once you get one meeting set up, now you can work on the presentation.
Note: No reason to waste time on a presentation until you have a meeting. Now that you have one, it’s time to start the presentation. Remember, the meeting’s goal is to understand if there is a fit between your solution and the prospective customer’s problem and whether they could eventually purchase your solution. The presentation’s role is to aid that discussion (not take the place of it). Slides should be: Intro, The Problem We Solve, How We Solve It, Your Requirements, Features & Benefits, Limitations, Procurement Process, Next Steps.
4) Be specific.
Note: Even where you are uncertain about what the product will look like or what it will do, you need to have prospective customers reacting to something particular. You will get useless feedback if you suggest that it may do THIS or perhaps do THAT. By being specific, you will generate a specific reaction. Now you can probe and understand what the gotta-have performance is and what the nice-to-have performance is.
5) Two strikes and you’re out. Get the right people in the meeting on both sides of the table.
Note: The meeting’s value is greatest when there is a discussion, especially when information is novel to one side or the other. After the second question that you cannot answer, the prospect stops asking questions. That’s why you don’t send the salesforce out solo on these calls and one of the main reasons you have key product decision makers on the field team.
6) Ask for facts before asking for opinion.
Note: The presentation and your questions should be designed to understand their situation in their own words. Get them to talk about the last time they faced the situation your solution impacts. Understand it from their perspective. Then ask about the time before. Differences? How about the time before that?
Now when you get their feedback on your solution, you can correlate with the facts as you know them. Something out of place? Ask about it. Drill down to figure out what you don’t know.
Here’s an example of hearing opinion about interest that didn’t jive with their problem experience. After listening to a CIO discuss extensively how they were protecting against the network security threats our product was designed to address including hearing they are feeling no pain/no problems, he says to our team that he’s very interested in giving our product a trial!! I countered, “Wait a minute, you just spent 25 minutes explaining the thorough layering of defenses you have already established AND the fact you’ve only had a single significant problem in three years. You are busy, yet you are willing to take the effort to trial our product when it’s ready. Why bother?” BTW, 90% of salespeople would never ask this question. The response: “I am interested because what I didn’t tell you is that the CEO comes in every other week — usually with an article on network security in his hand — and asks me whether I’m absolutely sure I’ve done everything I can to protect against these threats, especially unknown ones. Your solution is another layer. I know we can’t always keep up and I need to see if and when we’re missing anything.”
As a result of this exchange and similar ones that followed, we changed the problem we solved from “We stop what’s hurting you today.” to “Be confident that nothing is getting through undetected tomorrow.”
7) Take copious notes; capture direct quotes.
Note: Ask to record the interviews if you can. Assign one person to be the official note-taker, but all take notes. As a team, immediately after the meeting, summarize what you’ve learned, the good news, the bad news, the quote of the day, gotta-have features, nice-to-have features, the problem we solve for them, the cost to them of not solving the problem, what to change in the presentation, who to call on next. Full quotes are golden because they help clarify what you heard and help share the meeting with others.
One useful approach to help this debriefing is to ask, “If this single prospect is indicative of the whole market, what does it say about our hypotheses?” This is useful as long as your team realizes that this one data point is not to be substituted for having multiple prospective customer meetings.
8) Always ask about procurement process. Ask how they’d rate your product on their priority list. Ask whether they’d buy and what are the next steps.
Note: Typically, their answer will not be a surprise to you if you’ve had a full discussion of the problem in the first part of the meeting. You can start more gently by asking where they would use your solution first. Probe to understand why in that particular area.
9) Bunch meetings together in waves.
Note: Conduct 3-5 meetings in fairly compact (1-2 day) waves and invite a larger team to review the wave findings. Then schedule field time for the next wave. Keep this up until you have all your uncertainties clarified or at least bounded. The same core team travels to all meetings in one car so discussions occur between meetings and while reviewing notes.
10) Summarize findings visually — perhaps a matrix — to understand who likely customers are based on what they do, their size, their market segment.
Note: Remind yourselves, this is not a scientific study with statistical rigor. This is about finding the ripest fruit on the lowest branches consistently. It’s about understanding who to call on, what to say, who will buy, and why they’ll buy from you.
Figure out which cells in your matrix look the most promising and double up efforts for those types of companies.
Calls to Action: Just Do it!
Take it from Nike, just having the meeting will inform, sharpen your communication, and uncover surprises. Executing some aspect of it poorly will probably cause you to strengthen that area out of pride and professionalism the next time. Don’t wait for perfection.
If you’re focused on understanding their problem and what it would take to solve it, then your meeting time will be a success no matter what can be improved.