The customer validation conundrum

Sylvie Leotin · March 11, 2011 · Short URL:

Why is it so hard to get useful feedback from customers?

High tech startups rarely fail for a lack of technology; they mostly fail for a lack of customers. While entrepreneurs understand the importance of validating their products with customers, many struggle to derive positive results from those meetings.

Good books and tips

First of all, there are excellent books and blogs offering guidance to entrepreneurs in that regard.  Four Steps the Epiphany has become the de facto standard. The Entrepreneur's Guide to Customer Development is another good one. Startup Lessons Learned blog (we look forward to the book) offers a wealth of advice. And there are many others. Venture Hackshas a good list of resources for startups.

The legendary French Chef Auguste Escoffier (dubbed the father of modern cuisine) prefaced his cookbook with: “no theory, no formula, no recipe can take the place of experience”. Towards that goal, Steve Blank relentlessly urges entrepreneurs to get out of the building and speak to customers.

Struggling at Execution

While some entrepreneurs naturally excel at getting useful insights from customers, many struggle. Seasoned entrepreneurs encourage youngsters to keep at it: “it will get better with practice”. 12 Tips for Early Customer Development Meetings offers good sound bite advice: "listen don't pitch, encourage don't influence, etc". Other believe that if founders are not skilled at speaking to customers, they should not start a company in the first place.

We spoke to entrepreneurs to hear their side of the story. Some think they should not listen to customers. Other seek to listen but can't help pitching (or so they've been told). Some feel naked without giving a product demo. Other feel that they follow the steps but are not getting results – they wonder what skills they might be lacking. Some don't know what questions to ask. Many barriers come in the way.

Walk a Mile in Their Shoes

While we don't have a cure to all ailments, we see an underlying problem which could alleviate much pain. And that is a mindset problem.

As discussed in a previous post  Powerful Listening Drills for Entrepreneurs, entrepreneurs may meet with customers and think they are listening, but unconsciously filter out vital insights (because they are in "inner personal listening" mode).

If we are going to meet with customers, we need to be in the right mindset, which is one of seeking meaning for others. This starts with a genuine interest in learning about someone else’s problems. It is about letting go of our products and egos (for a short while – the duration of the meeting), and being genuinely curious about someone else’s point of view.

Having customer validation meetings is important. But unless we shift our mindset to seek meaning for others, there will remain a gap we won’t be able to bridge. We will keep seeing our products through our own eyes, and project our filters onto customers.

Beyond meetings, we suggest walking a mile in your customers' shoes to develop a deeper understanding of their motives. We've devised exercises to help entrepreneurs get inside the head of their customers, and visualize their product through their customers' eyes. It's been enlightening. We will share more in next post.


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Sylvie Leotin

Sylvie Leotin is an entrepreneur, advisor, writer and polymath, with a unique approach to bridging the worlds of business, technology, arts and culture.

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