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by • October 20, 2011 • ListeningComments Off20

Let’s admit that customer development is awkward

Customer development has a core quality that nobody really talks about:

It’s awkward.

I think people don’t talk about it because it’s not entirely clear whether the awkwardness arises from the situation or from the people, and nobody wants to be the sucker who publicly blames the circumstances when it’s actually their own fault.

So I’m going to be the sucker and go ahead and say that customer development is fundamentally, intrinsically awkward.

The benefits mean it’s worth suffering through, and you can learn how to make it non-awkward (which is what this post is eventually going to be about), but its default state is not an easygoing barrel o’ laughs.

The source of the awkwardness

Founders botch customer discovery meetings when they prematurely switch into sales mode. But if you aren’t selling, what are you doing there? It’s on the customer’s mind and it’s in your subconscious — you really want that sale and whoever you’re meeting with can see that you’re holding something back and then it all gets weird.

So here’s my big claim: customer development meetings are awkward because the involved parties have ambiguous roles. It’s like running into someone you sort-of-know at a barbeque, and you don’t really want to talk to them for an hour but there’s not really a crowd for you to get lost in and what is the etiquette here!?

Anyway, I’ve got a magic solution.

The magic solution

You don’t go into these discussions for customers. You go into customer discovery meetings in search of industry and customer advisors.

You are trying to find helpful, knowledgable people who are excited about your idea.

Problem solved.

You’ll both know why you’re there. And instead of it being a “customer development but I really want to do sales” meeting, it’s a “are you a good advisor – let me find out by asking you all sorts of questions” meeting.

Remember how they proved willpower is a finite resource? And because of that, the way to overcome difficult situations isn’t to power through with an exhausted supply of willpower, but rather to change your circumstances to require less willpower?

Changing the context of the meeting from “custdev but really sales” to “looking for advisors” is the equivalent of throwing out all your brownies, chocolate, and booze when you start a diet. You change the environment to naturally facilitate your goals, whether they be getting into spring break swimsuit shape or developing deep customer understanding.

You don’t need to explicitly tell them you’re looking for advisors. In fact, I wouldn’t unless you already quite like them and it happens to come up in conversation. It’s really about your state of mind — it will orient you and give you a consistent front.

Somewhat counterintuitively, the sales-advisor switch also puts you firmly in control of the meeting, since you’re interviewing them instead of selling to them. Even if the topics of discussion are basically the same, you (and they) will notice the difference.

But what if I miss a sale?

If you still think you may need to do customer development, then you haven’t quite figured everything out yet. In that case, you want those crazy early customers who are so excited about what you’re doing that they’ll put up with a half-baked semi-product.

Anyone who isn’t excited enough about what you’re doing to be a good advisor also isn’t excited enough to be a first customer.

Super advisor double double bonus time

A good industry/customer advisory board will rock your socks off. They’ll give you honest feedback, will likely turn into your first customers, will give you those early case studies & testimonials, and will introduce you to their industry friends and fill your pipeline.

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