4 Key Components of a Customer Development Interview

4 Key Components of a Customer Development Interview

"Learning happens outside the building not inside"

This is a phrase that I learned from Steve Blank, a successful startup evangelist.

The Customer Development Interview stage is vital to a successful launch of your business.

"The core idea behind customer development is that the assumptions you make about a target are only guesses."

Customer development is the toughest part for most entrepreneurs when building your business.

Mastering this will help you avoid wasting time, money, and get the information you need from your customers.

"90% of startups fail, only 4% make it to $1 million turnover"

Credit - https://www.slideshare.net/fdebane/lean-startup-customer-development-interview

It helps you to avoid your assumptions or beliefs about your idea is true and allows you to validate them with real-world experiments.

But the common questions I get and you're likely thinking now.

This is good information, but where do you start?

What should you say? or.....

What process should you follow during your interviews?

These are all great questions and concerns you should have.

I've compiled a list of 4 Key Components of a Customer Development Interview.

Follow these tips and you'll be on your way to mastering your upcoming Customer Development Interviews.

I hope you will find these useful and share your success with me as you use them.

Have a Goal in Mind

Before you start putting meetings on the calendar it's a good idea to understand the goal or outcome of your interviews.

Not understand your interview goals is a sure way to come away with nothing at all and waste your time.

The foundation of your goal is starting with the problem you're trying to solve.

Let's say hair salon owners waste time and money helping their clients match their desired polish colors?

Your goal with this problem would be to understand if it's a "real" problem and how much of a problem it is.

So you will want to structure your questions (un-biased of course) around this goal to get the most effective outcome.

Keep reading and we will discuss the types of questions below.

But, it's vital that you clearly understand and you have written down your goals.

If you don't get this right then the rest of the steps will be a total failure.

Ask Open-ended Questions

Your customer development interviews aren't about asking people what they want.

They are about validating your assumptions and observing what they do to solve the problems they face.

Simply asking "would you prefer this" or any other yes or no questions is a recipe for disaster.

Its your job to understand your customers problems and solve them with a simple or innovative solution.

Using open-end questions you will better understand the following:

  • Product Risk: The main problem
  • Market Risk: Existing competition
  • Customer Risk: Specifically what group is feeling the pain

Covering all three areas will allow you to better understand....

How big of a problem this is...

What customers do today to solve this problem....

And are there customers out there that "truly" need your solution...

I'm currently in the middle of validating a problem for nail salon owners now.

Happy to share with you what I'm using. 

There is the client side and the salon side of the problem

Keep in mind this is the client side interview set of questions:

To understand the Product Risk or Customer Risk...

Instead of:

"Do you hate testing out different colors when you go to the nail salon?"

You should use:

Asking this question not only gives you a chance to learn about your existing problem you're solving.

But helps you learn about other potential problems you didn't think of.

"Share with me the biggest pain you face going to the nail salon."

To understand the Market Risk....

Instead of:

"Do you struggle testing different nail polish colors?"

You should use:

"How do you go about testing different nail polish colors when you visit the salon"?

The Market Risk question helps you understand what they are using today.

Another app, site, or some other workaround.

You should rely solely on what your customer says they want, but it's important to document and know.

Always ask an open-end "magic wand" question:

"If I gave you a magic wand, what would you design to solve the problems you shared with me today?" 

Let them talk and be quiet.

You're looking for them to tell you exactly what you they need your solution with their answer.

Or at least something close to it to let you know you're on the right track.

I've complied a list of sample questions for you to use:

  • What is your biggest challenge in a particular area?
  • What is the most frustrating part of the problem?
  • How big of a problem is this for you?
  • How have you tried to solve this problem in the past?
  • Why didn't the solution work for you?
  • What is the ideal solution?
  • How would ________ help you?
  • ​How would the solution fix the problem?
  • ​How important is this problem for you to solve?
  • ​How much money would you spend if you could solve the problem?

These are all great questions for you to use. 

Don't forget to download my Customer Development Interview Scripts

Don't Mention Your Idea First

It's important that you stay focused on the problem and not your solution.

I talk to entrepreneurs all the time and it's clear they are too focused on their solution (or idea) and not the their customers problems.

I don't want you to make that same mistake so it's important that you understand this section.

When you're in the Customer Development stage there are not such things as shortcuts.

You have to find customers to talk to, set goals, and ask the right questions.

It's important you not develop a cheating mindset and focus on putting in the work to get it right.

Credit - https://www.slideshare.net/fdebane/lean-startup-customer-development-interview

You may be asking, "what's the harm in me sharing my idea first".

99.999% of the world -- and most of the customers you will are talking to will assume you're trying to sell them something.

People do not like to be told that something is right for them.

The more you focus and listen to their problems, it gives you an opening to make "solution recommendations" for them.

Below are 3 Tips to Keep You From Pitching Your Idea First:

1 - Be Genuine and Stroke Their Egos

If it's a business customer then you're leveraging their expertise

It it's a general customer then you're leverage their time to learn

People love when you ask for their advice, and this approach opens doors for your customer development interviews.

This approach lands you the meeting but sustaining this approach makes the meeting engaging.

Phrase your questions around the interest of what they do or problems they are facing.

2 - Give Valuable Insight

While sharing your idea first is a bad idea, sharing helpful information related to your idea will go a long way.

If you've already started a blog or created a whitepaper.... share that with them.

This is share to position you as a person of value that genuinely cares about the problems they're facing.

Especially if you can personally relate to the problem, then the meeting will turn into a dialogue between two people.

This helps take the weirdness or awkwardness that many times exist in a customer development interview.

3 - Tell a Story (Share the Background)

People love a good short story.... but remember to keep it brief and short.

Here is a sample I'm using for my nail salon problem:

"My wife goes to the nail salon weekly switches her polish color every week.

For her to do that she is constantly painting then wiping off the polish or putting the bottle next to her hand.

She says that process is tedious and time-consuming. Other people in the salon face the same issue.

Does any of this resonate with you?"

This is a good way to reassure them that you're here to talk about this problem and not sell them anything.

Ask Why Multiple Times

It's important to revert back to our childhood when we use to ask "why" for everything.

Asking why helps you to drill down on the problems your customers are facing, why they do certain things and how much it means to them.

In a lot of cases it may seem unnatural as an adult, but vital for you during customer development.

Credit - https://www.slideshare.net/fdebane/lean-startup-customer-development-interview

There are several important factors you will learn by asking "why":

  • Other or bigger problems the customer is facing
  • Competitor information (Market Risk)
  • How much they are paying to solve their problem
  • Why the customer chooses an alternative over another
  • The main cause of the problem
  • Temperature of the pain (i.e. how bad they need to put the fire out)
  • Other potential features or solutions


Startups rarely survive past a year just simply by guessing.

Facts and useful information about your customers don't come from your friends a families.

It's important that you get out in front of real customers, get feedback, and truly learn the problems they are facing.

Only then that your assumptions are validated and turned into reality.

Understanding the key elements of a Customer Development Interview will help you get off on the right foot.

1 - Understand Your Goal

What problem are you trying to solve? Who is having this problem?

How big is this problem?

Are people actively looking for solutions?

Will they pay for a solution?

These are all important to help you understand what you want to get out of your customer development interviews.

2 - Ask Open-end Questions

Asking yes or no will not give you the information needed to validate your problems.

This is key to better understand Customer Risk, Market Risk and Product Risk.

3 - Don't Mention Your Idea First

People hate to be sold to, and those holds true for your customers as well.

Focus on your customers problems and put your idea in the back of your mind for this initial conversation.

You will get more transparent and open answers if they feel you truly care about the problems they are facing.

4 - Ask "Why" Multiple Times

Remember to take the child-like approach to asking "why" for as many answers that makes sense.

When you ask why this is where the emotion-based answers are and how you learn more useful information you didn't think of.

Follow these tips and you are sure to have more effective customer development interviews.

What are your favorite strategies to complete your customer development interviews?

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