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Summary:

Everyone founder knows they need to “talk to customers” and “get customer feedback” before they get too far. The other day on FOUND|READ “Wil Schroter pointed out”:http://gigaom.com/2007/07/17/zero-cash-plan/ that you should talk to customers as one of the first five things to do. What’s less well understood […]

Everyone founder knows they need to “talk to customers” and “get customer feedback” before they get too far. The other day on FOUND|READ “Wil Schroter pointed out”:http://gigaom.com/2007/07/17/zero-cash-plan/ that you should talk to customers as one of the first five things to do.

What’s less well understood is that *customers often give lousy feedback.* They’re unimaginative, stuck in the status quo, and distracted. They already manage their day without your product, and life will go on if you don’t exist. “Henry Ford”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Ford once said, “If I’d asked customers, they’d have said they wanted faster horses.”

How to guarantee that you’re getting good information out of your customer conversations?

It took me many years of pitching vaporware for venture-backed startups, and then co-foundig my own firm to discover *The Secret: Use the Present Tense.*

When conducting reconnaissance with customers for your as-yet-unbuilt product, speak about it in the present tense. This is what the product does. This is how much it costs. (Even though it doesn’t, yet.) And be specific.

Definitely never ask: “What do you want the product to do?” or “How much would you pay?” *Customers have no idea what they want.* But they know they don’t want to pay for it.

Rather, when you use the present tense, you get immediate, usable feedback. In fact, the more specific you are about what your product “does” _now_, the better your results will be.

Compare the two techniques: *Hypothetical v. Present Tense*

*Hypothetical:*
*You:* “What what would you like our product to do?”
*Customer:* “What I’ve been thinking about is…X, Y, Z.” (Read: something totally wacky and way outside your vision or expertise.)

*Present Tense:*
*You:* “We’re building our company, here’s the problem we saw. So we built Product X. It does this and this and this.”
*Customer:* “But does it do X, Y, Z?” (Read: completely obvious incremental feature that you’ve totally missed so far.)
*You:* “Not yet, but that’s a great idea. Tell me more. How/when/why do you need that?”
(By your next customer meeting you can decide if the product “does” that too!)

The corollary is that describing your product this way, *using the present tense draws out important pricing information you need, too.* When a customer has a product that meets at least some of his needs, his next question is, “How much does it cost?”

Again, the right way to handle this is not, “How much would you spend?” He wants it to be free. *The right way is to say, “It costs $X.”* Your most valuable insight is in his reaction. Did he jump out of his chair? Cringe? Write it down? (Now we’re getting somewhere!) Again, *specificity implies action-ability to the customer.* Usable insights come from actions.

By the way, it’s perfectly OK to say the product isn’t yet available. Because the absolute best result you’ll get when talking to early customers is a question –“When can I get it?” (Bingo! Stop the Release 1 feature set right there.)

The present tense gives the customer a concrete object to grab onto. *Using the present tense shows you’re for real.* Customers don’t buy ideas, they buy things. Once he has the thing, you’ll learn what you came to learn. What his needs are, how your product fits his needs, and how much he pays for these types of things. Mission Accomplished.

  1. Absolutely right on the money… Great post and makes sense.}

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  2. Great! I just sent an IM to my partner to say, ‘Let’s do all of this from now on’. We’ve been doing bits and pieces without actually understanding the whole picture. I particularly like the ‘what’s it cost’ part. We’ll try it out and post some feedback.}

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  3. Very useful. Thanks for the post!}

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  4. Fantastic!

    This is why more technical entrepreneurs need to spend time with sales people.

    One learns that even a killer product needs a market to profit.}

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  5. its also always good to know what type of customer you are talking too… for example, if you are talking to an early adopter or someone who is averse to new things… as an example:
    I knew friends who were absolutely adamant when it came to their stance that facebook was completely useless and they would never join it when I first told them about it… after a couple of months, though, when everyone was on facebook, they eventually joined and became very active users…
    my point is, get to know the personality of the customer you are talking to so you can better understand his/her feedback…}

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  6. Great post and right on the money.

    Another interesting question to add to your line up is – “In your words, how would you describe our product?”.

    It’s often very insightful to hear how your customers sum up your product in their own terms.}

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  7. Wonderful post.
    What I did in my start-up is first build a POC, with good enough UI to be able to show it, but only the most basic feature set, and put it online (though password-protected until launch).
    Next, I started showing it to potential customers, examining their reactions, and improving the look-and-feel and the pitch (but not the feature set of the demo, which would take far more time).
    Last month, after a few such customers showed disappointment when told that no, they couldn’t get their hands on it right away (one even asking if she can invest), I knew we had nailed it.
    Now we’re working to complete the product and plan to launch in a couple of months.}

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