Four keys to serious customer discovery

When I co-founded CWNP way back in 1999, we came up with a great idea for the “wireless ethernet” industry (“Wi-Fi” was not coined yet), and started building it.  We ran as fast and hard as we could, because we knew it was only a matter of time before the huge established players (Cisco, Microsoft, CompTIA) jumped in to the wireless certification space. We were wrong, but that’s another story blog post.

We did exactly as we set out to do, and built exactly what we wanted to build. Took a little longer than we thought, but that’s to be expected of any new venture. We launched in July 2001, and over the course of the next 10 years, built a profitable, self-sustaining business with a minimum of overhead, which was eventually acquired in August of 2012.

Do you see anything wrong with how we went about it?  You should, if you’ve been paying attention.

Do you see the word “customer” anywhere?  That’s not a trick question.  We never asked the first potential customer what they wanted (or didn’t want!) to see in a professional career certification that focused on 802.11 wireless technologies.  We just built our idea. Yes, eventually we got there, but it would have been a lot easier and faster to “get there” had we known about or bothered with customer discovery.

Fast forward (ok, slow forward) to today, as we’re shifting and pivoting from deductmor to cD8a (pron “c-data”, coming soon), that’s ALL I’ve done is talk to prospects and people that I think might be clients.  Not only has it been fun, but the interview process has been incredibly informative.  Here are four keys that have helped me in this customer discovery process.

  1. It’s not selling – this point is first because it’s the most important. Customer discovery is NOT “selling”. Wait, what? Right, it’s not selling, because you have nothing to sell yet. Customer discover is research, learning, and, ahem, discovering who your customers are and exactly what they want need.
  2. Have questions ready – you wouldn’t go into any other customer meeting unprepared, and a customer discovery meeting is no different. Be prepared. Have as many questions as you can possibly think of ready to go. I recommend shooting for at least 20 questions. You may not ask them all, and you may not have to. I’ve found that the customer will usually answer all of your questions on their own, because…
  3. You’re there for a reason – you have (or you think you have) found a point of pain in your customer’s business; something that needs a new solution; something that is causing them or their business daily angst. When you hit on that point, they will tell you all about their pain. Why? Because you are researching possible solutions to that pain.
  4. Let them talk – begin the meeting, actually the whole process, under the assumption that you are not in control of this meeting. Ask open ended questions that you do not know the answers to. Let me repeat that: Ask open ended questions that you do not know the answers to. If you are not getting surprised and shocked and “AH HA!!!!” moments, you’re doing it wrong. So let your customer talk. They will tell you exactly what they need.

Then and only then can you build that product or service.  And it sure is a lot easier when you know what to build.

How has doing actual, serious customer discovery helped you in your startup?

What do you think about that?