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Is the Problem You Solve (Still) Important to Your Customers?

The basis of any successful startup should be that it solves a problem that matters to potential users.  It’s even become part of startup terminology to ask people what problem they are solving when figuring out what their company does.  The terminology only serves to reinforce the reasoning that if what you’re working on is not a problem to someone it’s not worth working on.

When deciding whether to pursue an opportunity it’s important to figure out how important the problem is and who it matters to, and don’t think the work stops there.  During the lifespan of your company it’s important to periodically reassess whether your initial findings about the problem were correct.  Consider whether the research was thorough enough and whether the thoughts your customers have about your product or service have changed since you started the company.

An easy example of how initial findings may no longer be valid is online marketing.  Maybe your company sells a platform that handles the online presence of small businesses.  A small business that may have only 18 months ago considered your startup the savior of their business may no longer have any interest in the service due to a new understanding of social media management or inbound marketing.  A company that might have very recently been intimidated by the concept of creating an online presence could have had someone teach them how to handle it on their own or could have decided that their online brand is important enough to hire someone to handle it for them in-house.

If you haven’t been collecting feedback from your customers you may not realize they are not as engaged as they had been in the recent past.  Startups in particular should be constantly collecting feedback to judge whether their customers still care about the product or service.  This process is also a great time to consider where additional opportunities for revenue exist in your model.

 

Execution

The Who:

Figure out who you are going to be collecting feedback from.  It will be easiest to collect feedback from your “champions”.  These users love your product and will go out of their way to promote your business because of their loyalty.   It will be easiest to get in touch, they will be most willing to take the time to hear you out and give detailed feedback, and will hopefully be willing to be totally honest and not pull punches.  Consider that those customers will not necessarily be a great indicator of the market as a whole.  It would not necessarily be bad to contact those customers first when signing up new customers, but to get a well-rounded impression of interest you need to contact customers of all types.  This means champions, casual users, cold calls, and even potentially calling customers who have been dissatisfied in the past.  Calling dissatisfied former customers takes courage and requires you to tread carefully, but I’ve found that people who have been unhappy with or have unsubscribed from your service will be extremely honest about any flaws they see with the new offering.  Be prepared for some brutal answers, but understand the benefits of complete, brutal honesty, and that these people have the insider understanding to instantly recognize the flaws and shortcomings of your plan.

The How:

I recommend starting with your champions, just to get up to speed.  They’ll forgive you if you stumble through things and give you an idea of what to ask other companies.  Make things as conversational as possible, emphasize that it’s research rather than selling, and get them to do most of the talking.  If you do the majority of the talking you are most likely leading their answers.  Business owners will reveal what they consider to be their real problems once they get on a roll.  Understand that the problems they cite as their biggest may not be the ones you are calling about.  Take notes and consider looking into the other problems they mention as potential new offerings.

In terms of scripts, I would recommend creating them during the process of calling your champions.  Use your notes on the questions you ask, their responses, and other things they say to eventually create as many scripts as you think you will need during your continued calls.  Take notes on everything, and if more than one person is calling combine your results into a larger report to make decisions about your findings.  Google docs is great for this sort of thing.

Who should be calling:

Collecting feedback is difficult but crucial.  As such I strongly believe it should fall on the most senior members of the organization.  It not only promotes a scrappy attitude but ensures that the people making the biggest, most overarching decisions for the company understand the mindset and needs of their customers.  As a bonus it will also excite your customers to know they were giving their feedback one-on-one to an executive at the company.

-Making decisions based on your results

Schedule a meeting after the feedback has been collected.  Determine whether the problem you are trying to solve is important to your customers, what their most important problems are and where additional opportunities for revenue exist.  Make an effort to combine a scientific approach (quantitative, such as, twenty-five people said they don’t use a certain feature) versus gut feelings (quantitative, such as, that feature that most customers don’t use is essential for a different segment of customers).  Experiment with the questions you ask and how you ask them.  Make every call better than the last.

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Example questions to ask your customers:

“What’s the most inconvenient thing you do on a day-to-day basis?”

“How comfortable do you feel with technology and using it to promote your business?”

“Is there any time that you have used our product/service and thought, ‘Why doesn’t it do this also?’”

“Is there any overlap between what we do and other products/services you use?” (make sure to find out whether these are free or paid)

“Are there things you see your competitors doing that you don’t fully understand, but would like to?”

“If our product/service was twice as expensive would it still be worthwhile to you?”

“How often do you take stock of your company’s online presence from the perspective of someone who is completely unfamiliar with your business?”

“Do you feel comfortable taking time off and leaving your employees in control of the business?”  if no, “What holds you back from feeling comfortable with being gone?”

“Do you ever have difficulty choosing which customers to give the most of your attention to?”

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What are your thoughts on collecting feedback?  How often do you do it?  Do you do it yourself or outsource it to other people in the company?  What questions do you ask?  Please let me know in the comments section below.

 

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