Why are customers so hard to understand?
How to ask scary questions and find signal in the noise
No framework survives collision with reality. While they can make us more confident, there are two big problems:
It’s easier to memorize frameworks than why they work and when to apply them
Frameworks are black-or-white, but the world is filled with shades of gray
This is especially true when it comes to building a new product that people actually want. You can study every framework and still be stuck because what you really need is something squishier — judgment.
In the course of talking to early customers, I wanted to share some surprising nuances, from why you’ll never run out of features, to how to handle conflicting feedback and segment your customers.
You’ll never run out of features (and that’s bad!)
People like sharing ideas about how to make something better. That’s why when you ask for feedback, you’ll often get an endless list of features. If only you built X, then you’ll have a hit!
The next feature fallacy toys with the optimist in us. When it comes to new products, however, the most important decision isn’t picking the next feature, it’s learning whether the product is viable at all.
If you make these changes, will customers switch over and pay? Or will your product go from mediocre to slightly less mediocre?
These are scary, kill-your-idea questions that are convenient to ignore. But you can never skip feedback from the market, you only delay on your own clock.
Instead of the generic: what would make this better? try: what would it take to turn this into [insert picture of success]? This fetches a shorter list of features, and sometimes the clarifying truth that you’ve already reached your local maximum. If you want to go higher, pick a different mountain.
Handle conflicting feedback
Once you talk to enough customers, you inevitably encounter this dreaded dilemma: conflicting feedback. Adam tells you he wants an infinite scroll of content. Bob insists on a finite list he can finish.
The framework-y answer is to ask why they want it. (Dream scenario: they have the same underlying problem so you can just pick the best solution!) In reality, the likely driver behind conflicting feedback is that Adam and Bob are solving for different things.
You can’t make both happy without making the product more complicated. Who do you pick? To grow product-market fit, listen to the customer who would be most disappointed if they couldn’t use your product.
But what if you’re so early that nobody would feel disappointed yet? This is where judgment comes in. Here are some starting points:
Who’s overlooked in your problem space? Who’s not even on the map but could be? They’re more likely to give you a shot since few are vying for their attention
Who has a higher willingness to pay? They’ll give you capital to keep going
Who’s more interesting to build for? They’ll motivate you to stay in the game
Picking favorites is a necessary evil, and the way to do it judiciously is to…
Segment your customers
Delivering something amazing is the fuel that helps you escape obscurity. So instead of appeasing every customer, find a narrow segment to impress.
But how do you actually segment? And how do you know if it’s narrow enough? The framework-y answer of segmenting by size, age, geography rarely works in practice. It makes too many tops-down assumptions about complete strangers.
Instead, let’s return to the goal of segmentation: find the customers who get immense value from what you’re making. Whenever I get immense value, two things are true: I’m highly motivated to get my fix and capable of doing so. This happens to be a reliable approach to differentiating customers in the early days.
Motivation tells you what people care about, and how much they care — are they a good match for the problem you’re solving? Capability gives you clues on the ideal solution — how much guidance will they need?
Your most promising customer segment
Motivation is a two-factor equation: importance of problem x satisfaction with current solutions
The beauty of open-ended questions is that people reveal their motivations. Here’s a classic: what are you using right now to solve [problem]? If it’s an important problem, they either already have a solution or are eagerly searching for one.
Next comes a mistake I’ve made too many times: underestimating existing solutions. If you care about a space, you’ll have a higher bar for quality than the typical customer.
The most promising customer segments tend to be one of two groups:
Rate solutions as 5 or under, and keen on replacing them
Have zero solutions and are eagerly searching for them
More often, you’ll encounter people who enjoy feasting on new ideas but have good enough solutions. While they can offer valuable insights on your competition, they’re unlikely to be your first adopters because behavior change is hard!
Switching costs are never zero because habits exist. You might have the world’s easiest sign-up, but you still need to convince people to do it instead of checking their email, or scrolling through TikTok, or any other habit that fills their time!
Increasing motivation is its own beast, which is why it’s better to start with people who are already highly motivated to try your product.
Treasure in the maze
Building anything new is like being dropped into a maze. Your goal is to stay alive and find the trail that leads to the treasure.
That trail is uncovered through talking to customers and building a mental map of the maze. Who are the characters? Where are the dead-ends?
Iterate on your questions just as you iterate on your product.
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Thanks for reading,