The Sales Pitch is Dead. Long Live Solution Interviews!

You know the #1 Rule of Validating the Problem is…to not talk about your solution.

If that’s the case, how and when, do you pitch your solution? Watch this video for a quick walk-through on how to sell, without pitching (i.e. how to nail a solution interview).

When do you Pitch your Product?

The answer, for me, is easy:

The perfect time to pitch your solution is…never. Tweet this

Solving a customer’s problems, especially in the early stages, is a collaborative effort.

You need feedback on your solution. You need to know when it’s going to fail. You need to know who will use it, and who won’t. You need to know how much they’re willing to “pay” for it. That information won’t be found “pitching” a solution.

Pitching is inherently a one-sided affair – it’s a monologue, not a dialogue. We want a solution dialog.

Instead of pitching, try solution interviewing.

The Sales Pitch is Dead

In the B2B scenario, I replace traditional pitching with Solution Interviews.

Problem interviews validate problems. Solution interviews validate… Tweet this

Solution interviews provide insight on:

  • Will the solution work?
  • Where are the solution’s weaknesses?
  • Is your marketing copy right?
  • Is the price right?
  • Is she ready to buy?

The solution interview is where you move from “do my customers have a problem they’re trying to solve” to “can I build a business solving this problem?”

Pitching is dead. Long live the Solution Interview! Tweet this

The 3 P‘s of Solution Interviews

Note: watch the video for a full description of these phases.

  1. Problem Reflection – This is a chance to recap the points from your Problem Interview and allow the customer to refocus on the problems that they need fixed. The problems reflected should of course be carefully selected from all the problems you discussed in the Problem Interview. They should be the problems that you know you have a solution for!
  2. Proposing a solution  – Your aim here is a discussion, a consultative approach as opposed to a one way, one-woman show! You are starting a conversation based on the common ground established in the Problem Interview and honestly asking for feedback on the potential solution/s you have come up with.
  3. Progress – Once you have the problems recapped and you’ve discussed the potential solution, it’s time to agree on the next steps. This will be your common “To Do” list featuring all the key moves to get you and your customer to A Problem Solved!

You will want to run the Solution Interview at a different time, post the Problem Interview. This will allow you the time to reflect on issues raised and identify the problems you can solve. The time to come up with the optimum solutions for the customer and put together a viable action plan. This type of approach will ensure you NEVER have to pitch again and as a result, eliminate the uncertainty of will they/won’t they get back to me.

Monologue : Dialogue :: Sales Pitches : Solution Interviews Tweet this

With a dialogue, you can identify any “glitches in the Matrix” there and then. It allows for more flexibility and also a more personal approach. You have already had contact and obtained agreement for future contact with the Problem Interview so the Solution Interview is all about trust and an honest delivery of an end to the customer’s problems! Prepare to be the one who Saves the Day!

Customer Development Made Easy…

Summary

Watch this video for a walk-through on selling without pitching and how to nail your solution interview. Solution Interviews are the ideal way to open up communication, offer potential solutions and gain the trust, and business, of your customers. Because you have taken the time to establish their problems, expressed in their own words, they now know you’re not just proposing something “off the shelf”, something for everyone.

Forget all about the art of Pitching, you want the art of Dialogue. Tweet this

A Better Way to Interview Enterprise Customers

If you’re doing B2B Problem Interviews, I’ve got some tweaks to our traditional interview script that I’ve been using to great effect in the enterprise space. I wanted to pass them along.

Step 1: Define the Role

I now start off my B2B interviews with, “How do you describe your role?” I dig this question for 2 reasons:

  1. It gives you both a common foundation to build on during the interview.
  2. It gets the customer describing her world, using her words.

If you already know your customer’s role (e.g. job responsibilities) is, asking them to describe it gives you an easy way into the conversation while providing a shared context to work from for the rest of your interview.

If you don’t fully understand your customer’s role, asking her to use “her own words” gives you clearance to ask what might otherwise be an intimidating question.

“Oh, I’m not asking because I don’t know. I just want to hear you describe it.”

It’s her words you’ll use throughout the interview to establish an relationship. It’s her words you’ll use to demonstrate trust when asking for interviews with other B2B customers. And it’s her words you’ll use when it’s time to start pitching her a solution.

In cust interviews, words matters. Reflect them back for killer rapport (and marketing copy). Tweet this

Step 2: Define Success

You’ve just asked about her role, now you want to know how to help her kill it in that role, so you ask, “What does success look like for you?”

You’re on the lookout for metrics used to evaluate her performance – both the measures her manager uses, and she uses. The success criteria she calls out is what we’re going to help her achieve!

Again pay attention to the words she uses – you’ll play these back again, verbatim, when it’s time for your solution interview.

Your customer’s success criteria, is your success criteria. Tweet this

Step 3: Define the Problems

Now that you’ve established what success looks like to your customer, we want to find out the hardest part in achieving it. These “hard parts” are the problems we’re going to solve!

This is essentially the beginning of our traditional interview script, but now that you understand her role intimately, and what she’s striving for, you’ll have a fantastic context to ask in-depth questions from throughout the interview.

The key here is to tie any problems they mention to a specific success criteria so during your solution interview, you can draw a direct line from their problem, to your solution, and that results in their success criteria.

Solution interviews = 1 part problem + 1 part solution + 1 part success criteria.  Tweet this

Summary

Using these three questions, in conjunction with the traditional interview script will provide the context, and the customer’s words, to set you up for success in your B2B solution interviews.

B2B Problem Interview Script
1. How do you describe your role?
2. What does success look like for you?
3. What’s the hardest part about achieving that success?
4. Can you tell me about the last time that happened?
5. Why was that hard?
6. What, if anything, have you done to solve that problem?
7. What don’t you love about the solutions you’ve tried?

What are solution interviews and how do you knock them out of the park? We’ll answer that in our next blog post. Subscribe here to get it! :)

Customer Development Made Easy…

When are you Done Interviewing Customers?

I love this question. I remember asking it myself, and now every time I run an interview workshop some kindred spirit asks, “How do I know when I’m done?”

 

I love this question not just because I used to ask it, and not even because I have a wicked answer. I love it because my answer has changed over time.

I used to think you interview “until you stop learning new things about your customers’ problems.” Truth is, I still believe that.

You’re done interviewing customers when you bet $100 you know what the next one will say…and win. Tweet this

Customer discovery problem interviews are hands down the best way to source your early adopters, marketing copy, marketing channels, UVPs, etc. so don’t throw away the tool before you’ve exhausted it.

But like I say, my answer has changed. While I used to just stop with the above, my thinking has evolved and I’ve got a more concrete answer for you.

The answer is 5 (and 20)

If you interview 5 customers and don’t start hearing the same things over and over, something is wrong. Tweet this

After 5 interviews, you’ll a signal will start to emerge from the noise. After 5 interviews, you’ll hear customers repeat themselves. After 5 interviews, you’ll get a sense of whether you’re on the right track.

That’s not to say after 5 you’ll have learned everything about your customers (that’ll take 15-20). If however you’re not connecting the dots after 5…you’ve probably done something wrong.

Check yo’ Segment

my segment is too big

When I’ve interviewed customers in the past and couldn’t quickly get a clear picture on their answers (i.e. interviewed more than 5 people and “everyone had different problems”) it was because I was interviewing people across customer segments.

I was interviewing “small and medium sized businesses” when I should have been interviewing, “US law firms specializing in IP law with 5 – 25 lawyers, and who are LexisNexis customers.”

I was interviewing “friends and family members of people with ADHD” when I should have been interviewing “working age people with smart phones who live within 50 miles of US urban centers and within an hour of a sibling diagnosed with ADHD.”

Those Aren’t Segments

You can see how my first set of customer segments weren’t segments at all. They were all of my potential customers…not a segment of them. These groups of people have nothing in common with one another, so when I asked about their problems, I was getting answers all over the map.

While the guy who owns 3 gas stations and the woman who owns a 500-person financial consulting firm are both SMB owners, they’re facing drastically different problems – interviewing both of them would only serve to confuse things.

Instead, if I interviewed multiple owners of “US law firms specializing in IP law with 5 – 25 lawyers, and who are LexisNexis customers” I can assure you, their answers will be almost identical.

Summary

If you’re asking “How many customer interviews do I do?” you probably haven’t niched enough. Tweet this

We’ll discuss how to niche/segment in a future post (subscribe here to get it), but for now know that you should see patterns within 5 interviews, and have all your questions answered within 20. If that’s not the case, focus your efforts on a subset of your customers and try again.

Customer Development Made Easy…

Getting Customer Interviews with Cold Emails

I recently started 1-on-1 mentoring sessions where one of the most popular questions has been:

“How do I ask B2B customers for an interview?”

Approaching a busy professional and asking for their time, so I could eventually sell them something, was a mystery to me when I started customer development. After some trial and error though, I found a workflow that converts pretty well.

We know Mechanical Turk can help with B2C customer interviews, but this post is all about B2B and the secrets of sending cold emails.

Step 1: Get their Email Address

There are quite a few ways to get cold contacts’ email addresses, all of which I can recommend:

And now there’s a new tool in town that I’m really excited about: Kimono.

Kimono is a free web scraper that doesn’t require writing code. If you find a web page with the contact information of customers you’d like to interview, Kimono can collect it for you automatically.  Here’s a quick video of how it works:

Kimono can do other cool things like traverse multiple pages in a results list for you (e.g. automatically click the “Next” button at the end of a list) and collect information from “subpages” (e.g. follow links on a page to gather more detailed info).  Details on those features here.
However you collect the email addresses, now it’s time to…

Step 2: Write the Email

There are 3 things a cold email must be in order to generate a response:

  1. Short
  2. Personal
  3. Valuable

Let’s take an example:

Cold Email Sample

Subject: Remote coding

Hi Sam,

I read your article on volunteering your professional skills in Guatemala – it was really inspiring. I’m looking to travel more and you’ve got me thinking about incorporating volunteering when I do!

I have a software company trying to improve remote medical record coding.

I’m not looking to sell anything, but since you have so much expertise with remote coding, I’d love to get your advice on our product so we don’t build the wrong thing.

If you’re available, I’d love to chat for just 20 minutes – Thur or Fri morning?

Thanks for any help,
Justin

Let’s see how we did:

Short? 5 sentences. That’s all you need. Any longer than that and you’re wasting their time.

Personal? This part is the most work, but it’s what’s going to separate you from the spammers. Plus, researching each of your customers to find something unique about them is going to give you incredible insight. Consider commenting on their:

  • Blog posts
  • Any professional organizations they belong to
  • Companies listed on their LinkedIn profile
  • Tweets they’ve sent

This is Important: Don’t skip this part. Without something personal in there you’re liable to get flagged as spam. If that happens enough times, you’ll forever be relegated to junk mail.

Valuable? In this case we’re offering to “improve remote medical record coding.”  Our hypothesis is that Sam has problems with her remote coding process and by hinting that we’re trying to solve them, we’re giving her a reason why spending 20 minutes with us will be worth her time.

Without this line you’re “offering” to take 20 minutes of her time, and giving nothing back. Why would she sign up for that?

Note: Be vague. You don’t want to seed your customer with the problem you’re hypothesizing. Note how the email doesn’t say anything about making “remote coding”:

  • Faster
  • Cheaper
  • More secure
  • More accurate

When we interview Sam, we want her to tell us what problems she has with remote coding – no cheating.

3 secrets to cold emails: keep it short, personal & valuable Tweet this

Bonus Secret: Ask for Advice. The line, “I’m not looking to sell anything. I’m just looking for your advice so we don’t build the wrong thing.” is not only true (you’re not selling anything), it lowers your customer’s defenses and appeals to their inner-adviser.

Step 3: Send the Email

You can send the emails one at a time, but it’s boring and monotonous to copy & paste the same email over and over again. Plus, its annoying to keep track of who has replied and who hasn’t – especially when there’s a kick ass tool like Streak.

Streak is a CRM embedded in GMail, and it’s great for a number of reasons:

  1. Mail Merge – Automate sending mass, but personalized, emails.
  2. Easy Follow-ups – Track which customers have replied and which have haven’t. Send follow-ups to those who haven’t.
  3. Scheduled Email Delivery – Write emails at 2 am, but send them at 2 pm.

Streak's mail merge is brilliantly designed.
Streak’s mail merge is brilliantly designed.

Here’s a video outlining exactly how to use Streak to request, and keep track of, customer discovery interviews:

Important: I’m no spam expert, but I’ve been told by those who are to use this tool responsibly. Make sure to personalize each email and I’d avoid sending too many of these in a 24-hour period.
Finally, be sure to consider the timing of your mail. If I’m sending cold emails, I’ll typically do so Tue – Thur early morning-ish, or Sunday afternoons. Any other times and it feels like my request will get deprioritized by other work.

Conclusion

With tools like Kimono, Streak and the 3 secrets to a great cold-email, I’ve setup interviews with a 50% success rate from complete strangers – you have everything you need to do the same!

3 Steps (and 2 cool tools) to get Customer Interviews Tweet this

If you follow these steps and no one replies, it could be back luck or…you could be solving a problem no one has.

What’s Next?

This is Part 3 of our series of on Interviewing Customers. Check these bad boys out:

  1. Which Customers Should you Interview (The SPA Treatment)
  2. How to Find Customers to Interview
  3. Getting Customer Interviews with Cold Emails
  4. How I Interview Customers
  5. You’ve Interviewed Customers. Now what?

Our next post will be…Please don’t build an MVP. Subscribe to get it via Email or RSS.

First time to Customer Development Labs?

Check out our other popular experiments:

  1. MTurk + Google News = Press
  2. Interviewing 100 customers in 4 hours with MTurk
  3. Testing your Domain Name

Customer Development Made Easy…

5 Question Customer Interview Script

Interviewing Customers is a Special Kind of Torture

  1. Talk to a stranger. Fun.
  2. That stranger is immensely busy…and hates being sold things. Getting better.
  3. That stranger will likely destroy your vision for a company. Ready to get started?!

When I started interviewing customers, the only thing I cared less about than talking about other people’s problems, was asking about them. So, I skipped all the questions I thought were BS, and jumped to the most important ones:

“Would you use a product that does _____________?”

and

“How much would you pay for it?”

Turns out, those aren’t the most important questions…they’re the most misleading. Apparently, I am not a natural interviewer.

When I realized interviewing customers meant standing in front of strangers doing something I was awful at, any enthusiasm I had towards “getting out of the building”, evaporated.

When I see other founders hesitate to interview customers, or do them wrong, I empathize. I’ve been there. It’s a daunting task we have no experience with – and – isn’t nearly as fun as building stuff.

Let’s Fix That

Despite my early misgivings, learning to interview customers has become one of my most indispensable skills. Not just because it gives me a leg up on competitors, not because it helps me (in)validate ideas quickly, and not because it helps in my personal life as much as it does my professional. It’s indispensable because…

For me, interviewing customers makes customer development…fulfilling.

Instead of being stressed about what the customer is going to think about my idea, instead of fumbling over my words and worrying about the perfect way to pitch my product, a customer interview isn’t about me, my product, or my words. It’s about theirs. All I have to do is listen. No pitching, no negotiating, just ask a handful of questions with a sincere interest to learn.

Other people’s problems are interesting – when you’re in a position to solve them. Tweet this

How Not to Interview

A few ground rules I use that will prevent you from torpedoing your interviews:

1st rule of validating your idea: Do not talk about your idea. Tweet this

tyler-fight-club-quote1 Your brain is hard wired to screw you as soon as you start thinking about your idea.

Once your idea pops into your brain during an interview, your body will literally turn against you. It will start looking for validation that the idea is good. Your interpretations of statements, intonation, body language will all be skewed. What’s worse, the person you’re talking to subconsciously knows what you’re looking for, and based on our desire to build relationships, will want to help you. They’ll be your unwitting accomplice and provide the  “validation” you’re looking for – leading you in the wrong direction. To the best of your abilities, avoid thinking about your idea during the interview – and certainly avoid talking about it. These interviews are about your customers and their problems. Do your best to keep the conversation focused there.

2nd rule of validating your idea: Do not ask about the future.

No hypotheticals, no projections, no guesses. The way I remember this rule? I never ask a question with the word “would” in it:

  • “If we built a product that solved X problem, would you use it?”
  • “How much would you pay for something that did X?”
  • Would you like your existing solution better if it did X?”

When you use the word “would”, you’re making a thinly veiled attempt to validate your product…not their problem. Don’t do that. See Rule #1. In addition, when you ask about the future, you’re asking your customer to predict it. She can’t do that. She’ll try, but she’ll be wrong. Listening to wrong answers can only serve to harm you (“75% of people I talked to said they wanted…”, “Half of the interviewees said they’d pay $20″, etc.) – they’re all bad guesses. There are better ways to answer those questions.

How To Interview

There are five questions I use to form my customer interviews. Start with these, and you’ll not only to learn about your customer’s problems, you’ll learn if they’re worth solving (and how to solve them):

My Customer Interview Script
1. What’s the hardest part about      [problem context]    ?
2. Can you tell me about the last time that happened?
3. Why was that hard?
4. What, if anything, have you done to solve that problem?
5. What don’t you love about the solutions you’ve tried?

The trickiest part is figuring out what to put in the blank for Question #1. You don’t want to be so specific that you tell them about the problem you want to solve. For example, imagine you want to build Yelp for Vegetarians…

Don’t ask: “What’s the hardest part about finding a good vegetarian restaurant in a new city?”

But you also don’t want to be so broad that you’re inviting discussion about a range of problems you have no interest in solving:

Don’t ask: “What’s the hardest part about being a vegetarian?”

You want to ask about a significant problem context – situations that occurs frequently enough, or are painful enough, to warrant solving:

Ask: “What’s the hardest part about eating out as a vegetarian?”

This question will certainly evoke responses, but they could range from:

  • “The portions aren’t large enough” to
  • “I don’t really trust that the things I order are meat-free” to
  • “A yelp search for ‘vegetarian’ returns results like ‘Joe’s All American Steak House’ with comments like, ‘Don’t bring your vegetarian friends here.'”

And that’s the best part about interviews! Not only will they help you validate whether the customer has the problem you hypothesize, if they don’t, interviews will point you to one they do have. You win either way. Btw, this is one of the benefits of interviews vs. surveys. Surveys might tell you how often a customer experiences a problem, but if the answer is “not very often”, surveys won’t give you another problem to explore. Interviews will. More specifics on why we ask each of the questions in the video above, but here’s here’s the gist:

Question #2 – We ask stories because they enable us to dive deeper into paths we could never hypothesize “inside the building.” You’ll learn 23x more from a story than you will a yes/no answer. It’s science.
Question #3 – Customers don’t buy the what, they buy the why. We’ll use this answer to craft our marketing copy.
Question #4 – If they aren’t looking for solutions already, this isn’t a big enough problem for us to solve. For someone to take a bet on us, a startup, an unknown entity, we must be solving a problem so pressing, customers are actively searching for solutions.
Question #5 – This is our Unique Value Proposition. We’ll build something that solves our customer’s problem, in a way that’s better than their alternatives.

That’s the list of starter questions. Other great questions to consider adding to your script:

  • How often do you experience this problem?
  • How much are you spending to solve this problem now?
  • Where do you find information about      [problem context]     online?

That last question is great for a couple reasons: if you don’t already know, it can tell you some of your online channels and, if you’re not interviewing an early adopter (someone trying to solve this problem already), the answer to this question may point you to folks who are. There are some other recommendations I make in the video above regarding looking for emotional cues, asking why, and repeating the process with the same customer – watch it for full details.

Invalidation

If the problem you hypothesized doesn’t get mentioned during interview, you can still ask about it – just start the interview again with Question #2:

“Can you tell me about the last time you tried to find a good vegetarian restaurant in a new city?”

The trick is, you must put extra weight on their response to Question #4.

If you have to bring the problem up and they’re not taking steps to solve it, they won’t use your solution. It doesn’t matter how simple it is, how well it solves the problem, how cheap it is…none of it matters. This problem is not a big enough concern for this customer to take the time to find it, pay for it, learn it, or use it. Something must change.

Your hypothesis has been invalidated.

This scenario happens more than any other – and when it happens to you, like it’s happened to me (over, and over) – know that it’s OK. It means you’re doing it right. While disappointing, this truth is a reflection of reality. Knowing it sooner than later will serve you well.

The good news is, because you asked Question #1 & the channels question during your interviews, you’re ready to setup your next interview! Either interview another customer segment (try the online channels customers look to for additional information) or validate a different problem they’ve mentioned.

Next Steps

Armed with this information, you have everything you need to (in)validate your problem hypothesis:

Validated? You’re setup beautifully to test your unique value proposition and channels.
Invalidated? Congrats (and bummer). Good news is, you’re doing it right. Time to find a new customer segment, or a new problem.

You can search for new customers in the online channels they mentioned during the interview. If those folks don’t have the problem, time to try solving a different one – you’ll have a list of them from the responses to Question #1. Pick the most popular one.

Summary

Interviewing customers is the key to customer development. It unlocks all the most important components of the business model canvas. It’ll be the skill that distinguishes you from other startups, and it will not only tell you if you’re going in the right direction, it will give you a map if you’re not. But I promised more than that. I promised interviewing customers would make customer development fulfilling. To me…

Few things are as fulfilling as understanding someone’s problem, and helping them solve it. Tweet this

What’s Next?

This is Part 4 of a series of Customer Discovery posts designed in collaboration with Startup Weekend NEXT. I highly recommend the others:

  1. Which Customers Should you Interview (The SPA Treatment)
  2. How to Find Customers to Interview
  3. Getting Customer Interviews with Cold Emails
  4. How I Interview Customers
  5. You’ve Interviewed Customers. Now what?

Our next post will be…5 Tools I use for Customer Development. Subscribe to get it via Email or RSS.

Customer Development Made Easy…