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…


The Solution Interview is about building trust, to solve a problem. Tweet this

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

Help Investors Believe you – show them Customer Quotes

When my mentor asked me for specific quotes from “potential customers” to demonstrate demand in an investor presentation the next day, I was up S*&% creek.

We don’t want investors “guessing” whether or not there’s demand for our products, but we don’t have time to walk through every single experiment and interview we’ve done during a pitch.  What we can do though, is share the excitement, demand, and desperation for our product via real customer quotes:

“This is Super needed in the marketplace. We will pay you for this” – Impact Investor*

“Our members will position themselves for better jobs if they have skills-based volunteering experience” – Career site for impact professionals*

“Existing programs are way too expensive, and my frustration in trying to find a legitimate opportunity could cause me to do nothing.” – Professional interested in skills-based travel volunteering*

“We can’t find the volunteers we need in order to grow our social enterprise.” – Potential hosting enterprise in Turkey*

*Names excluded for this blog post. Permission was specific to being used in presentation decks.
Make sure to respect your customers (and potential ones).

Unfortunately, through all my early customer interviews I had failed to collect quality quotes (until now).  I know I heard some great quotes, and probably scratched some down on paper, but I did a terrible job at documenting them, and I never asked for permission to use them.

I needed new customers to interview, FAST, and I needed enough quotes from them to ensure that I had a pool of HIGH QUALITY quotes. Sure, I could have gone back to people I interviewed, but I decided to use this as an opportunity to reach more people and do more validation.

And as my new venture, MovingWorlds, is working to effectively scale international, skills-based volunteering, I needed quotes about professionals who, in their own words, expressed needs that our solution addresses.

Using Quora to Find Potential Customers and Validate Our Problem and Solution Hypotheses

I was blown away how easy it was to find people with the EXACT challenges we were trying to solve. I used Quora in 2 ways

  1. Find people with relevant questions, and react to their posts
  2. Asked for specific quotes about my product

Finding people was easy. I started typing in “Skills-based volunteering” and before I could finish Quora was suggesting a myriad of topics that were addressing both parts of my marketplace – people looking for opportunities, and enterprises looking for volunteers (as well as companies looking to promote skills-based volunteering:

I was hoping for 2 things from finding people on Quora: first, to get feedback directly in Quora, and also to direct some traffic to a survey.

After I looked through Quora for a few minutes to better understand that types of questions and answers people were giving about this skills-based volunteering topic, I went to SurveyMonkey and setup a survey to capture the data I needed. I was then able to leave comments on Quora, and in exchange, ask for people to take few moments to give me feedback on Quora, and in my survey.

NOTE: Be respectful about searching for feedback here. People come to Quora for answers, not for spammy trawlers.

Here is an example of how I responded to a question so that I was still offering valuable feedback, but also asking for the opportunity to get a survey response, and maybe even a phone interview:

In addition to survey responses and comments on Quora, I also received personal messages as follow-up.

In a  relatively short period of time I was able get useful quotes that I needed to use as anecdotes and proof points in my pitch deck, find new customers to interview, better understand customer needs, and find matches for the next phase: concierge MVP (I’ll write more on concierge testing, later).

Using Mechanical Turk to Get Customer Validation Quotes

I didn’t have the time or resources to setup extensive customer interviews through Mechanical Turk like Justin wrote about on a previous post, so instead, I setup a quick survey to do the following:

  • Only capture professionals willing to volunteer their time
  • Make sure respondents were from our target demographic (from the US, had a professional skill, and attained a college degree)
  • Get quotes about challenges and opportunities for finding skills-based volunteering opportunities abroad

Step 1: Setup survey

I used SurveyMonkey and added qualifier questions to ensure respondents weren’t faking it. Surveyors got bounced with a “reject” code  if they didn’t have the right education level or live in the right place. “Trick” questions like ‘age’ and ‘location’ and ‘date of birth’ were included to cross-check data in case people were trying to spam the system (e.g. ask for age on one page, and then ask for date of birth on another, if they don’t match, its most likely worthless data)

Step 2: Setup HITs in Mechanical Turk.

I used the following project (screen shot below) to get people for the survey. I found that adding qualifiers in the ask produced better results. In this case, I had two main qualifiers:

  1. Must be a resident of the U.S.A. and have at least a Bachelor’s degree. I then confirmed these facts in the survey with specific questions (e.g. where do you live and what is your highest level of education achieved)
  2. Adding a line “Important: Be sure to read each question carefully. Randomly answering questions will be detected and will result in rejection of the HIT” also helped improve results

You can view the survey by following this link if you want to see the exact questions. Here is a screen shot of the project request on Mechanical Turk:

Here is the code for Mechanical Turk  project request that created the field above:

<h3>Answer a &lt;5 min survey about international travel and volunteering</h3>
<div class=”highlight-box”>

We are conducting a survey to better understand international travel and volunteering habits of people living in the US. We need to understand your opinion about professionals who want to travel and/or donate their expertise to make the world a better place. Select the link below to complete the survey.&nbsp; At the end of the survey, you will receive a code to paste into the box below to receive credit for taking our survey.
<p>In order to qualify for this survey, you <i><b>must </b></i>be from and/or living in the United States, <i><b>and </b></i>have achieved at least a Bachelor’s degree.</p>
<p>Survey link: <a href=”” target=”_blank”></a></p>

IMPORTANT: Be sure to read each question carefully. Randomly answering quesitons will be detected and will result in rejection of the HIT.
<p>Provide the survey code here:</p>
<p><input type=”text” size=”10″ id=”Q2age” name=”Q2age” /></p>
<p><style type=”text/css”>
.highlight-box { border:solid 0px #98BE10; background:#FCF9CE; color:#222222; padding:4px; text-align:left; font-size: smaller;}
<p>&nbsp;Watch the video on our home page to learn more:&nbsp;<a href=”” target=”_blank”></a></p>

In the survey, in addition to asking for people to provide a quote if they were interested in skills-based volunteering, I also asked for email addresses if I could follow-up to schedule an interview. I got nearly a 50% response rate – within 1 day – from qualified leads to schedule an interview:

I have not yet had the time to follow-up with all my survey responders, but I have gotten some useful feedback and a great list of qualified people to interview and get quotes from.

Extra Credit Tip:

Don’t make the same mistake I did and not have powerful quotes and anecdotes ready to go when potential partners are asking for them :)

For all of you early on in the interview process, make sure to collect quality quotes (and get permission to share them) from the people you interview. To help organize this, my team and I setup a Google Form that made it easy to capture quotes. We could either submit ourselves, or invite others to leave us a quote through a Google Form. Key fields: Quote, Date, First Name, Last Name, Permission to Publish (Yes, No, maybe – get confirmation for each use), Email, OK to follow-up for more quotes (Yes, No). Looks like this:

Join the experiment – want more ideas on validating your business model and sharing that validation with others? Subscribe via Email or RSS for our next update: How to Interview Complete Strangers.

Customer Development Made Easy…

Anybody that Knocks LinkedIn Doesn’t Know How to Use It

LinkedIn is a powerful, easy-to-use customer discovery tool that is effective at free, and awesome at premium. At MovingWorlds, we have found over 50% of our potential customers and partners all through LinkedIn by using these tricks.

4 Easy Ways to Find Potential Customers on LinkedIn

(To discover potential customers that we wrote about in our previous post, How We Found Customers to Start Developing, we were interested in finding talent management professionals at Fortune 500 organizations).

The Best Way to Find Groups of People on LinkedIn is to Start with Google

Seriously. Take 60 seconds and do a couple Google searches to see if lists already exist on LinkedIn. When I was looking for potential customers, I wanted to find only find people working at Fortune 500 companies. Since LinkedIn now uses Skills and Experience as a search feature, and this is listed as a category, it made this super easy for Google to take me directly to the most useful page. This is true for people as well.

Using Google to find relevant lists and people in LinkedIn
LinkedIn Fortune 500 Professionals

Use the Advanced Search in LinkedIn

I’m shocked how many people don’t know how to use advanced search in their email clients (read tips), Twitter (read tips), Google (read tips), and on LinkedIn. Take 10 minutes to learn it and save yourself a ton of time in the future.

There are a LOT of ways to used the advanced search filters… take time to play with different options until you find what works for you. Look at all the different categories you can segment by:

Types of Advanced Filters on LinkedIn

Since I was specifically looking for Talent Management professionals at Fortune 500, I wanted to narrow the big list down to people with decision making power. So I used filters to find people who meet these exact criteria:

  • anybody with ‘talent management’ in their profile
  • and was a Director, VP, or above
  • and was at a company of at least 250 employees
  • and was at a Fortune 500 company

There are lots of other filters, but this created a nice list for me. NOTE: some filters are for premium members only. I signed up for the ‘Business‘ account and prepaid for one year – it’s more than worth every penny. I’ve found potential investors, partners, reporters, and potential customers.

Talent Management professionals at Fortune 500 companies on LinkedIn

Participate in LinkedIn Groups to Find People you Should Know About, but Don’t

A lot of people that you should be talking to don’t show up in your results. Usually this is because they have a weird title, or for some reason, you’ve chosen a filter(s) that leave them out. So after finding people using the above methods, I always do another search in LinkedIn to find relevant groups that potential customers are likely to be a part of. Continuing the same example above, I look for people in groups related to talent management, HR, and society of human resources professionals. Once I found these groups, I looked for the most active people in them and tried to message them directly (sometimes you can InMail people for free if you are in the same group).

Using LinkedIn Groups to find potential customers

In addition to messaging top contributors, I’ll join a lot of these groups to get more insight. I look at conversations and respond to polls, provide connections, and comment on entries so that I am a valued group member. I’ll also ask the group if they have suggestions on who to talk to. You will be surprised at how eager people are to help, as long as you add value. As an example, we were travelling down to the Bay Area, so I asked the Bay Area Sustainability for tips on who to contact – we got 4 comments and GREAT leads. In addition to comments, a few members messaged me directly to help us setup additional meetings.

We got 4 great leads by asking for them on LinkedIn Groups

Use InMail, but Don’t Abuse It

Yes, InMails cost money. But they also get results. You get a certain amount with your premium membership, so try them out. Just be respectful of the community and of people. Don’t post garbage in groups, and don’t reach out to people until you have a compelling value proposition. For tips on how we wrote messages, see how we Engaged Potential Customers.

NOTE: Do not just try and ‘connect’ with people as a free way to message them.  Use InMail.

If you are blindly reaching out to targets you have identified, do not just click on the “connect” button. It barely ever works, and honestly, it’s abusing the system and ruins it for everybody else. If you don’t know somebody and want to message them, use the InMail option.

How to connect to people on LinkedIn - Use InMail
How to connect to people on LinkedIn – Use InMail

If you need help finding potential customers for any stage of your lean start-up process, LinkedIn can be a powerful tool, and is worth a 1-month trial and some experimenting. Like anything else at your startup, if it doesn’t work, then pivot.

In future posts, I’ll share tips on how we found potential customers using Twitter, Blogs, Press, and Google Groups. Subscribe via Email or RSS to get more tips!

How else do you use LinkedIn for Lean Startups Efforts?

Lean Startup Paralysis

In my previous post, I started a Lean Canvas for Bounce and hoped to have the next post ready the following day. That didn’t happen, largely because I got struck by analysis paralysis.

Phase 1 – Reviewing Bounce’s Lean Canvas

Getting a 50-page business plan reviewed is hard. Getting a 1-page business model reviewed is easy and, is an important part of the process.

It is imperative that you share your model with at least one other person – Ash Maurya, Running Lean

With that in mind, I started incorporating feedback from a couple folks. First, Hakon Verespej left some great comments on my first canvas which I’ll summarize:

  • Key Metrics – Instead of several metrics, identify a single metric that best encapsulates our goal and drive decisions around that metric. See Walgreen’s “profit per customer visit” here:
  • Channels – Where’s Facebook?!  Of course…should have been there.
  • Unfair Advantage – “Exposure” isn’t sustainable.  I agree. I don’t think I have a real unfair advantage at this point.
  • Unique Value Proposition – “Makes being on time easy” isn’t compelling enough.  I agree, largely because it’s too broad and doesn’t speak to each of my customer segments specifically.  Which is where Riyaz’s feedback comes in handy.

Next up, my friend Riyaz Habibbhai shed quite a bit of light on the Unique Value Proposition box:

Basically, we need to come up with value propositions for each of our customer segments.

When it comes to Unique Value Propositions, one-size-fits-all…fits no one.

Phase 2 – Value Proposition Matrix

After chatting with Riyaz, I began to realize exactly how much of my first canvas was a total guess.  Every single one of my customer segments had potentially multiple value propositions, and I had no clue which one was the most valuable.

My first thought, was to organize it all so I can get a lay of the land. With that, came the value proposition matrix:

Now I had 12 customer segments, 16 value propositions and no clue which pair was the most compelling.  This is when my head started to spin.

Phase 3 – Knowing what I Didn’t Know

Before I started Bounce’s Lean Canvas, I was blissfully ignorant of what I didn’t know. Now, I was overwhelmed by it.  I didn’t know…

  • Who Bounce’s best customer segment was
  • Why they wanted Bounce
  • What features they wanted Bounce to have
  • How much they were willing to pay for it

In fact, at this point, I’m not exactly sure what I do know.

Faced with a huge, empty spreadsheet of not-knowingness, I spent a couple days stuck in paralysis.  I knew my energy needed to be spent filling in my knowledge gaps, but doing so by interviewing hundreds of people was too daunting of a task – so instead, I did nothing.

Phase 4 – Something is better than Nothing

For me, the worst thing about analysis paralysis isn’t that I’m not getting things done, it’s that I feel lazy for not getting things done. Feeling lazy is demoralizing and can start a pretty nasty downward spiral.

But feeling lazy can also be that kick to the ego that gets my ball rolling again.  After a couple days of “mehs”, I decided come hell or high water, I was going to do something.  It didn’t have to be the optimal thing, it just had to be some thing.

As luck would have it, a friend of mine needed a lift from the airport and, wouldn’t you know it, some of my potential customers are at the airport!  With that in mind, I headed there a couple hours early to interview some folks:

I’ll post more details and videos about the interviews later, but the big takeaway here was that it stoked the fire again.

Phase 5 – Running Lean

The other fuel for my recent fire was Running Lean, which arrived the same day I set out to do my interviews. John Sechrest highly recommended this book to me and I’m grateful he did.  It’s written by Ash Maurya, the man behind the Lean Canvas, and had I read it before my little bout of paralysis, I could have saved myself quite a bit of time.

Things I know now that I wish I would have known then:

  • It’s best to make multiple business model canvases – one for each customer segment, which its own corresponding unique value propositions.
  • Prioritize the business models – otherwise you’ll get overwhelmed (ahem)

If you’re in the process of testing hypotheses, I highly recommend you grab this book. Easy read with targeted, prescriptive advice on business model validation.

Phase 6 – Takeaways

So that I don’t repeat this same mistake again, I’ve thought quite a bit about what I can learn from this experience. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

  • If the “optimal” next step feels too daunting to take one, take a suboptimal one. I’ll feel less guilty about doing nothing with my time and may capture enough momentum to tackle the “optimal” step next.
  • Ask for help. I wish I would have asked for help from some other folks to get me out of this rut a little quicker. Help eventually came in the form of a book, but maybe it would have come more quickly in the form of a friend.

Next up: Interviewing strangers at the airport!

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