Since the dawn of time (probably more like the dawn of let-me-sell-you-something), brands, companies, retailers, and individuals have relied on the same strategies when it comes to understanding what people need. These strategies often consist of surveys, pre-product research, hiring outside firms and guestimation (my 4th grade science teacher told me guestimation is scientific, so I’m sticking with it) to better understand what to build.
Often, these strategies are exhaustive and expensive, ending with similar, if not the same results; a very well-defined, well-worded two or three sentences describing the “ideal” customer who is not only going to be buying the product you’ve created or are creating, but is likely to continue buying it. This work can lead to great outcomes like, validation of an idea or better product-market fit, or even what to build next. But, the question becomes, once you have the outcomes, what do you do with it?
Generally speaking (because who speaks in absolutes?), next steps are taking these outcomes and sharing them with your team, a group of investors, or your parents (who might be all those other things) so you can start building and start creating feedback loops. These loops start out as well-intentioned validations of an idea or direction, based on the research you’ve completed, that further enables you to invest in the project. Mix in a bit of motivation, and boom you go to market and start selling.
:Fast forward a few months:
Let’s say you go out, find some buyers, maybe you convert 20-30% of those buyers (with some luck) into customers, get great feedback that indicates what people want, and start building a pricing and growth strategy to capitalize even more based on that research and feedback. Before you know it, your company will grow like a weed (more on this weird metaphor to come) as more customers convert to champions. You'll probably start to marvel at your genius and secretly imagine your name on Forbes 'something under something’ list.
Great news, right? Well – yes, sort of… You’ve built (or are building) a company that is growing! That’s a feat few truly reach, so let's pause here, appreciate it a bit and give thanks to you and your team's (& parents) hard work. You have a product the market is responding to, customers who use your product, investors knocking on the door, and parents sending out emails bragging about you to their friends.
But…this is often where things start to get shaky. If we fast forward a few more months, we’ll start to experience signs of tremors. Some customers start to leave, an influx of more product requests than product usage, and really…some new competitors dragging your name through the mud.
Lost in the history of founder origin stories is the real work teams do to continue to understand what customers want and what customers need. If you divide the work teams are putting in with a pinch of pessimism (i.e. the reality that people might not really know what they want), multiply that by some KPI’s over the daily work being done by the team, you end up with an equation that equals indicators of high churn or stalling NRR (trust me, the math works out, I got C-’s throughout highschool math).
What’s missing, and the big “why” here, is that by the time we see customers start to leave or complain as you mature as an organization, product, or team, it’s probably not too late (you weren’t expecting that response, were you?). This is the exact moment you need to pause and have an inflection point. Ask yourself some questions:
- What are we missing when it comes to the needs of the customer?
- Who do we listen to?
- How do we know we’re doing the “right” thing!?
- And is our customer from yesterday, the customer we sell to today and tomorrow?
Let’s reexamine that origin story
In the beginning, we work hard to understand what people want, what they need and can’t live without, what their daily frustrations are, and even pains they aren’t totally aware they have. When we have this understanding, we tend to get excited which in turn creates motivation based on the opportunity we see ahead of us. This is what makes careers and work exciting; when we’ve met those two conditions of problem and solution to equal product-market fit.
As a company scales, the focus often shifts to deal with the realities of that scaling process.
From what people want and need, to new fire’s popping up, and what our biggest customers are requesting, to what sales (*eye-roll*) says is important, and maybe even, what our grandmother thinks your company needs, but really, what you need.
And yes, these are all important and no one should ever diminish the busy-but-important-work that comes with growth. But like any garden that has a goal to feed a family, weeds will pop up and it’s your responsibility to both nurture your garden (like customer pains) and tend to the weeds (like fires experienced during said growth).
So how do I take action, Mr.Daniel-who-thinks-he-knows-it-all?
Well (insert passive aggressive writing voice), we can start by taking a step back and really look at what’s happening from a bird's eye view.
Product messaging, product direction, sales structure and even hiring practices all align to what we spent months (if not years) devoting ourselves to; (am I using too many of these ‘;’?) to become a customer centric company.
But even then, is it an accurate understanding of our customers' lives?
Let me speak plainly. What I’m trying to get at is that understanding the initial customer is one thing but understanding how the customer’s needs and realities change while they’re with you is a whole other thing. We should be thinking about how a changing market impacts their daily needs or even how new customers can be of an unexpected or non-traditional customer profile.
Everything changes…especially people. I can honestly say I’ve changed in someway since yesterday. So why are we doing the same things with our customers? Why are we asking the same questions in the same ways?
One of the first things you can do is create an intimate, first-hand relationship with the customer to better understand their needs. Here are some thoughts I’ve used to help make sure I’m not losing track of the customer’s problem.
- Who are we serving?
- Why is that who we are serving?
- What would happen if our service didn’t exist?
- Why would that happen?
- What is that problem worth to the customer?
- Why is that worth ‘X’?
- What obvious solutions exist to solve that?
- What non-obvious solutions exist to solve that?
- Why aren’t they using those solutions?
- How can we solve it?
Note, I purposely included questions in a non-numerical order because no one question is more important than another.
In all honesty, this article is meant to serve as inspiration to ask yourself why you think, you know, what you know now to be true (in a non existential way). Consider starting with some question-building of your own. This short wiki article is a great start! As a final takeaway, don’t despair, don’t get overwhelmed. There are plenty of things that exist today to help you make an impact. We’re in the golden age of software; you can test and reoccur value and understanding with existing tools, like Vitally, to enable your team to create a flywheel of customer feedback and understanding. More to come on that, but just as a quick tl;dr.
- Don’t believe your assumptions
- Always ask why
- Take small steps, every day, to make changes
- Call your friends and family, tell them you love them
NOTE: I read an incredible article that outlined a real life example of this happening (you can see that here) that helped shape this story, provided inspiration, and more importantly, moved some thoughts I had into states of points.