11/26/2012 10:17 am ET Updated Nov 03, 2013

How to Deliver Effective Customer Development Interviews

Customer development interviews are designed to validate or invalidate business assumptions and discover product features that solve customer needs. It's done in order to avoid spending time and money building something no one wants. Ideas are a dime a dozen, but ideas that satisfy a valuable need or problem in a large market can present amazing opportunities.

Customer Discovery

The first step is to determine whether there is a problem worth solving in the first place. Identify a very specific demographic of people that would absolutely love your product and couldn't live without it. Talk to them.

You can start by talking to friends and family that fit into your customer segment. If they don't like your idea, you know something's off. Conversely, even if they like it, take it with a grain of salt as their opinions will be a bit skewed.

If your friends and family don't fit into your customer segment you can ask them for introductions to people that do. And you can hit the phones or streets to find and talk to your customers. For example, if your target customer segment is between the ages of 25 and 30, lives in New York City, and shops at Whole Foods... go to Whole Foods.

You can survey online using SurveyMoney or Google Forms delivered through relevant Facebook, Meetup, and/or LinkedIn groups, but take the results with a grain of salt though -- in-person discussions will be far more valuable. It can also be helpful to get feedback from other companies serving the same customers or solving related problems and experts in the field. You might want to have a business relationship with them as your company grows anyways.

Don't pitch your idea; listen to what your customers have to say. Ask open-ended questions such as:
  • Do you find it hard to... ?
  • Have you ever had the desire to... ?
  • What are you doing now to solve this problem or satisfy this need?
  • What do you like about this product or solution?
  • What do you dislike?
  • What could be improved?

Customer Validation

If the customer validates your hypotheses you can begin discussing your proposed solution by asking questions such as:

  • Would you ever use the product? Why or why not?
  • Does the product solve your problem?
  • What's appealing to you about it?
  • What deters you from it?
  • What would make the experience better?
  • What about the product do you love? What makes it a must-have product?

Continuously update your proposed solution based on what you learn from each customer development interview.

At the end of an interview, ask for introductions to others within your customer segment. This serves as both a form of investment (shows that they're eager for the problem to be solved and believe it would be helpful to others) and of course provides access to more feedback. Write down everyone's contact information -- ask if you can follow up for more feedback as you continue developing the product. Eventually you'll also be selling to them, so you'll want to have their contact information.

Selling Before Building

I recommend trying at least a few "vapor sales" (selling before you even have a product to deliver). You will need to do it eventually, especially if you don't have the funding to hire a sales team, so you may as well do it now. It will give you a better idea of what it will be like to get your first customers and scale and help you decide if it's a business worth pursuing. For example, selling to municipalities is a nightmare; you may not want to deal with the bureaucracy and sales lead times.

If you're selling to big companies, you may even be able to get them to pay up front, which would help finance your company.

By approaching the interview as a sale, you will learn very quickly whether it something your customer wants. However, as Brant Cooper and Patrick Vlaskovits write in their book, The Entrepreneur's Guide to Customer Development: "Establishing a seller/customer relationship from the get-go may limit what you can learn. A 'buyer' may be less likely to give feedback about pricing, information on competitors, internal decision making process, etc., than a 'partner' who might be willing to share."

Company Creation

Customer development continues beyond validating an idea. It will be used to support product development through reaching product-market fit and scaling. At this phase, questions include:

  • How disappointed would you be if you couldn't use the product anymore?
  • What were your motivating factors for using the product?
  • How likely are you to use the product again? Why?

It's the responsibility of the entrepreneur to interpret the data and modify the product development roadmap accordingly.

Customer development interviews can also be helpful in determining a pricing strategy for your product. Questions such as "What does your life look like after you use the product compared to before?" "What is the cost of doing it the old way?" "How does it affect time, money or risk?" can help you determine how valuable the product is to your customers.


Question your assumptions. You might be surprised to find that something you think would be really important to your customers isn't important to them at all. It's better to find that you're wrong and not spend any time or money on your product, than to spend a bunch of time and money building something that no one wants.