Want More Customers? Here’s How To Get Inside Their Heads
Everyone tells you to think like the customer, but nobody ever talks about how
If you want to acquire more customers, you have to satisfy more customer needs. Oh, and you have to do it without asking what those needs might be. And finally, those needs will change, probably from day to day.
Does that sound about right?
I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. But I can tell you that in over 20 years of building startups, I’ve learned there’s no foolproof way to deliver the exact right solution to every customer, every time. The answers lie in the margins — How many needs can we serve for how many customers with the least amount of friction?
Planning for every possible customer use case will drive you nuts. But there are steps you can take to maximize your chances of getting your solution mostly right for most customers the first time.
Last week, I sat across from one of the startup teams I’m advising and ran through exactly those steps.
Step 1: To Expand Your Market, Dream the Ultimate Solution
The first thing we did was make two lists. The first list identified all the things the solution could do, whether the customer needed those things or not. The second was the customer wish list, all the customer needs, whether the solution could fill those needs or not.
I’m being very careful to use the word “solution” here instead of “product” or “service,” because the answers aren’t about just the product or service itself. You also need to consider how the customer discovers your product or service, how they make the purchase decision, how they engage, and when they buy more.
The goal is to get every option on the table: Every type of customer, every feature, every use case. You need to know the extent of both your opportunities and your limitations.
When you make the lists, you should be thinking about both the short term and the long term. What will your business look like in five years? How will your product or service evolve after five versions? Will you be able to serve 100 customers or 10,000 or a million? Can you keep your margins where you want them as you scale?
Step 2: To Maximize Your Sales, Role Play
If I told you that you could have a chance to practice everything about your business — from the pitch to the launch to the sale to how your customers understand and use your solution — would you do it?
Of course you would. So I’m always shocked when no one actually does it.
The startup team and I sat across from each other at the table and I played the role of the customer. As an advisor, I was in the perfect position to do this. I know enough about the company and the product to be able to know what the limitations and the opportunities are. But I’m not in their day-to-day, so I don’t know enough to be able to lean on specifics — those features and processes and phrases that are second nature to the startup team but not to the customer.
For example: When the data scientist says “We compare our results to the Theoretical Network Maximum,” I can say “Wait. What the bleep is that?” Then the marketing person can write down the answer.
Ideally, you want the customer role to be played by an actual existing or prospective target customer. Failing that, the role can be played by someone inside the company, provided they keep one goal in mind: Generating more revenue for themselves (as the customer), while the rest of the team focuses on how the solution is going to deliver those results.
Step 3: To Get More Efficient, Eliminate the Outliers
When I look at the dozens of new product or new service or new feature launches I’ve been involved with over the years, the ones that launched late or not at all due to the pursuit of perfection far outnumber the ones that launched to disaster. So rather than chase perfection, we need to make plans for imperfection.
You don’t want to spend a ton of time preparing for customer scenarios that are super rare. But you also don’t want to get caught flatfooted when the worst case scenarios happen. So identify all the worst-case customer outcomes, map out simple emergency plans, and move on.
We made a list of all the bad things that could happen to our customers and potential customers, and drew up manual processes to activate if and when those things did happen. For example: If a customer signed up from a location we couldn’t serve yet, we decided to send them a simple email offering them a discount to use for when we could serve them. No code, doesn’t scale, a little bit of extra work. If that becomes a big problem, we’ll address it more thoroughly.
Outliers will happen no matter where you draw the line, so draw the line early and put all your resources to work on what’s left inside the box.
Step 4: To Prevent Failure, Expect It and Confront It
To get your rocket as high as you want it to go, you need to fire it in stages.
You should always plan for a poorer-than-expected customer showing, because this is the single most frequent root cause of failure. What happens is the company makes plans to launch to what they think is a conservative estimate of customers. Then, when they actually launch, they get even fewer customers, and they have nothing in place to stoke the fire.
So come up with a conservative estimate of initial customers, then cut it by 80%. Yes, 80%. Then make a plan for what to do if that happens. The plan should include a mechanism in place to understand why the 80% didn’t buy.
If you do get flooded with more business than you had expected, the answer is just work really hard until you reach equilibrium. I’ll take that problem 100 times out of 100. But whether your estimates are right or wrong, if you prepare for being wrong, you’ll be in a position to understand customer objections from the outset, and scale from whatever initial numbers you get, regardless of how low.
Step 5: To Test Your Theories, Fake a Pilot
Once we had all the information we needed to be comfortable about making assumptions and guesses as to where our customers’ heads were at, we decided to fake a pilot. More role play, more practice, more putting ourselves into our customers’ shoes.
We selected five completely different types and sizes of customers and settled on five completely different use cases, running the spectrum we had drawn the box around in previous steps. The team will spend the next two weeks planning features around those use cases in an effort to tighten them and bring them to more customers.
The goal of the fake pilot is to take the same process to those same customer types and bring them into a real pilot, offering them free or discounted usage in return for being able to look over their shoulders to collect knowledge and data.
Expanding sales and market share is a resource intensive initiative. It’s expensive, difficult to pull off, and fails more often than it succeeds. Knowing as much as you can about the mindset of the customers you intend to acquire is going to help you serve most of their needs as quickly as possible, and give you that much better a chance at growing your business.
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