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You Shouldn't Talk To Customers


I often get asked how to talk to customers. This question comes from engineers, product people, new founders, and others. I get this question because I have started two companies in the past and I've written about the power of talking and asking questions of the very people we hope to serve and sell to. But the immediate problem I see with most of the questions I get is in the initial framing of the question.

How do I talk to customers?

You don't. You should never be talking to customers or prospects. You should be talking with them. What's the difference?

When you talk to someone, you are driving the conversation. You are conveying your thoughts, sharing your ideas, inundating the recipient with your biases. This is a great thing for conference talks and conversations at the bar. However, it's a terrible thing when trying to learn about the problems of a customer base you are hoping to tap into.

By talking to customers, you ultimately lead them without recognizing it. Rob Fitzpatrick wrote in The Mom Test:

Talk about their life instead of your idea Ask about specifics in the past instead of generics or opinions about the future. Talk less and listen more.

If you find yourself talking more than the person you are supposed to be talking with, you're in trouble. Rob calls this pitching. I call it not listening.

But knowing that you shouldn't be talking *to *customers (or better put—potential customers) doesn't make it any easier to understand how to talk *with *them. I've put together a simple framework that has served me well and might work for you too.

  1. Think about the things the person you're going to talk with needs to accomplish in a day. This is often referred to as jobs to be done.
  2. Have a standardized list of questions ready for every discussion and every potential customer. These questions absolutely must be open-ended. They also cannot be leading. What does that look like in practice? Here's an example: "What was the last software product you used, and why did you use it?" This question is awesome because it can hint at so many things, but it also parlays nicely into point 3 in this framework…
  3. Listen and follow up. A good question can turn pointless if you don't follow up on the person's response. If a potential custom tells you they last used Instagram because they were trying to find some design inspiration from designers they follow, it'd be reasonable to follow up with a question about why they were doing this. We're not looking for the old corporate Five Whys, but you do want to dig for more information. 
  4. Close with an ask. The ask can be as simple as requesting another person the interviewee might know that you should talk with. It can be a request to send a demo to them. It can be anything. But closing with an ask creates commitment. This is important because the person you've spoken with, should they agree to your ask, is now connected to you in a way that is more meaningful than interviewee/interviewer.

With your framework in place, you may think the next part is the hard part: finding people to talk with. Founders are busy. Marketers are busy. Your potential customers are busy. Right?

My experience has shown me that people are not nearly as busy as we fear they are. Sure, there are people who protect their time with almost evangelical fervor, but for the most part, people are social creatures who like to talk about themselves. When you're not selling something, you're immediately positioning yourself better than most other people these potential customers interact with. That puts people at ease and makes them more likely to say "yes" to your request.

So the answer to how do I get people to talk with me is: Ask them.

I like to use cold email, Twitter, and LinkedIn. But you should use whatever works. Reach out, be genuine, don't sell. Once you've received a "yes", schedule the call. Don't waste your time or theirs with back-and-forth emails. Schedule the meeting, then move on to finding more people to talk with.

Remember, talking to people is your mistake. Once you've figured out how you're going to talk *with *them, it should become increasingly easy to make connections, get meetings booked, and finally learn from real-world potential users.