When to Stop Interviewing Prospects in B2B Customer Development

In B2B customer development, Problem interviews are about emerging patterns, not numbers. You should go through problem interviews until opportunities start to appear and you stop learning, not until you’ve interviewed a certain number of prospects.

Sometimes, with a varied set of profiles it can take up to 40 interviews before seeing any patterns emerge. Other times, when the profiles are very similar, it takes only 12. In general, plan for 20 to 30 problem interviews per segment.

Don’t rush the interview process. You’re doing yourself a disfavour if you’re not being honest with yourself. Collect more data than needed and wait for the patterns to emerge.

As you share back the information collected with the members of your team, it’s normal to have the urge to jump to conclusions and start thinking about solutions. Resist the temptation and take a step back. Be sure to put time between data collection and data analysis.

You’re looking for the bigger picture and the underlying trends. This might mean only listening to some of your prospects.

As an early assessment, ask yourself:

  • Did you take a step forward?
  • Did you learn?
  • Did you enjoy spending time with the people you met?
  • Would you like to work with those people again? (if you’re successful, you may be working with those customers day in day out for the next five, ten or 20 years)
  • Were there noticeable differences in the profiles of your prospects?
  • Do you feel like you can help those prospects?
  • Were you able to speak with decision-makers?

Now, if you’ve collected enough data through interviews, take a day off and let the information sink in.

How to Make the Most of Every Problem Interview

If you don’t want to lose a ton of money and time, your ideas should be guilty until proven innocent.Trevor Owens, Lean Startup Machine CEO

You were able to schedule meetings with early adopters all through next week; great opportunity to start selling, right?

The worst thing you can do with problem interviews is to try to sell. You don’t know what your prospects want, you have no idea what the solution could be, and you don’t even know if the people you’re meeting are people you would like to sell to. You have to find a jury and a problem to tackle before thinking about sales.

Setting the right context to the interview is paramount.

If the meeting is too much about sales, then you’re really narrowing the conversation by asking prospects to react to a solution to a problem. The meeting is no longer around finding the best opportunity possible for your startup, it’s about convincing the prospect that your value proposition makes sense.

You don’t learn through sales calls, it’s not customer validation.Jason Cohen, WPEngine Founder

If the meeting is too much about the product, then the prospect is completely separated from their job and the context becomes the product. The meeting is no longer about whether that prospect is considering solving that problem, it’s about helping you add features to a product for someone else.

To be successful, you have to shift the context to learning. In a learning context, the customer does most of the talking and you don’t have to know all the answers. You’re not trying to knock down the barriers; you’re trying to find out what they are in the first place.

The early adopter must remember the meeting as a validation meeting, not a sales pitch. In the first few meetings you shouldn’t mention your solution. You’re there to talk about their problems, not your solution.

How to Make the Most of Every Solution Interview With Prospects

The solution interview phase is another opportunity to deepen your relationship with early adopters.

With sometimes as little as 30 minutes per meeting, you want to spend the bulk of your time exploring the solution (your product) and testing the pricing model.

Since you know their pain, meetings with prospects that you already met will be more straightforward, while meetings with new prospects will be more exploratory.

To maximize learning opportunities, solution interviews should follow a structure similar to that of problem interviews:

  1. Greetings (two minutes): Small talk to deepen the relationship and make the prospect feel comfortable.
  2. Problem qualification (three minutes): Validate that the pain that your solution removes is a pain they have or have visibility on.
  3. Telling a compelling story (five minutes): Explain what was learned on the industry, your approach and what makes your solution unique.
  4. Solution exploration and demo (15 minutes): Show your solution Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and evaluate the match with the expectations and the value sought.
  5. Closing (five minutes): Share the pricing and close the prospect on a pilot or another meeting.

You have to learn and adapt with every pitch until you find a model that works and that clicks with your prospects.

The key here is to try and close the prospect on another meeting, a pilot project or a sale if the purchase makes sense for all parties. Don’t waste anyone’s time if you’re not ready to close.

How to Know How Much Prospects Will Pay for Your Product?

Let’s suppose that we could build this and it was that cheap… you could put it on your credit card. Would you buy it?Jason Cohen, WP Engine Founder

The goal with closing during solution interviews in customer development is to find out if your prospects are willing to pay and also how much they would be willing to pay. Is it a $50 or a $50,000 per month solution?

Unfortunately, it’s not just a matter of asking how much the prospects would want to pay for the solution (prospects won’t know and will always say the minimum).

You will get a better idea by asking them, as market experts, how much another company would be willing to pay for the solution or by submitting a range of prices and seeing how they react.

To close, you have to convince the prospect that their pain is urgent and requires action, give a price and wait for a yes/no answer. Stick to your pricing hypothesis and bluntly ask, “Will you buy?” then listen.

As you remain silent, notice the body language and reactions of your prospects. Do they have objections? Do they hesitate? Their questions and hesitations are highly valuable; they are the truest form of Product-Market validation.

Did they buy?

Serial entrepreneur and author Steve Blank’s technique to determine price sensitivity (how much a prospect would be willing to pay) is to push for an extreme.

  • Blank: “If it were free, how many would you get?”
  • Prospect: “I don’t know.”
  • Blank: “It’s one million dollars.”
  • Prospect: “You’re insane… I would never pay more than $1000 for this.”

It takes a lot of nerve to pull off this technique, but it’s a good way to figure out the maximum amount a prospect would be willing to pay for your product.

The Risks and Dangers of Building Features for Early Adopters

There’s an important bias built into the customer development processes of early stage companies.

Not only do you need to make sure you get your data from people that fit similar profiles, you also need to avoid being pigeonholed with early adopters.

You’re interested in innovators and early adopters because they have a better grasp of new technology, but they represent a marginal group of customers in the market. You need to keep your eyes on the big(ger) prize: the early and late majorities.

Crossing the Chasm

Early adopters are just your starting point — your beachhead. You need to start with the lowest hanging fruits and keep in mind that it’s possible that the early adopters you meet have problems or needs that are years ahead of the mainstream market.

Unfortunately, the majority doesn’t always follow…

Be sure to remove edge cases from your analysis when conducting customer interviews to avoid building the wrong product.

Looking at the data you collect:

  • Are some of your early adopters completely different from the majority?
  • Are there early adopters that worked in completely different ways or had access to budgets or resources that others did not?

For our first series of problem interviews with my previous startup, HireVoice, we met with the HR director of a large gaming company. Of the HR specialists we met, he had the most budget and the most people and his department had much more influence over business practices than any of the other professionals we met.

The needs of his team clashed with the needs of every other early adopter we interviewed. We made the mistake of keeping the challenges of his team with the problems of our other early adopters and ended up working on features and ideas that were ahead of the curve for the vast majority of our prospects.

In the early stage, you need to seek out anomalies, note the differences and focus on the biggest wins for your business down the road. Avoid building a product for outliers.

How to Perfect Your Skills at Interviewing Prospects And Customers

I train almost a hundred people every year on user research techniques. The exercise we do in class is interviewing people for ten to fifteen minutes to understand how they use email (just email in general).

Although some people do really well, most people struggle to keep the discussion going without leading the interviewee on.

Ten minutes feels like a very long time. Most participants fall victim to response and interviewer biases. They ask loaded questions (Would you say retrieving email is a big problem?), give their opinions, and only remember information that matches their thesis; all because they feel they must contribute to the discussion.

To excel at this type of research, you must be a great listener and let your prospects do the talking.

The following questions will help you evaluate the effectiveness of your interviewing techniques.

Were you able to:

  • Sustain the interest of your prospect?
  • Make your prospect talk and dig deep into their problems?
  • Direct the discussion without controlling it?
  • Abstain from selling a vision or trying to convince your prospect?
  • Steer clear of confirmation, interviewer or response biases?
  • Learn about the problems and situation of your prospect?
  • Leave the prospect with a positive feeling?
  • Earn references?

Practice makes perfect. Learn from the experience and take your lessons to your next interview.

Keep an Eye Out for These 3 Things When Doing Customer Interviews

Becoming an expert at interviewing customers takes time and practice.

We’ve already covered some of the basics of great customer interviews, but there’s still more to learn from face to face interviews.

The body language, attitude and office space of your early adopters can give give you great cues to improve your interviewing techniques. Here’s what to look for:

  • Body language: Strong reactions, posture, body positioning, language, tone variations and eye movements can tell you a lot. Prospects lie… There are things they feel stronger about and lies can tell you a big part of the story. Do they seem nervous? Tentative? Bored? If so, try to restore your rapport and reassure them of the usefulness of their comments. Don’t hesitate to ask what made them roll their eyes, sigh, laugh, frown, smirk, etc.
  • Office content: Office walls and sticky notes are gold. They tell you about the things that truly matter to your prospects. For example, when Jason Cohen was interviewing IT professionals, he noticed that certain magazines were on the desk of almost every prospect he interviewed. When his product was ready, he advertised in that magazine and had great success.
  • Indicators of interest: Prospects that are leaning forward, asking a lot of questions and that really get involved in the discussion give signs of interest. Prospects that are easily distracted, look through their emails or messages, slouch and talk without answering the questions are typically disinterested.

Start looking for these cues. Your skills will improve and so will the quality of the insights you collect. Better insights means faster customer (in)validation.