4 Reasons Why ‘Solving Customer Problems’ Isn’t the Right Lens for B2B Customer Development Early on

A lot of customer development literature—including the first edition of Lean B2B—focuses on finding problems.

Although problems can help to identify opportunities, there are a few reasons why I no longer recommend starting by looking for problems to solve:

  • Problems lead to missed opportunities: As innovation expert Bruno Pešec explains: “The problem framing looks at one side of [ what prospects are trying to achieve ], focusing on their frustration and challenge with getting that done as they wish. It misses out on outcomes they might not be struggling with, but they still care deeply about.” Problems imply that something needs fixing. Seeking problems can limit your exploration. There are often opportunities, or even problems that prospects are not even aware of. Focusing exclusively on problems that stakeholders are aware of could ultimately mean addressing lesser opportunities.
  • Problems are subjective: Problems are subjective and imprecise. As Running Lean author Ash Maurya says: “Entrepreneurs often unconsciously invent or fake problems to justify building their solution.” We made that mistake with HireVoice. Solving customer problems can easily introduce gray zones in a startup’s process. Early on, it’s critical to build on solid ground. If your team isn’t clear on what ‘having solved the problem’ means, there may be pain coming. The framing of the problem can sometimes introduce new risks.
  • Problems can put prospects on the defensive: Few prospects will really have a clear idea of what their core problems are. To avoid looking bad or feeling vulnerable, they may not be willing to share their real problems with outsiders. Directly asking them about negative consequences and experiences is often counter-productive. You can generally discover better opportunities by digging into their workflows, asking about their constraints, or dissecting their processes for achieving their goals.
  • Without clear context, problems can lead to wandering: It’s easy for a prospect to list out problems, or to discuss opportunities out of context. In the real world, however, a prospect’s objectives will generally set their behaviors and priorities. To drive sales and be able to build a product that gains adoption, it’s critical to be able to tie a solution to a clear struggling moment or context of use. Without one of the two, you’ll often end up with a solution looking for a problem.

Instead of searching for problems, consider anchoring your initial customer discovery around a Job to be Done—a statement that describes what people are trying to accomplish in a given context.

By making the Job the central point of your analysis, and then layering the goals, motivations, and problems, you will minimize your likelihood of working on a false opportunity.

It’s only by understanding the current situation that you’ll get to identify opportunities to introduce better solutions.

Start with a Job to be Done, and then look for pain and problems.

More on Solving Customer Problems

Download the First 4 Chapters Free

Learn the major differences between B2B and B2C customer development, how to think about business ideas, and how to assess a venture’s risk in this 70-page sampler.

Working on a B2B Startup?

Learn B2B customer development with our free email course: