Customer Discovery

Having dodged a major storm, I’ll return now to lessons learned from the Space Commerce small business workshop. The reason it’s useful to concentrate your potential customers is to help you concentrate your marketing efforts and to help you find the right fit for you, your skill sets, and your preferred work environment. Let’s dig in a little further.

Informational Interviews

The presenters for this talk were Diane Dimeff and Kelli Kedis Ogborn with H.S. Dracones. They identified the following important tasks when getting to know your customers:

  • Accurately define your customer and the specific problem(s) they have that you can help them solve.
  • Develop the best solution based on their needs.
  • Test your hypothesis on your target market.

This process starts with fact-finding interviews with potential/possible customers. However, you must treat this primarily as a fact-finding activity, not a marketing activity. The idea being, you want to talk to potential customers but without the pressure of trying to sell them something. For example, you might not even be certain what you want to sell. Or, if you’re developing a product, you might not be 100% certain of its features. What you’re doing, then, is identifying possible customers and connecting with them, either through someone you know or “cold calling” them out of the blue. You then ask for 20-30 minutes of their time, specifying up front that your goal is learn, not get something. That could happen down the road, but for now, you’re just out to learn.

The point of the informational interviews would be to ask them about their products and services–specifically, how they deliver them now and what challenges they face with them. You then take the information learned in these interviews and adjust your problem statement and how your product/service might best solve them. As a nice follow-up, you might share your data/lessons learned with your interviewees (keeping other companies’ names confidential).

So what sorts of questions do you ask? Since my typical point of entry for new space customers is proposal writing, I conjured up the following questions:

  • Tell me how you currently handle proposal writing.
  • How is the process working for you?
  • If you could do anything to improve your proposal process, would it be?
  • What’s the hardest part about proposal writing for your organization?
  • What do you like/dislike about proposal writing?
  • What does proposal writing usually cost your organization?
  • How long does your proposal process take?

Ideally, you only want to ask 6-8 pre-written questions with the potential for follow-up questions based on the interviewee responses. That will easily fill your 20-30 minutes.

Sociology and Marketing

Kelli Kedis Ogborn (hereafter KKO), runs a company that helps small businesses work better with government. Her background is in sociology: she originally studied why people go to war, but has since re-applied her lessons learned from her field to marketing strategies.

Human beings, she explained, base their survival on the theory of strength in numbers, a strategy born out of ancient tribal hunting groups, where exclusion or expulsion from a group could leave a lone individual vulnerable to other tribes or the forces of nature.

Today, this strategy means that people prefer to conform with others rather than be an outcast. Additionally, our brains are wired to respond to new information–no matter how logically, factually, or ethically presented–defensively. We are wired, in short, to reject new ideas as threatening or dangerous because they would cause us to be excluded from our primary social group.

In practical marketing terms, this means engaging customers with a new product or service through storytelling and emotion first, then convince them with additional facts. For example, if you were working for a tech company, you might share the story of an organization facing a particular problem and failing to solve it through traditional means or by doing they’ve done before. The story would then show how a change in their thinking processes (using a new approach) resulted in success.

Building Social Capital

As part of the “strength in numbers” philosophy, KKO suggested building a network of different types of potential supporters for your new product or service. These included people who can help you in the following areas:

  • Policy: Laws and regulations that might need to change for your product/service to succeed.
  • Advocacy: People affected by your product/service, but not necessarily consumers of it, who can spread your message.
  • Influence: High-profile individuals/organizations that could affect the opinions of potential customers or target markets.
  • Market knowledge: Trend setters who influence your target market (opinion leaders, not necessarily people in the industry).
  • Network: People you could interact with beyond your typical peer group.
  • Product Validation: Independent/third-party organizations who can vouch for the quality of your product/service, help you set up partnerships, and position you for scaling up your operation.

These are some starting points for identifying the right customers for your product and service. The more real and specific you are with your efforts, they better you can build your social capital and differentiate yourself in the marketplace.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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