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Customer discovery tips and tricks

In the various entrepreneurship and innovation programs I am involved with, Customer Discovery is always a key activity. While it may sound simple, in practice it is not. Interviewing users and potential clients about their needs and desires is challenging for startups and established organizations, yet, for different reasons. Below customer discovery tips and tricks for both.

Goal of Customer discovery

The goal of customer discovery is to learn more about the world your (potential) clients live in. I am putting potential between brackets, because startups don’t have clients yet, while established organizations do.

As Steve Blank explains it, “don’t assume you know your customer’s problem, nor assume you know the engineering solution”. Verifying these assumptions before you build anything. That is what customer discovery is about.

Reading about the challenges of specific industries, sectors or organizations is not the same as customer discovery. While valuable information, such statistics do not inform you about the feelings and concerns of the people who make the buying decisions.

Instead, connect with and try to stand in the shoes of your customer. Who are they, what bothers them, what is important to them, what is missing from their perspective, what do they value, etc.?

Cheap, high-value experiments

Another way of looking at customer discovery is as a cheap, yet extremely valuable way to learn more about your customers.

In theory

Research shows that the most valuable aspect of the process is the ability to segment your clients by their needs and wants, so that you can target your solution more specifically to a customer segment. In other words, customer discovery prevents you from creating “be all for all” types of products and services. That is important, because such solutions that typically end up being appealing to nobody.

In practice

For many teams that I coached, the most valuable learning came from knowing what not to do. During the interviews, they quickly learned what their clients definitely did not need.

Like the team planning to develop an easy to use telemedicine solution, with the perfect user interface. They quickly learned that patients were only using telemedicine solutions in case their physicians were offering it. Physicians were struggling with offering the concept, but from a reimbursement perspective not because the technology was difficult or too expensive to use. Thus, their idea of developing an easy to use telemedicine portal was unlikely to yield success, unless they would also address the reimbursement challenge.

Tips and tricks for customer discovery

Below are a few tips and tricks that will help you be successful in your customer discovery efforts.

What I have seen that works:

  • Put the time and effort into face-to-face interviews. You want to interview your clients in their habitat. The context and non-verbal cues offer often even more valuable insights as the spoken words.
  • Go in prepared. Know who you are talking with and what you want to focus on during each interview.
  • If you need to do many interviews or need reach out to unknown “subjects”, go to the conferences and networking meetings these people are attenting.
  • Focus on the client’s challenges and issues. Listen! You know you do it right when they do the talking. You are not there to sell or explain your innovative solution.
  • Try to tease out who has which problems – client segmentation – so that you know who your best bet is when it comes to adopting your solution and can build a specific solution that suits their needs.
  • Make detailed written reports. Capture the language your future clients are using. Later on, their wording will come in handing when you are ready to sell and need to tell the story in their language instead of yours.

Not all customer discovery is the same

Customer discovery is by now a popular tool in the startup community. Established firms have hooked on to this trend and have started to use it to, when exploring the possibilities of novel technologies and opportunities for new products and service offerings.

I have however observed that there are a few differences between how startups and established companies go about customer discovery successfully. Some best-practices:

For startups For established organizations
You need 20-30 interviews to get your first insights and about 80-100 interviews to get a good picture of the market and ecosystem (1) You need 2-5 targeted interviews to get your first insights and about 5-20 interviews to get your boss to agree with your findings (2)
The process of customer discovery never stops. There is always more to learn! Customer discovery happens in bursts related to a specific opportunity and typically lasts 1-2 months
Trust the process. It may take a while, but a pattern will emerge from all the interviews Trust the process. Clients will be delighted that you take the time to listen to them. Listening to them will provide you with invaluable insights
As a by-product, the people you have interviewed will get to know you and your startup. If done well, they can be your future influencers and clients. Set clear expectations, internally and externally. You are there to listen to your client’s challenges and issues. You don’t ask them for sales or feedback. It is not a brainstorming process either. The last thing you want to happen is a client dictating you which features to add.


  1. You need these numbers whether you are b2b or b2c, for b2b they are easier to hit
  2. These numbers are for b2b, you probably want to interview more in case you have a b2c offering – especially if you service a large and diverse client base

Customer discovery tips & tricks for start-ups

The tips below are taken from a recent panel of the Mason Summer Entrepreneurship Accelerator at the George Mason University. They are from startup founders who have gone through the process:

“Don’t think you are the best and know it all, because you are a smart engineer. You are, but that does not mean that you understand your customers’ challenges”

“During the process you will make many large and small pivots, because you learn from each interview what is needed and what is not. All these iterations add up and make your final solution awesome and wanted. Know that your first pivot is the most challenging one. It is so hard to give up your initial concept, because you are at that point still so emotionally attached to it. Later on it becomes much easier. Trust me.”

“You know you are on to something if your interviewee keep talking and does not want to stop”

“Don’t talk to friends, they are undoubtedly super nice and supportive. Unfortunately, they are not always honest, because they don’t want to hurt your feelings. That is not helpful”

Customer discovery tips and tricks for established companies

The tips and tricks below are from my mentees of the New Business Development Program at the Erasmus University in the Netherlands:

“If you take your sales person with you, politely ask them to keep their mouth shut. Their nature is to talk and sell. When you take charge and they are just observing, your salesperson will love you for the insights they gained during the customer discovery process. The probably want to join you on the next visit too. Yet, if your sales person takes charge and he or she starts talking and selling, you are both wasting your time.”

“Make sure you know beforehand what your boss thinks the problem is. Get permission to test his or her assumptions about these perceived clients’ needs and wants. Make detailed transcriptions of the interviews, especially if your clients are telling a different story. You otherwise will not be heard or believed.”

“Interview non-clients. Nobody in the company will object if you are reaching out and obtaining insights in why certain clients don’t buy from you. Just make sure you are not accidentally reaching out to prospects. “

“Don’t confirm or promise anything to a client – even if what they suggest sounds like a golden solution. First, you are in the discovery process and need confirmation from multiple clients and sources before you can commit to anything. Second, in all likelihood, you have no authority to follow up on such promises.”

Get out of the building

“Get out of the building” is the credo of customer discovery. Listening to potential clients and learning about their challenges and needs is an invaluable tool in the innovation process. It is a quick, cheap way to figure out what to focus on and what not to do. Customer discovery is worth the time and effort no matter what, given the time and resources you will save down the road.

Listening to your customers may sound easy. When you do, you will find out that it is actually not always that simple. Our biases, desires, and egos easily get in the way. Nevertheless, it is an invaluable tool. You may not nail it in their first interview, but practice makes perfect.

Now go out there engage in customer discovery and innovate smarter!




P.S. In case you are not sure where or how to go about customer discovery, look at our programs and check out our resources for innovators and innovation managers.