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Customer Development for Startups: What I Learned Talking to 500 Customers in 4 Weeks

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I recently spent more than 100 hours talking to Groove customers.
Here’s what I learned…

In some movies, top military commanders have red phones that they only pick up when things start to go wrong.

They’ll usually see that an issue is getting out of hand, and they’ll grab the phone (without dialing, of course), yelling something dramatic like “get me the President!”

While I have no idea if this emergency phone exists, I do believe that something similar exists for startup founders.

When your core metrics start to lag behind your goals — in our case, I wasn’t happy to see churn creeping up close to 3% as our customer base grew — there’s a lot you can do to start to right the ship.

You can, and should, dig deep into your metrics to spot the weak points. You can, and should, ask the smart people around you for advice. You can, and should, test new tactics and approaches to improve.

But the hypothetical “red phone” that always seems to help us the most connects directly to our customers.

In the very early days, we spent many hours talking to every single one of our customers. We didn’t have a choice; exhaustive feedback was the only way to make our product good enough to reach Product/Market Fit.

And we’ve continued to believe strongly in the power of qualitative research; we’ve done a ton of it, from collecting feedback in onboarding emails to Qualaroo widgets to Net Promoter Score surveys.

But it had been a while since I dove in to hardcore customer development interviews. In-depth one-on-one conversations to help us understand the experience of our users like no survey ever could.

And with a core metric slipping too far for comfort, it was time to pick up the red phone again.

How I Had 500 Customer Conversations in Four Weeks

On September 10th, I sent this email to every Groove customer:

The Ask The Ask

The response blew me away. I expected a couple hundred people to write back over the following week, but my inbox quickly began to fill.

Uh oh. Uh oh.

There was no way I’d be able to schedule all of these without drowning under a heap of back-and-forth emails. Scrambling, I signed up for a Doodle account, which let me send a link to people who were willing to chat, giving them the chance to schedule their call at a time that worked for them.

Doodle Doodle

Slots quickly began to fill up (I had to go back and add more spots four times). While I only asked for ten minutes, I booked the calls in 30-minute blocks just in case they went long, and to give myself some breathing room to compile notes and digest each call afterwards.

I used Skype — or my cell phone — for the calls, Join.me for screen shares to walk through Groove with the customers when I needed to, and old-school paper and pen for taking notes.

I compiled data in a simple Google Spreadsheet, which you can find and copy here.

The Tools The Tools

In all, I ended up spending more than 100 hours over four weeks on customer development calls, which are still ongoing. When I shared this with a founder friend of mine, he asked a fair, and obvious, question: why didn’t I have someone else do it, or split the calls with other team members?

Here’s the thing: I trust my team members tremendously. I don’t hire fast — I only hire people after I know I can rely on them to be a valuable asset to our company and a great fit for our team. It’s certainly not that I don’t trust anyone on my team enough to do customer development.

It’s just that I consider customer development to be such a core part of building a company, that it’s simply the CEO’s job at this stage. It’s just as important as making strategy decisions or meeting with investors.

Plus, talking to customers isn’t the same as reading the answers someone else recorded on a spreadsheet. I wanted to feel and internalize our customers’ perspectives so that they could drive the other decisions I need to make.

And that’s why I tackled it on my own.

Takeaway: You don’t need many tools to talk to your customers. And while it’s a time-consuming task, it’s one of the highest-ROI efforts you can tackle as a startup CEO.

What Questions Did I Ask?

I considered using a scripted series of survey questions, but ultimately decided against it.

I wanted raw, off-the-cuff insights into how our customers think and feel about Groove… not how they think about specific questions regarding the features and elements that we think are important. I didn’t want to influence any of the feedback I got with leading questions.

Instead, at the beginning of each call, I simply said:

Hey, thanks so much for agreeing to chat. I won’t take too much of your time. The conversations I’ve been having with customers have been invaluable in helping us shape the product and our plans for the future, so I’m excited to get your feedback.

My goal is to get an overall feel of how you’re using the app, what you like, what you don’t like, and what we can do to make it better. I’ll let you take the floor.

Usually, the very first thing that people told me turned out to be the most important part of their user experience, from their perspective. And often, those important elements didn’t line up at all with what I had assumed people would say.

There were more than a few surprises, including bugs we didn’t know existed, minor (to us) features that turned out to be hugely valuable for some users, and use cases for Groove that we had never considered.

Takeaway: There isn’t necessarily one “right” way to structure the conversations, but there is a clear wrong way: influencing your customers’ feedback with leading questions won’t get you the results you’re looking for.

7 Big Wins From Talking to 500 of Our Customers

The ultimate “win” from customer development is deep insights into how our customers think, feel and use our app. That insight is absolutely critical to the growth of any business, and it’s the biggest reason I took this project on. It had an immediate impact on how we approach our product roadmap and day-to-day decisions.

Even if there were no other benefits, that benefit one alone would make it worthwhile.

With that said, there were quite a few more big wins that ended up coming about from the effort…

1) We Learned That We Need Better Second-Tier Onboarding.

In more than a few of the calls, customers would mention particular challenges they faced that could be solved with new features or functionality. Thing is, sometimes they were features we already had; for example, third-party app integration (when looking at support tickets, users can choose to bring in data about their customers from other apps like Stripe and CRM tools). When I showed them the feature, I’d hear a painful — but valuable — reaction:

Wow! I didn’t know that existed.

To me, that’s a clear sign that we need to improve our onboarding as users get more deeply engaged with Groove so that they can better discover some of the more advanced features. We’ve already updated our onboarding email sequence to address this, and are working on building the guidance into the app.

2) We Turned Unhappy Customers Into Happy Customers.

I was able to repair a handful of relationships with customers who were unhappy with the product. In once case, a customer wrote me an email criticising Groove.

Not Happy Not Happy

I responded:

The Ask The Ask

I was a bit surprised when he agreed to get on the phone with me, but once he did, I explained that I wanted to understand why he felt the way he did, and what we could do to make it better.

As it turned out, he was upset about the lack of a couple of features that we had planned to build in the immediate weeks ahead. When I shared that with him, he quickly warmed up, and he’s now a much happier customer.

Note: it’s important to be honest here. No product is perfect, and there are parts of Groove that we wish were better. Those are the parts we’re working on. But never try to convince a customer that a shitty part of your app doesn’t actually suck. You’ll lose their trust in a heartbeat.

3) We Better Understood the Personas of Our Customer Base (With Some Surprises).

We’ve always had (tested) assumptions about the personas of our customers. And many of them held true in these conversations. But as we’ve grown, things sure have changed.

I learned about several new use cases for Groove that I hadn’t considered before. For example, several of our customers are schools that use Groove to offer IT support to students and faculty.

For some of the newly discovered personas, there were enough examples that we’ve decided to build case studies to try and attract more users that fit those personas, or at least test the market to see if there’s a strong fit.

4) We Built Better Relationships With Hundreds of Customers.

This benefit can’t be understated enough: the number of positive reactions, even from customers who complained about bugs or issues, was huge. Surprisingly, I heard from many of our customers that no other businesses that they used were doing this, and that the gesture of asking them for their thoughts — not just with a mass-emailed survey, but by reaching out for a one-on-one conversation — meant a lot to them.

It’s amazing how easy it is to stand out with a bit of effort.

5) We Got the Chance for Some Quick Customer WOW’s.

Sometimes, things that bugged customers were easy fixes or updates that they had never reached out to tell us about. For example, one customer told me that about an issue they were having CC’ing people from a certain domain. This was a weird bug, but something we could fix in just a few minutes, and we ended up pushing a fix for her issue that night.

Her response?

Customer WOW Customer WOW

An easy win that helped us delight a valuable customer.

6) We Learned How to Improve Our Marketing Copy.

We’re always working to improve the way we position and write about Groove (see our landing page design post for more). Hearing our customers talk about the app and its benefits, along with their personal stories, challenges and goals, is the only way we can write marketing copy that actually connects.

Talking to our customers is the only way to talk like our customers talk.

While I heard a lot of phrases that I was very familiar with already (“Zendesk was just too complicated,” for example), I also spotted some new trends that you’ll see on our marketing site very soon.

7) We Got Great Feedback Even When We Didn’t Get to Chat.

Some customers couldn’t — or wouldn’t — get on the phone with me. And I completely understand; there’s nothing more valuable than time, and it’s a huge ask to disrupt someone’s day, even if for a few minutes, to talk about a product they use.

But while there were those I couldn’t schedule talks with, many customers chose to email me their thoughts instead.

Email Feedback Email Feedback

These were, in many cases, just as valuable as the conversations I had.

How to Act on Customer Development Feedback

The feedback you get from customer development, just like any data, is useless if you don’t act on it. In fact, it’s worse than useless, since you wasted no small amount of hours collecting it.

So to ensure that we got value out of this exercise, here are the steps we’ve taken — and are still taking — to make use of the feedback we’ve gathered:

Step 1: Organize Feedback to Help You Spot Trends

After each conversation, I added labels (e.g., Search, Mailbox, Support, Automation, Pricing) to capture the most important things covered in each conversation.

Organization Organization

This has helped us go through the data and see which topics trended throughout the conversations, so we know what customers are most vocal about.

Step 2: Process the Data

Once things were organized, it was easier to go through and decide how to act on various trends. Core fixes and feature requests that bubbled to the top were added to the roadmap. More ancillary features or less popular ones that had potential were added to our wishlist for future releases; we’ll continue to collect data on these requests.

Step 3: Line Up Customer Case Studies

In my conversations, I unearthed quite a few customers who were having a lot of success with Groove, as well as (like I mentioned) new personas that we hadn’t been targeting before. Those are both great candidates for new case studies to feature as example of Groove’s value, and we’ve already reached out to several of these customers to make it happen.

Step 4: Send Thank You Emails

If a customer takes time out of their day to give you feedback on their app, it’s a gift. They have a thousand other better uses (from their perspective) of their time. So thanking them is important.

I’ve always appreciated a thank you more when it was personal and made me feel like my contribution was valuable, so I try to do that with my own thank-you’s.

Each thank you notes included a brief recap of our conversation, along with any action I’m taking because of it, if any.

Thank you. Thank you.

Step 5: Write About the Experience

This one is pretty meta, I’ll admit.

But as hopeful as I am that sharing my experience will be for you, it’s also incredibly valuable for me, giving me a chance to reflect on the results — and importance — of customer development. As I’ve researched this post, I’ve caught a number of things that I missed the first time I looked at my notes.

Step 6: Make It a Habit

We’ve now added a call to action for a customer development chat into our onboarding emails for every new customer.

Talking to every customer. Talking to every customer.

Thankfully, it’ll be a lot easier to schedule calls one at a time than 2,000 at a time.

How to Apply This to Your Business

Getting qualitative feedback isn’t a tactic. It’s a way of doing business that startups need to live and breathe.

There are dozens of ways to get qualitative feedback from your customers:

And we use all of those strategies. But none has been quite as mindblowingly valuable as actually taking the time to talk to our customers. It has changed our product, our business and the way we think. It’s certainly been responsible for any growth we’ve had.

You don’t have to go on a mission to talk to every single customer. But reach out to a handful today. You might learn something that will change your business.

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About the Author

Alex Turnbull is the CEO & Founder of Groove (simple helpdesk software for small businesses) who loves to build startups and surf.

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