Navigating B2B SaaS customer development interviews

Share this post

Customer Development is one of the most exciting and engaging parts of the entrepreneurial process.  It is the methodology formed by Steve Blank that helps entrepreneurs build companies that validate they are working towards product market fit.  

You should start customer development prior to writing the first line of code.  I appreciate it is tempting to jump straight into the product, but delaying build till after you have engaged in customer development will help you get to product market fit faster / make sure you are onto an idea worth pursuing.  Don’t get me wrong, I had already started to build Advocately and completed an integration with Zendesk that would allow us to identify advocates (even as a non-technical founder) before I was introduced to Customer Development.  It is always tempting to dive straight into product.  Being encouraged to pursue customer development was invaluable advice.  We did not resume building our Advocate Marketing platform until we had completed 25 interviews validating our company and three paid beta customers.  We continued interviews after we had started development and still do on a weekly basis.

This article is not about the whole Customer Development process, but how to book the interviews successfully, leverage your interviews to get more interviews, making sure you form an ongoing relationship, and sharing the information gathered from customer development between founders.

 

Booking Customer Development Interviews

If you have friends or acquaintances who you think will be experiencing the problem you are looking to solve, I recommend starting with them, if for no other reason than to get the ball rolling and getting used to having these kinds of conversations.  If you are actually friends with the person on Facebook already (Please please please do not interpret this as encouraging you to stalk and add people you would like to talk to) feel free to contact them that way.  WhatsApp is great too.

For people I had not met before, I used something like the following template on Linkedin or email:

Hey {FIRST NAME},

Hope this finds you well.

We’ve not met before. {Reason why you want to get in touch with them specifically – e.g. an article they have written relating to what you do, something specific about their business, etc.}

The reason I am reaching out for you is I’m looking for feedback on a product that I am considering building for tech companies to help with Advocate Marketing. It would help drive more high quality inbound leads through increasing public advocacy from their customers. It would be particularly relevant for technology companies that connect with other SaaS products.

Given your experience it would be great to get your feedback.

Could I ask you some questions over a quick call?

I do not have a product to sell, I’m just trying to determine whether it’s a problem worth solving in the first place.

Cheers,

Patrick

Build a list of companies you would like to discuss the problem with and then start connecting on Linkedin with the relevant people at those companies (job title, region, etc.).  Once they have connected, send them a message directly.  Do not send the question when you invite the person to connect on Linkedin, people click accept on the invite without looking and miss the message.

Please note, some people will prefer to address your questions via email as opposed to meeting face to face or a call / skype.  I tended to accept this as maybe once you have corresponded by email a couple of times then asking for a call (or in person, if possible) once you were more familiar.  I still always enjoyed getting people’s responses to questions via email.  They are nowhere near as valuable as face to face or web meetings though.  I would not count them as validating your problem.  They can be useful for understanding some attributes of your ideal customer profile, rather than validating they have the problem.  For example, what other SaaS product they use, which channels are contributing leads, etc.

Time zone management

I was in Singapore when conducting interviews and had the pleasure of interviewing people based in – San Francisco, Atlanta, Boston, New York, London, Berlin, Singapore, Sydney, Melbourne, New Zealand – anyway you get the idea.

When interviewing people in other time zones, ALWAYS recommend times for the meeting based on their time zone.  For example, if you are based in New York and the person you would like to interview is based in San Francisco, ask: are you free for a call at 2pm San Francisco time.

First and foremost, using their time zone is polite.  You are asking someone to take time out of there day to help you.

Secondly, suggesting times on their time zones also helps prevent mix ups.  They are much more likely to miscalculate the difference in time zones than you are.  This free tool will help you figure out what time is managble for both locations: http://everytimezone.com/  That said, if someone’s only available slot happens to be at 3am in your time zone, book it in without hesitation, set your alarm for 2:30am, get up and do the interview.

 

Valuable validation and invalidation

Find out the answer to the following – has the customer spent money trying to solve the problem that you are looking to solve already?  If they have, this is one of the best forms of validation.  “That sounds cool / interesting” is not validation.

Here are a couple of points to consider:

  • Negative feedback is valuable feedback  
  • If someone is skeptical, encourage more skepticism.  
  • If someone is validating your idea, try and dive further into why it might be invalid.

Customer development is successful even when it means that you should not pursue your idea for a SaaS company further or if you have to change it entirely.

 

Clock Management and asking for a referral

No matter how the conversation is going, you need to leave enough time ask for a referral to someone else you can interview.  This is the best and most efficient way to interview more people, which means it is the best and most efficient way to validate your idea.

4 or 5 minutes before the call is scheduled to finish I would typically say something along these lines:

Thanks so much for all this feedback, I really appreciate your time.  Before I let you get back to your day, is there anything else you would like to add?

Some of the best feedback and offers for help have come after asking this question and you don’t want to jump to asking for a referral if they still have thoughts they would like to share.

Once that has been covered off, you can then ask something along the lines of:

Continual external feedback is incredibly valuable for us.  Do you know of any other {describe your customer profile e.g. B2B SaaS companies that would potentially benefit from Advocacy Marketing} that I should speak to?

Some people start recommending people straight away and some people can sometimes seem a little hesitant.  This is a great opportunity to mention:

To make it as easy as possible, I’ll send you a short blurb that other people have used to introduce me.  It briefly explains what we discussed and that I do not have anything to sell, just looking for feedback.

Most of the people who are hesitant feel much more comforted by this as it removes the friction.

The other option is to seek recommendation from them about people they think it would be useful for you to talk to and get in touch with them directly, rather than being introduced.

I keep a spreadsheet tracking my success at getting referrals that I have now incorporated into our Salesforce.  Results ranged from “friendlies” who have introduced me to 6+ other people to interview, to people I had reached out to cold on Linkedin email introing me to a colleague within 30 minutes of our call ending.

If you are running out of time, it’s better to cut the conversation short by a couple of minutes and get the referral, than speak for 2 more minutes and miss the referral.  If you have done a good job, you can talk to them again another time.

Here is the short blurb I provide:

 

Patrick, cc’d, is looking for feedback on a potential product to help SaaS companies with Advocate Marketing.  It will help drive more high quality inbound leads through increasing public advocacy from their customers through reviews, referrals, etc. We have already discussed it and I think it sounds interesting.

Given your experience it would be great to get your feedback and advice. Could he ask you some questions over a quick call?

He does not have a product to sell, just trying to determine whether it’s a problem worth solving in the first place.

If you get an intro, continue to follow up.  No matter how many times they do not get back to you.  Silence does not mean no.  Here is a great video in which Steli Efti, CEO of close.io, explains how he followed up after one introductory email over 40 times, that eventually resulted in success (in this case it was regarding investment, but still applies to customer development):  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IfKMsdI9wJM

 

Find a way to help them

This is pretty straight forward.

 

  1. The person has just spent their time helping you validate or invalidate your idea.  
  2. You want help from them in the future.  

It’s great if you can help them by starting to help them realise the value of your product.  Let me elaborate:

The majority of these lessons were generated from the early stages of Advocately’s customer development.  

To quickly provide some context, Advocately is an Advocate Marketing platform.  It helps businesses to identify their advocates and mobilise them to leave reviews online or refer other customers.  This helps drive more high quality inbound leads with a lower CAC.

Thus, I was always enthusiastic to help the people I interviewed get some value from advocate marketing.  This could be a simple as providing their product with a positive review (provided I have used it of course) or introducing them to people in my network who are relevant potential customers. Anything that can have a positive impact on their business is just a polite and easy way to say thank you.

Admin

I was doing as many as 6 in depth customer interviews a day, while still working full time.  If you do not record your notes digitally as you go, it will become a mammoth task and you will lose / forget important information.

For every call, schedule an hour of your time. 10 minutes of prep, 30 minutes of chat and 20 minutes of to digitise any notes you took and send a follow up email to the person you spoke to.

Digitised notes are also the best way to share the content of the call between founders.  All founders should be completing customer development interviews.
If anyone has any further questions please feel free to get in touch directly – patrick@advocate.ly

by Patrick Barnes

Patrick is the CEO of Advocately, an Advocate Marketing software company.

patrick barnes

In this article