The Problem: interview approach

The Customer Development approach is built on a foundation of one-on-one customer interviews. It is trying to get to the bottom of the issue, something that can’t easily be achieved using surveys or website analytics or complaint forums or even focus groups. It is letting your potential customer talk you through the problem and how it affects their life, peeling it back one layer at a time.

The point of these interviews – to learn.

You don’t push anything, sell anything or even try to convince. You are there to learn, to let you eyes be opened to unexpected and unforeseen possibilities. Don’t even talk about your potential solution. Focus solely on discovering the problem. Giff Constable, in his post “12 Tips for Customer Development Interviews”, states that you should “get psyched to hear things you don’t want to hear”, i.e. be there to let your assumptions be dashed and hopefully take one more step to actually building something that people want.

And this is as applicable to social startups as they are to tech startups or any other startup. In fact, as a social startup, we need to evaluate the needs of all stakeholders: money-paying customers, clients we hope to serve, institutions we are hoping to partner with, etc. Can we actually build something that all these stakeholders want?

So How Do I Conduct these Interviews?

Ash Maurya, in his book Running Lean, does a great job in laying out the format for doing problem interviews. Without taking too much away from Ash, what we are trying to discover through these 15-20 interviews is as follows:

  • What is the “real” problem? Does it fit the problems we are assuming?
  • How are customers solving this problem currently? (i.e. what job are they trying to get done and how are they doing it?)
  • Why, why, why, why, why? Keep digging to understand the customer’s context.
  • Some basic demographic information if we need to further segment the market based on the feedback
  • Get permission to discuss more later, after you’ve figured out a solution, and ask for introductions to new people you can interview

The Approach to our Context

  • Set the Context: “Volunteerism rates are low in Turkey, 5% compared to 30% in Germany or 35% in the US; and this has adverse effects on the ability of NGOs to offer critical services, community integration in large cities as well as overall economic performance.”
  • Describe our Assumptions (see previous post) followed by: “Do you identify with any of these statements?”
  • Problem Ranking and/or Problem Discovery: ask the interviewee to state which reasons they identified with the most. Oftentimes, just setting the stage will have the interviewee start discussing a reason that is much more relevant; the point is just to let him/her talk and work together to get to the root of that problem.
  • Exploring the Customer’s Worldview of Volunteering: we try to make it as personal as possible, exploring previous experiences of volunteering if relevant, the reasons why they volunteered previously and why they don’t do so anymore, what are the barriers; moreover, we are trying to discover motivational reasons for why people do volunteer – what would propel them to volunteer now?

In the next post I’ll start describing some of the insights we are gaining through these customer development interviews. Then we’ll see where we end up… 🙂


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