Before we’ve reached product-market fit, our main goal when we talk to customers is to learn. Sales is a by-product of learning what people care about.
The number one mistake for learning is to collect compliments and opinions (bad data) instead of facts about the customers’ lives (good data).
You get bad data when you begin the conversation by pitching your product, which causes people to become either defensive (if they think you’re in sales mode) or overly optimistic and hypothetical (if you’re just asking for feedback).
The way to get good data is to ask them about their life *before* you tell them exactly what you’re building. The ultimate question (and what you’re really trying to learn) is: “What are you already doing and why? What else have you tried?”
For example, if you’re building a travel planning app, you want to know how they’re already trying to plan their trips, and why they’re doing it that way. Have they searched for other apps? If so, why aren’t they still using them? If not, why not? If they’ve never searched for a travel app before, why are they going to search for yours? The learning begins as soon as you stop pitching your idea and instead ask about their life.
This style of questioning isn’t possible in hostile meetings. For example, if you’re talking to the professional buyer at a big company. They listen to pitches all day, are busy, and are going to grow exasperated if you start asking too many questions. But the problem here is the person you’re talking to, not the style of questioning. Hostile meetings are difficult in all regards, and they’re impossible to learn from. I’d suggest avoiding those types of conversations until you have a polished product, solid case studies, and plenty of happy customers. They’re nothing but a waste of time and an emotional drag if you submit yourself to them too early.
Instead, talk to the friendliest people first. Prioritise your meetings by who likes you most, rather than who is from the most impressive company. They’re the best source of learning before you’ve figured out exactly what you’re doing. As long as you ask about their life (instead of pitching your idea), you’ll avoid the compliments and biased feedback that typically accompany friendliness.
You can always pitch your product later. But don’t do it at the very beginning of the meeting. First, you need to figure out what they’re already doing and why.
Rob Fitzpatrick leads the workshops on customer development on our Founders’ Network educational programme. For more on this topic, check out The Mom Test book. Or you can sign up to join Founders’ Network and attend our forthcoming workshops – view the schedule for dates and venues.