A practical guide for talking to customers (or 'The mom test' mini-summary)

Business May 1, 2021

How can you take seriously a book called "The mom test"? Nevertheless, this might be one of the most useful startup/business books I've encountered.

Long story short, everyone tells you to talk to your customers. But this "advice" is just not enough. It's too generic. What to ask them? Where to find them? What do you want from them?

I always thought that "talking to the customers" is important. The worst-case scenario was that I wouldn't learn anything from the chat. But the most shocking realization from the book was that "talking to the customers" if done wrong could lead to fatal consequences for a company.

Especially in the early stages, when trying to validate a business idea, the "wrong" conclusion from a customer chat might lead to a failure down the road. So even though "talking to customers" is not an exact science, a few useful tips and a general guideline on how to do this is more than welcome.

It's all about bias

If I kept one thing from the entire book, is that you NEVER mention your idea when talking to a potential customer. This is to reduce bias. Everyone can create an imaginary scenario that your idea can be used. And most people (including your mom), don't want to hurt your feelings. So they will say things that you want to hear like "this is a great idea!".

Instead of imaginary scenarios, and (maybe fake) compliments, you should:

  • Talk more about their lives. Not about your idea and its potential.
  • Look for specific things in the past that validate your idea (e.g. what did your customer bought in the past?) rather than generic things in the future (e.g. would you ever ...?)
  • Talk less, listen more.

Is it really a problem?

Prospective business people are always looking for the next problem to solve. And while talking with people you might encounter the "I would definitely pay for this solution" phrase.

Before getting excited, ask first if they have searched for a solution first. If not, then probably it's not a real problem (or they don't care enough to look for one, which means it's an idea not worth pursuing). You can even ask them to try a potential solution on the spot (e.g. to download an existing app) to see their reaction and interaction with the problem/solution.

Endless feature requests

Everyone has a feature request to suggest. Don't be overwhelmed and don't rush to implement. Instead understand the motivation behind the request, since a different feature/implementation might be needed than the one requested.

To figure out if there's a real need and how important the request is, ask why they need it and what they did until now without it.

Is there real interest?

As I've mentioned before, most people are polite. They will tell you that they like your idea and they will pay for it when available. But this is not always the case (i.e. people are just being polite).

To cut to the chase and figure out if there's real interest, ask for a small commitment (e.g. preorder, time commitment like a follow-up meeting, public testimonial about the product/problem, intro to a decision-maker).

How to get people talking

People are not willing to be pitched. Just show interest in their area of expertise (i.e. just find a good excuse to talk to them). Keep it casual, don't always consider it as "customer development work" and learn as much as you can. Keep in mind that these "informal" chats can't be used as sales pitches since they can be conceived as deceive.

When asking people to talk to them, a useful tip is that almost everybody wants to talk to a Ph.D. student doing research, or to an author researching a book.

Final notes

  • You don't always have to find the customers to talk to. You can make them come to you (e.g. organize meetups, speaking & teaching, industry blogging, etc).
  • Always have your 3 most important questions ready. You never know where you will have an interesting customer conversation. Never forget to include at least 1 question that terrifies you and might destroy your business.
  • Share notes with your team and coordinate with them. Customer development should not be a form of dictatorship (e.g. "we should do this because the customer said so"). Interpreting what "the customer said" is more subjective than it seems so decisions should be a team effort.

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