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Ask HN: How to actually “talk to your customers”?
291 points by cosmorocket on Apr 20, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 110 comments
I find this thread https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14146850 very insightful and stressing some important common points in comments.

The most precious advice as I see is to “talk to your customers”.

How do I practically turn this advice into action?

Say, I have:

- an office with a computer and internet

- a map of the town and its suburbs I located in

- search engine to my service

- some details about the domain I’d like to work for

- zero contacts

Now, how do I actually talk to my potential customers? I can knock at doors of every office I find online and with a broad smile say a pitch then attack them with my questions? I don’t think it will work as I would like it to. More likely they will think I am trying to sell some bs and thus be quite skeptical and cold to me.

Should I try to approach bosses or common workers of companies?

Should I phone them, ask for an appointment, explain my goals and if they let me in, do the talk?

What is the right approach to talk to my potential customers?

Can you please share your experience and maybe books about how to do it properly?


Cart is ahead of the horse. Getting out of the office to talk to potential customers has NOTHING to do with selling. It has to do with learning about the sector you THINK you want to be working in. In other words, you need to accept that your foundational knowledge is largely made up of information that made its way to you by going through your filter of preconceived notions and biases. My advice to my sales team (and to you) is to stop thinking about your needs (selling something, validating your product, etc.) and start thinking about discovering their needs. You do this by asking questions and listening.

People love to talk about themselves and their businesses. You will get a ton of positive response by picking up the phone (or sending emails) saying "I'm new to this sector and I've been learning everything I can online and through books and trade magazines. But I know I would learn more by talking to someone working in the field. Could I stop by Monday morning for 15 minutes and learn about your business. I'm interested in finding out how you came to even be in this business, what parts are enjoyable, and what parts are challenging. Thank you for your consideration."

What industry are you in that this is common, or even accepted? Nowhere I've worked would have answered yes to a site visit by a random salesperson.

Ask friends. Ask friends of friends. Go to a party or local event and ask others (after striking up real conversations). Are you a regular patron at any establishment? Speak to a low-level employee you regularly interact with; then speak to their manager. Ask your mail carrier; ask your paper delivery boy; ask your milkman. If it's 7-degrees of indirection to get to Kevin Bacon, it's probably just 1-2 degrees for people in your community.

Just start talking to people... or to the parent's point: Listen to people (and follow up!). You're looking to build relationships, not marks (I hope).

It's not sales, it's mentoring. A lot of established business folks like to do a bit of it.

Honestly, I agree with you.

Its true what the op says that there are people that naturally want to share and mentor what they do. Now that you can easily find them or that there are signs of it you can find as a stranger..

Im running a b2b business, and even though i have personal contacts in the area, im frequently stonewalled to even start a basic conversation, let alone a product sales one.

Are you leveraging social media to warm up the leads? Find and target them with ads and follow up with a phone call or visit. Works pretty well.

Interesting idea! Are people not creeped out by that?

They signed up for it by using the network. Try it.

What kind of ad do you make? I am very interested in the way you concretely go about this!

Email me and we can talk about your marketing needs.

You are right and it is proven effective. :) Tried that and still doing it.

Yeah, I use it with clients and always blow them away with the results.

I run the sales division of a nine figure web hosting company.

The fact that you work in a "9 figure web hosting company" might be a cue of why you can start a conversation, because of the brand of a company. Im sure Airbnb can get into a broker house any day to have a chat. Do you think it would be easy for you to walk into Uber in the next few days and someone tell you what you should be building that they would buy?

Im honestly asking, i do b2b, please tell me some secrets :)

Before that I ran my own semiconductor brokerage abd the approach was the sane. "what about your job sucks?" "it sucks when I plan a build for Monday and 49 chips show up but 1 doesn't arrive until Wednesday. So my customer is mad that we are behind schedule and I pay mt staff to stand around.". So I started selling complete kits. One vendor, One PO and one box of components that arrives on time with everything in it.

Doesn't matter that I now have a known brand behind me. Customers want the same essential thing: That you care about their success. I still answer my cell in the middle of the night during an outage because clients want to know i care and feel their pain because my company is impacting their ability to be successful, to pay employees, to pay bills, to feed their families.

The point is the same throughout and hits at my philosophy. I don't sell servers or hosting or support. We sell good days. We sell a developer wowing his or her boss. We sell an absence of worry that a client will be pulled away from time with their family to solve a web issue. We don't sell RAM and processors. We sell good days.

Awesome sauce.

This is all spot on. The beauty of it is the real friends you make and what it is all worth.

There are calls I answered at O'dark thirty 10 years ago that are HUGE today.

People starting careers, people I helped to get there. They remember, and when I need or ask, they return consideration I gave them.

Or, I walk into a booming department, shake hands with the person building it, and we go have a lunch to chat about the early days.. They share all they are doing, and it's awesome.

When people know you know it makes sense to get there more than just do a deal, everyone values that.

This is one of the most inspirational sentiments I've read on HN, thank you for sharing!

Got to say. That last paragraph was impressive. Wow.

Persistence pays.

I was an account manager intern at a VAR in college and was really shocked to discover this. I sold about $50k of training to a big company based on a cold call. One time a guy called looking for advice on sharing files on NT4 and ended up in a conversation about licensing -- I sold him an EA. Another time I was in a wingman role for a site visit with an account exec. On the way back, we stopped at a really large company, the account exec bullshitted his way in, and we ended up chatting with their local IT director for about an hour. We started getting RFPs a few weeks later.

There's no secret. Just treat people well, talk to them and find out what problems they have. If you can't solve them, refer them to someone who can.

Aren't the statements "the account exec bullshitted his way in" and "Just treat people well" a little contradictory?

Not really. Social charm is often the necessary bit of lubricant needed to get a conversation going.

Think of it this way... It can be an excuse to make a pitch, which sucks. Everyone knows the charm was just a ruse.

Or, if your team has a genuine interest in the field, that charm isn't a ruse. It's genuine and earnest interest. It's the piece that can get the real convo started.

The difference is, after a time and maybe some business done, whether real understanding and a shared, common interest in success exists.

Where it does, everyone will have improved and that network of people has value. Becomes a center of gravity, attracting others.

Where it does not, it's just a deal, and maybe it was worth it, maybe not. But nobody is invested on a personal level. There is no real understanding.

With the former, it's common to check in, exchange news, share success, failure, introduce new people, etc...

With the latter, it's extremely common to only talk when needed, as it's just noise otherwise.

Truth is, for a given niche, there are always interesting people who care about it. You want to be and cone to know those people because they are where all the real action is.

Circle back to the bullshit way in.

Having the goal I put here means that conversation is extremely likely to have enough value to warrant the effort needed to start it.

"Bullshited" in this context may mean that he lied, which would indeed be contradictory. However, it is more likely to infer that he had an improvised conversation, as in "shooting the bull" http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/shoot+the+bull, or engaged in idle conversation- http://www.thefreedictionary.com/bullshitted

I probably made a poor word choice here. This particular person was a guy who could talk to anyone about anything. Literally. He had personal relationships with gas station attendants, political people, business people, etc. Ansolute magic.

He charmed his way past the various gatekeepers and got to the guy he was looking for. There was nothing deceitful about it.

What's an EA?

I've done it a ton of times!

Engineering software, process, tools.

Stopping by to learn about a company, share experiences, maybe buy a lunch isn't a bad thing.

It is regional. There are parts of the nation very hostile to this. They don't even have receptionists.

For those parts, working social media, holding events, making calls works to get that appointment.

In all cases, general networking is needed. Give and get.

I do not think the approach he described would lead to the conclusion he's an obvious salesperson.

You pay them to talk to you, whatever their hourly rate is. Not a big secret.

I worked for a market research company once (reasonably well respected, in their field) and we still had a hellish time getting employees to talk to us for money. Many staff are not comfortable with talking about their area of expertise (which is obviously related to the company they work for) outside of the confines of that company, or are certainly not going to accept cash for doing so off the books even if that is donated to a charity organisation. Additionally, many companies are not really set up to handle contracting out their already occupied employees (especially senior staff) for an hours salary.

Actually, thinking about it most of the reputation we had was in speaking to smaller owner-operated businesses where the owner or self-employed associates were free to speak to us and could gauge the benefit to themselves from doing so (our interviews were often on behalf of larger companies testing the market for product ideas, so they would get the satisfaction of providing feedback and even getting advance notice of what may be on offer)

anyway, what I'm saying is.. it can be difficult and time consuming to arrange that but it is possible to get somebody else to do the drudge work.

SMEs do, particularly if you're local IME.

I agree largely with goatherders.

Perhaps the question you should be asking is "how can you go listen to your customers"

Yes indeed! I would add on to this, instead of asking "how can I make $X?", ask "how can I provide $X of value to people?".

You provide value by meeting people's needs. So it is very valuable to learn about those needs!

Exactly. Everyone wants to buy but no one wants to be sold. Clients need a navigator on their journey to find a solution to their problems. They care about that. I tell my team the answer is never "no", its either "yes" or "not yet.". Most salespeople want only yes because they care about their needs. They become great salespeople when they realize their job is to serve their clients, not themselves. The OP should view his research the same way - stop thinking about your dreams of building something and start thinking about helping people. The sales will solve themselves if you get to that place in an authentic way.

Absolutely this. This is also one of the reasons why there seem to be many successful business where the founder "scratched an itch" - they built a business on something they knew a lot about.

I think the "build a product to scratch your own itch" is one of the worst pieces of advice for entrepreneurs, especially first time entrepreneurs. The reason is that most entrepreneurs end up building businesses to scratch an itch, not solve a real serious problem.

Source: been there, done that.

From where I'm standing, both of your statements are true. It's important to build for a need (itch), but you should be sure it's something important that customers are willing to pay for.

Not only that, but there should be a large addressable market.

I think that it's good advice for people with interests outside of tech. If you are a developer, then it's easy to think of things that you could make for other developers, but for various reasons, developers aren't a great commercial market.

There are probably still a lot of non-developers out there using bad software, because developers with a genuine interest in that field and the skills to make great products for them haven't showed up yet. I work for a SaaS company that found a poorly served market, and it's been like pushing on open doors: there were a whole bunch of people with the same problem, but it's not a problem that developers care about, so the most popular solution in the market before us was Excel spreadsheets.

>especially first time entrepreneurs

I disagree. We know that most first time entrepreneurs will fail. Not b/c of a terrible idea but because of lack of experience. Someone's first venture should be relatively easy, not necessarily a great idea or even an idea that can raise funding. You mentioned in another comment a bill splitting app, definetly an itch, nothing unique, and in itself will never become something special. BUT the lessons you learn from building and shipping such a simple product will help you immensely in your next startup.

Why would you even waste time building a bill splitting app if it never had potential in the first place? Yes, you would have learned something, but that in and of itself isn't a justification for making a poor decision. You could have both worked on something with true substantial potential and learned something at the same time, as opposed to work on something with no possibility of success and learn something. In fact, you'll probably learn much more doing the first thing than the second.

I've built a bill splitting app. It was stupid and I learned something, but I wish I had been smarter and built something that [might have] solved a real problem with that time instead.

100% disagree. Building something to scratch an itch is by far the easiest way to proceed initially. Many, many tools and services were built to scratch an itch.

The point is that "build a product to scratch your own itch" is a dangerous statement - you should be finding an itch that (a) a lot of people have and (b) that doesn't have an overabundance of scratching solutions.

The itches of typical developers fail in both of these criteria; typical developers are a small niche of consumers and they can scratch their own itches, so there are many solutions and if it's still itching, then probably simple scratching won't help.

You need to find itches in other domains. It might be your own itch if you have extensive background in some specific business domain and just happen to have development skills, but for most people you'll have to go out of your way to find and understand the itches that you couldn't possibly ever have - possibly because scratching them would be so easy for you that you wouldn't notice the problem if you had it, while they have been suffering for decades.

Certainly the best itch to scratch is one you think a lot of other people have as well. You definitely do not need to find itches in other domains.

I can't tell you the number of times I've been pitched a bill splitting app. It's an itch, not a real problem.

For all of the positive examples of companies that were "built to scratch an itch", there are thousands or tens of thousands of failures where the itch turned out to be a tiny market worth nothing, or no market at all.

OK, maybe "itch" isn't the right word. The more painful the itch, the better. I would agree that bill splitting apps are completely stupid. But I've never felt bill splitting was very itchy.

And therein lies the problem. "Itch" is too vague, subjective, and low of a bar for starting a real business around.

My potential customers are college students. Do you have any ideas on how I can approach them? I'm working on a cheap textbook finder app.

As in 'i misplaced my book and i want geo locate it', or 'I need to find this textbook to purchase'? You should skip the students and work toward relationships with campus bookstores, community colleges, trade schools perhaps, and show them why their students should be encouraged to use your app.

Here's a specific anecdote of how I did it in Palo Alto (after just arriving in the US from South Africa):

The first day I was in Palo Alto (and the US), I had absolutely no contacts and was severely jet lagged. I had just moved to the US to establish my startup (https://journeyapps.com) in the US, raise "Silicon Valley VC" and chase the dream ;) tl;dr - JourneyApps is a platform for businesses to quickly developer mobile apps for internal use.

I walked down University Avenue, and spotted Palo Alto bicycles. I walked in (very nervous) and asked one of the sales people if the manager is in. Jeff (the manager), was there and asked what I wanted. I explained I'd just moved here, and was working on a startup that eliminates paper forms.

He was kind enough to not kick me out, and (because it was closing time), spent some time talking to me about how they sell bicycles and which paper forms he uses. He also explained how much of a pain it is.

I kept delving into the details of his business, which he absolutely loves, so he was keen to keep talking. After forming a good idea of what his world looks like, I asked if he'd be keen to do an experiment with us. We'd make an app that does bicycle sales on a tablet, and bring it to him in a day or two. The experiment would be free, he just needs to tell us what works and what doesn't.

He was really keen, and gave me copies of the forms he uses. Overnight we built an app on our platform that acts like his paper forms. The next day we rolled out in his store, and waited for bicycle sales.

The app worked, and we learnt a heck of a lot about US business culture, even though it was just a "small family owned" bicycle store.

Eventually we raised the mythical Silicon Valley VC money and got our first Fortune 100 customers, but the process stayed remarkably similar:

1) Find someone who's passionate about their business

2) Talk to them with genuine interest and learn about their world

3) Be upfront and open about which problems you think you can help with, and which not

4) Over deliver.

Hi there,

I watched the Emerson video; very neat. Is JourneyApps something that I'd be able to utilize as a third party to create solutions for clients I've had previously and future opportunities?

Or, do you work one-on-one with all of your customers and develop only in-house?

It (used to be) accessible to any developer on the internet as a platform :-)

Unfortunately, it's shifted to internal use (Journey employees, and enterprise employees).

Also - Thanks!

I hear you. There's a lot of guidance on the importance of talking to customers, but a dearth of information on how to do it.

Fwiw, I've become mildly obsessed with this topic, and have written up a couple articles that may help:

* How to talk to customers: http://customerdevlabs.com/2013/11/05/how-i-interview-custom...

* Which customers should you talk to first: http://customerdevlabs.com/2017/03/20/who-are-early-adopters...

* How to ask for conversations: http://customerdevlabs.com/2014/02/18/how-to-send-cold-email...

I have read the first one of those links previously. I thought it was very insightful.

Thanks for posting these. I have been trying to find more on this topic.

It depends a lot on what you are selling.

If you go to a small retail business (say a cafe) when it is not the peak hour, you might find the owner working there. It is usually not hard to get them in a conversation, many of them will talk your ear off. (Sometimes this even works for a supermarket or a large chain store.)

On that front, people usually like to be heard so if you do a lot of listening that takes the pressure off you. Often a good sales call is 90% or more listening to the customer talk.

I've gotten good prospects through LinkedIn and simlar means and have had very good luck (much better than 80%) at sending a message or email and getting an appointment for a phone call.

If I have any challenge here it is that there are people out there who really like to talk and talk and you can easily wind up having an absurd number of calls over a long period of time and get no sales. However, almost always in B2B sales you will need to make several calls over a period of 2-3 months. Big companies lke IBM can tolerate a sales process that runs longer that, but you can't.

I think you have to be careful to separate those who will buy your product versus those who will talk about the industry.

You want both, just deal with them them differently.

Who does the talker know? Introductions and referrals are often worth some chatter.

Also the focus changes as your company grows.

Early on you are doing business development, which involves developing product-market fit and figuring out how you sell your product.

Later on you get into straight sales, where you have a playbook that you can give new salespeople that has a proven strategy for selling your offering. At this point you are interested in scaling and optimization, and qualifying customers (knowing if they are real buyers) is really critical.

If you are not a natural born salesperson it is more important to get comfortable with it than it is to carefully qualify people. Later on when you find talking to people is easy but you're frustrated about wasting time, you will reach this point where qualifying people will seem really urgent.


Well said and agreed

For me, when I was a tool for indie iOS devs

- still at the idea stage, I began talking to people online on iOS dev forums - iphonedevsdk forum, and reddit.com/r/ios /r/iphone, etc

- I asked my friends who I knew were devs. I live in Poland, and my target audience is mostly US, so their feedback was slightly limited, but still valuable, because I could talk to them in real life

- as soon as possible I went to San Francisco, and went to any meetup I could find through my contacts, on Meetup.com, and Startup Digest

- I try to follow news as closely as possible (e.g. there is iOS dev weekly newsletter), and look for opportunities to engage in the communication. Even without mentioning the name of my project (which is AppCodes.com -- a shameless plug here :D )

- Sometimes I write to bloggers and people who write about my subjects about something I work on, to honestly gather their feedback, and of course to ask if they want to know more about my project. It's always personal.

After a few years of doing various projects, I noticed that it almost always takes around 6 months for the word to go out that I do things, and people start coming back to me by themselves ("are you still doing X?"). With time, finding connections is easier, but not faster - it always takes exactly 6 months :)

First read I was thinking- 'well, maybe that's what you were, but don't be so hard on yourself...' realized you must have omitted the word 'developing'.

As a former indie iOS dev, ( ie. a tool for Apple Computer Inc. ), my honest feedback is- if I was ever making enough on the App Store to afford a $15 monthly subscription, I wouldn't need the help; for the most part indie iOS developers don't make jack so our #1 consideration for any product is going to be "Is it free...?"

Of course if you already figured that out; but saw that people were thinking "Why the hell am I not making any money on the App Store, maybe I need; like; SEO?" and are likely to give it a try- even if they don't like it, even if it doesn't work, you still got $15 out of that customer which is 10x what they're making on each customer who downloads their $1.99 app; so- good on you.

It would probably only take a few months to work out if the tool was going to drive a return for you, that is $45. I doubt the kind of customer they would want would be one that wasn't prepared to put down $45.

I realize it is a different target market but often SEO/search marketing/email/retargeting solutions can cost thousands of dollars upfront, without any guarantee of a return.

Maybe you just weren't doing it properly, or not focusing on the right market(s)? I have made plenty through both the iOs & Mac app store as an indie dev.

If you have no network, the first thing to do is build a network. You can do this by building something people sign up for, getting leads, by talking to your neighbors, by talking to organizations, by giving talks or by sitting out in the park with a sign that says "Talk To Me About JavaScript", but you can't build something people are going to use without knowing the people who are going to use it and the best way to find those people is by asking people you've already met.

Talk to me about Javascript. I love and will steal the hell out of it. Great comment too. Best in thread. :)

Well .... it really depends on what you are selling. You said service, but doing what? In what domain?

Ok, that wasn't helpful. So let me try to break it down, without knowing anything about what you are selling.

I will assume that your service is to solve some problem in a particular business domain. From that you can decide on who would have the problem you are solving and how critical it is for them. Hair on fire is good. Nicer typography on the menu - meh. Nevertheless, you can sketch your ideal customer. Potentially only a very small proportion of your town's business population is a possible prospect. Once you have identified the businesses, you could look at who in those businesses would be most motivated to do something about getting you to solve the problem(s) you have identified and are capable of solving.

Then you go an talk to the people you have identified. You listen more than you talk and refine your approach.

For a far more detailed approach you could read "Four Steps to Epiphany" by Steve Blank. Customer Development Method might be exactly what you need to help you maximise the productivity of your time when you are out of the office, talking with prospects.

If you provide some details about your business then some HNers might be able to give you specific advice.

Good Luck.

I'm working on a consumer product. Here's what I do.

- Include an invite for a quick 10-15 minute chat in the welcome email (more people than you would think actually take up the offer)

- Ask them why they signed up (this is key to help you determine what problem people want you to solve)

- Ask them their biggest frustrations about the solution so far

And just take it from there.

How do you prioritize which 'frustrations' to work on?

Processing existing customer feedback has always been a problem even at large, established places I've worked for - chasing the new customer and adding features is always sexier than a general feeling of unease that requires a lot of prying to get to the root of.

Often in my experience most customers don't seem to know what the exact problem is, or can't put it into words, so having strategies to tease that out would also be appreciated.

My experience is a little different (mgmt consulting) but the problem is largely the same. The one piece of advice I have for your last line is to ask the simple questions - "What do you mean by....", "Can you tell me more about...", "Can you walk me through..." are all very powerful.

If you have nothing to go off of but a rough sense of which part of their day is causing them frustration, you can ask "I heard that (process X) is hard or frustrating. Can you walk me through how that works? Where does it start?" followed by very simple questions to keep them talking - they'll get as detailed as they can for someone who appears to be in a position to help.

I have used a few of these statements. You could almost write a book on just this subject.

Give them a $5 Starbucks card at the end as a thank-you.

If you do this I recommend you don't mention the gift card until after the meeting.

I might meet to chat for 10 minutes but if you told me you'd give me a $5 (or even $50) gift card in exchange for my time, I probably wouldn't.

I think it's unnecessary (and somewhat tacky)

I would prefer to make a standing offer for lunch or coffee and have a reason for it.

No contacts, no domain experience -> you need 5-10 years to build these. Contacts+Experience are also a longer way to say "business value".

You have two ways to build it. One is always coming from the outside, hoping for nice/stupid people to explain it to you, hoping to get shitty contracts to make some kind of money. This way will be the slave road.

The alternative is becoming an excited new employee at a customer or another provider for your customers and work there for 5-10 years. You have rights (like laws working in your favour), you have regular income, you are at the table where things happen and get some tips from people who work in that area for 10+ years, and hell, you may even save a few bucks that later can be used to found a company.

Yes, you'll be your bosses bitch, but only to some degree, because of laws. Customers will be much, much more cruel. If you can't bow to a boss, you certainly won't be able to handle customers yourself.

If you neither have rich parents nor business value, don't attempt to build your own business. People just say that because they are part of the economy that makes money from the sacrifices you take on your own, or at least have rich parents themselves and therefore don't even know that it can be a problem if one is behind rent payment and lacks $20k in funds.

I respectfully disagree.

I know two different entrepreneurs who set up internet businesses in domains completely unknown to them and simply walked into all the businesses they wanted to target and signed people up in the first weeks of operating.

Restaurants + B&Bs were the domains.

You forgot the affiliate link to the $200 course where they explain how they did it. ;-)

It depends on your market.

But if you try to build a company, I assume that you want to solve a problem.

If you solve a B2C problem: talk to friends affected by the problem, or launch a Meetup based on this problem. You'll get free feedbacks and people LOVE to talk about themselves.

If you solve a B2B problem: talk to friendly businesses affected by the problem, or go to events and conferences as a vendor with kakemonos talking about the problem you solve. If the problem you solve is really important, you'll get plenty of people coming to your stand to talk to you.

Once you'll have a few "leads", you will be able to refine the market segments that are the most affected by the problem you solve. THIS is really important: for B2C, you'll have to target this segment in your future ads, for B2B, you'll have to target this segment in leads generation.


- "Should I try to approach bosses or common workers of companies?" => Talk to the guy affected by the problem you solve. It might be the CEO, or a manager, or the worker.

- "Should I phone them, ask for an appointment, explain my goals and if they let me in, do the talk?" => Yes, phone is better than cold email. But be prepared, it's really harder than cold email.

- "What is the right approach to talk to my potential customers?" => Beginner script: Hi, my name is X, I represent Y, we solve THE_PROBLEM_YOU_SOLVE. Are you affected by this problem? Could we talk about this in person at your office?

Too early to try and sell them on anything. Call them up.

"Hello, this is cosmorocket, and I'd like to learn more about your industry. Can I stop by sometime and ask you some questions? Perhaps shadow you for a little while? I'll bring coffee and danish."

Just watch and listen. If you see them get frustrated by something, give them a moment then ask "So, what just happened?"

From experience, it's much easier to recruit from a list of people who've already said that they'd be willing to talk to you than doing cold calls. Cold calls work, but expect a way lower response rate than if you find a way to pre-assess your customers.

For example, I've worked with clients where we would insert an NPS question at some strategic point in the digital parts of their service. Not at a point where it would be intrusive, but rather, for example, at the very end of completing a bank transfer. Make it very small: 1) The NPS 1-10 scale, 2) Field for free comments 3) Checkbox to the effect of "is it OK if we contact you for more questions?"

This serves the dual purpose of finding people who are willing to talk to you, as well as giving you an idea of what they think of your service at the current moment.

You can now contact the people who put less than 9 on the NPS scale to do two things: 1) find out what you can do to improve the service, and 2) take care of the complaints they might have and improve your relationship to the customer in question directly, potentially turning a negative impression into a promoter.

Obviously, if the product doesn't exist yet, you will have to find a different way to reach your potential customers rather than inserting it into the existing service.

I have no suggestions where to find people to talk to (that really depends on your field).

But on the topic of how to talk to people, I really want to recommend the book by Dale Carnegie 'How to make friends and influence people'. Ignore the corny title and read it. This book has changed how I talk to people.

The biggest takeaway for me from that book was that people love to talk about themselves. Make the conversation about them; focus on their situation instead of on your product.

Your problem with figuring out how to talk to customers is that you don't know who you are trying to talk to.

First you need to figure out who you want your customers to be.

If your answer is local coffee shop owners, then it's easy to make a list of customers and you can call them, email them, or visit them in person.

There are many places on the internet that give free advice on how to do cold calls, emails, visits, etc. Steli Efti writes about it a lot on the close.io blog. There are numerous questions asked and answered on quora.

Start at those two places and once you know more of the basics, you can start learning more specific skills.

But if you don't know who to talk to, then you are trying to solve two problems at the same time: who to talk to and how to talk to them.

Solve one problem first, then the other.

Once you know who to talk to, then you can start talking to them to see if they have the problem that you are trying to solve.

If the service or product you are selling doesn't solve their problem you are not going to be able to sell it to them.

It's much, much easier if you are trying to sell to a customer base (market) that you understand well or already know some problems they face.

Then you can talk to them and verify that you are correct and they have the problem that you think they have.

> But if you don't know who to talk to, then you are trying to solve two problems at the same time: who to talk to and how to talk to them.

Great point

Maybe I can answer the question "where to find people to talk to." I'm in consumer research; here's what's worked for me.

If you need b2b: LinkedIn, conference and trade show lobbies (you don't need a ticket to hang out in the lobby), email lists you can buy online. There are also companies that maintain lists of experts with every imaginable background you can speak to for an hourly fee; not cheap but worth it.

If you need consumers: survey panel companies will let you field a simple survey to people who match your criteria, who you can then recruit into a phone/Skype call. You can also recruit people yourself through well-targeted Facebook and Twitter ads. Craigslist works well; set up a short survey to prequalify people.

Money is a great accelerant. You will always find people who would talk to you for free, but offering to pay them for their time and expertise makes things go a lot faster. Plus, if you are on the shy side, money changes the dynamic. You are now not asking for a favor, but are offering to engage in a business transaction.

Six people is often all you need to start seeing some common themes.

>> Six people is often all you need to start seeing some common themes.

That's interesting. I am curious how you came up with that number. Getting six people to give you their opinions is much easier than doing any kind of extensive research.

From personal experience of doing a bunch of interviews and surveys over the years, after about 6, you'll start hearing patterns. If you are new to the subject you are researching, doing some reading and talking to about six people will get you to a point where you'll be able to evolve the questions you are capable of asking, or formulate hypotheses for testing.

"How To Measure Anything" has a great chapter on how talking to only a few people can reduce uncertainty with a pretty amazing accuracy, but I don't have a copy handy.

I hadn't heard about that book. Thanks for the recommendation.

Here's another place where I remember reading about 5 users, took me a couple of days to find it: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/why-you-only-need-to-test-w...

I'm no expert, but I've tried this so far and it worked a bit:

Wrote to a bunch of strangers. Made it a point to stress that I've nothing to sell (not yet at least) and just want to talk and pick brain. Promised not to take more than 15 mins and never did. Most people never replied, a handful of them did and I had lovely conversations with them. One even became a friend (I referred her to the place I work) and we still keep in touch, even though the original reason I talked to her didn't work out. When I thanked one person, she simply said "no need, just promise me you'd do the same if a stranger reaches out to you".

From my limited experience, it is more or less a numbers game, unless you are willing to spend enormous amount of time looking for that specific set of people who is the perfect fit to help you. There is no guarantee that they would though (why should they? Everyone is busy with whatever they are upto anyways)

> Wrote to a bunch of strangers. Made it a point to stress that I've nothing to sell (not yet at least) and just want to talk and pick brain. Promised not to take more than 15 mins and never did.

I did the same thing but in person. Went to an airport hall where tons of people are just bored waiting. Said clearly at the beginning of the discussion that I want feedback on my project and won't ask for money or personal info.

These were the hours where I learned the most from my potential customers.

You should consider your idea if you are building it for a group you literally know 0 people who are part of it.

The advice is good but often it means talk to your users. You can use it to validate your idea, but it is helpful to validate your product.

If you are building something be damn sure it's something people want this is hard if you don't know those people

On an earlier idea I had, I wanted to do something with tech recruiters. They were always calling me or emailing me, so I thought it would be pretty easy to talk to them since they were coming to me. I build a script that I semi memorized based off the template in the Running Lean book. I adapted it for this industry. I also have a paper form where I could fill in the answers.

I would schedule a phone meeting or in person meeting, and I would run through the script. After the meeting I would quickly write down all the answers off the top of my head while it was still fresh.

I did this for about 30 interviews, and then I created an answer matrix in a spreadsheet. My goal was to try to see if there were any common problems among the majority of people I talked to. The answer ended up being a big NO, but I did not write a single line of code in this process. It did save me a ton of pain in the long run doing this up front.

Wouldn't even talk to them. Try to find ways to observe in a passive manner instead.

If you are making software for restaurants, go sit at the restaurant during peak and off hours, and be keen about what's actually going on, down to the minute detail.

If the problem you are solving is in the kitchen, see if you can offer a hand doing dishes for free and observe at a detailed level what everyone else is doing and what their problems also are.

Asking questions in survey format could potentially work, though I doubt it. It could also be high barrier if you are basically a nobody trying to talk to restaurant owners.

The worst thing that can happen is people telling you they have a problem they don't actually have, and you create an imaginary problem to solve that nobody cares about.

This is similar to the 30x500 method. There are a lot of places where people are talking online. Make sure you have a grasp of that before you talk to someone face to face. It is far easier to discern patterns when you can look over many conversations quickly.

If you don't think there's a group of people online discussing the problem you are trying to solve, then you either haven't looked that hard, don't know the domain, or have a golden opportunity to build the community and have that be a source of leads and content. Depending on your demographic, Reddit, Facebook or forums are good places to look.

Highly recommend the Mom Test which is exactly about this.


+1 for the recommendation

Easily the best book on how to do non-biased interviews

Stop thinking about selling your idea to your customers.

You're talking to them in order to understand the problem that you're trying to solve.

The best book on this that I've read is "The Mom Test", well worth the price

I can definitely second the book recommendation. To elaborate a bit, one of the core ideas of the book is to avoid leading your customers by telling them what you're planning to do (which they invariably respond to with "that's awesome!"), and rather get them to reveal their real problems. This allows you to make sure your product is aimed at the real problems.

Another great skill is to understand the "commerce" of various interactions and commitments. Getting a "that's great, send me a mail when you guys are finished" sounds wonderful, but is actually "leave me alone, I'm busy". How to gauge the potential client's level of interest, and to actually seal various levels of commitment from them was a real eye opener.

> To elaborate a bit, one of the core ideas of the book is to avoid leading your customers by telling them what you're planning to do

Yep. Been there, got the t-shirt.

Read the book "The Mom Test" -> http://momtestbook.com. Even if you just read the first chapter, it'll help you out a lot.

To properly talk to customers to identify if there is a need for your product/idea requires for you to not bias them by telling them what you are working on. You should be able to talk to your mom about your idea without her ever knowing that you have an idea for a product.

Say a little more about what space you are in.

Let me assume that you have a consumer product -- an app, or a piece of hardware. There are things out there that do something vaguely similar, but you think yours is better.

Go to the comments sections of various chat boards that are discussing the current way of doing things. Make note of the complaints.

Ask the people there if they will chat with you for 5-10 minutes about a product idea.

Be polite.

I will recommend the book "Wishcraft." It is not specifically about this, but has a lot of good general advice for just getting things done.

You might also find the UX book "Don't make me think" generally useful. I am mentioning it because it does talk about how to get effective feedback on your website. If you are doing an online thing, you may find it very pertinent.

I sent 100s of LinkedIn emails saying 'Im a software entrepreneur interested in learning about the problems/challenges in your industry. Would you be open to chatting? I have nothing to sell and only want to learn.'

Then I'd call them up and chat.

At first I'd setup calls only with those who responded.

Then I began calling up people even if they did not respond.

Most people are happy to talk about problems.

This is how I did it for my first failed startup which did not go beyond the survey phase

1. Make a list of fb friends who would be interested, add them to a group, a secret one. 2. Try to validate the idea 3. use reddit to validate the idea 4. using HN is tricky because you can't guarantee that the post will get attention.

Take up Uber driving and use it as an opportunity to pitch your idea/service to riders: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14166730

Is it talk with potential customers (market research) or talk with existing customers (customer service and support)? Seems like it should be the latter. If you have no customers, then consider a new product, right?

Try not to look at your customers with as walking dollar signs :)

Think of what you can do to support what your customers need to do rather than think of how you can get your customers to fill your pocket :)

I answer their phone calls and have a conversation. Seriously,. Don't over think this.

I see the zero customers part. I would update my content marketing game until someone called me.

What if your customers are big companies? As in fortune 500? How do you talk to them? There will probably many different people with different opinions.

> some details about the domain I’d like to work for

Improving here might be crucial.

>> I don’t think it will work as I would like it to.

Yes! That is exactly the point of the advice.

Go out in the field and you will learn something - because it will NOT be what you expected!

I am excited for you! Good luck!

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