By Aaron Eden on August 26, 2014
In large or long-standing enterprise organizations, innovation teams often struggle in customer development and getting in front of customers quickly. Yes, that perception exists in startups, too, but established organizations have a corporate structure (read: silos) that created distance and obstacles between employees and their customers.
In fact, people attending our workshops visibly wince when teams are instructed to generate hour-long experiments that involve engaging with real customers. This is especially acute when operating in business-to-business environments, where the assumption is that it’s impossible to contact lawyers or employees in a large enterprise in short order.
#1. The Lemonade Hack
Customer Development Hack #1 Lemonade http://188.8.131.52/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Lemonade-Stand.jpg
One of the first concerns teams worry about when it comes to customer development is putting half-baked product ideas in front of existing customers, potentially souring their relationship. A trick that specifically tackles this issue is to simply focus on the customers that you have already lost. What’s the worst that can happen? You can’t lose them again. What’s the best that can happen? Customers actually appreciate being talked to about how to solve their problems. If you develop some empathy for these lost customers, you just might win them back, turning lemons into lemonade!
#2. Imposter Judo
Customer Development Hack #2 http://184.108.40.206/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/kid-with-sign-cutout.png
How about putting the product idea in front of your competitors’ customers? Not only will you learn your shortcomings, you’ll also likely learn your competitors’. One way to do this is by targeting the Facebook fans of the competing product. While this strategy minimizes the risk of souring existing customer relationships, it should be used carefully. You’re not trying to ‘steal’ customers at this point; you’re trying to learn from them.
#3. Co-opt Sales
Customer Development hack #3 Co-opt Sales http://220.127.116.11/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/confident-woman-shaking-hands-horiz.jpg
One common issue teams grapple with is internal politics or the fear of internal politics. The fear is that the enterprise sales team, for instance, will be upset with the innovation team contacting “their” customers. Have you actually talked to the sales team? Did you invite them to participate? To get around this barrier, ensure that you have a cross-functional team that is comprised of at least one sales person who stands ready to leverage existing relationships.
Pretend you’re a lean startup and the sales team is your customer: talk to them. Who is the entrepreneurial sales person? What guidelines do you need to follow to make the sales team feel comfortable? What would it take for the sales team to say, “Yes, I’d like to participate!”
Additionally, look outside your existing customer base. In other words, become a startup sales person yourself and start at ground zero. Leverage your network to find one contact who you think has the problem you’re trying to solve and ask for 15 minutes of time. Make a cold-call.
You can’t find one? Really?
#4. Don’t pitch me, bro’!
Customer Development Hack #4 Don't Pitch me, Bro' http://18.104.22.168/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/conversation.jpg
For many (most?) of your customers, the fear of upsetting the base is misguided. Customers are usually very excited and happy that you are trying to learn from them and taking steps to make your products better, but just make sure you are in listening mode. Nobody likes to be ‘pitched.’
While some experiments might involve selling a product, customers should be confident that their actual problems are being addressed. Real selling shouldn’t be happening until the team is confident that they are actually solving a real need.
Instead of pitching a solution, flip the conversation:
“Hi, I’m Brant and I help enterprises jumpstart their innovation practices. When I talk to innovation leaders like you, I often hear they struggle with how to overcome internal inertia, quickly find customers to engage with, or get support from senior leaders. Do these sound familiar to you?”
#5. Curate an Early Adopter List
Customer Development Hack #5 Curate an Early Adopters List http://22.214.171.124/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Corbis-42-18675631.jpg
All this works best when you’re already focused on the customers who would be the most enthusiastic about giving feedback about new product ideas. For long-standing enterprises, it’s a no-brainer that you have a bunch of customers who have a strong relationship with your business. Is this documented anywhere?
For startups that don’t have such relationships, we tell them to find a customer advisory board comprised of people who have the problem the startup is trying to address. Existing companies should maintain a curated list of customers who are eager to learn about your new ideas. This is not so you can present typical roadmap decks. It’s getting them to ‘sign-up’ for being early adopters, sneak-peeks at new innovation, and yes, even being open to having periodic, quick, last-minute conversations about new ideas.
Even with online, digital experiments, this does not mean trampling your entire customer base. it means getting in front of the right number of customers based on how mature the product is. If the product is completely new, it probably only needs to be introduced to two to three early-adopter customers. If they send positive signals, it can then be expanded to a handful more.
Because people may be uncertain about applying Lean Startup principles to business-to-business products and customer development, the situation should be framed as human-to-human. Instead of viewing a business as a big monster that needs to be tamed over time, think as if you were selling business-to-consumer products, and consider the daily issues they face.
Be respectful of their time. Take “no” gracefully. At the same time, when scheduling customers to take part in an “experiment,” don’t inform them of all the details in advance. By leaving the description vague, customers will give a more genuine reaction. A human-to-human approach and some creativity will ensure that relationships will not be soured by the experiment.
Let us know your enterprise customer development hacks either through commenting below or sharing this post with your added hack!