Common Pitfalls in Founder-Led Customer Research and How to Avoid Them

Founders need to be leading the customer research process at their startup. But so often, they make avoidable mistakes when speaking with customers. Here are the most common ones and how to avoid them.

Common Pitfalls in Founder-Led Customer Research and How to Avoid Them

As a founder, navigating the choppy waters of customer research can often feel like an unsolvable riddle. You may think you've figured it out, but the bitter truth is that most founders, maybe even including you, don't quite get it right.

The ability to conduct good customer interviews is an art, one that goes beyond just asking questions and nodding at responses. Your customers are a goldmine of insights that could shape your product, your business, and its future. But unless you know how to properly unearth those insights, you might be striking out on fool's gold.

If you're not sure if you're doing it right, odds are you're not. So where do you go from here? This article will unravel the common pitfalls in founder-led customer research and offer practical strategies to help you avoid them.

What Does Customer Research Entail and What Are the Benefits?

User research is an illuminating journey—a deep dive into your customers' world to understand their needs, pains, and problems. It's not merely about getting feedback on your product. No, it's about that intimate connection, about striking a conversation that reveals what truly matters to them.

Think of every customer interview as a treasure hunt with a clear goal: to unearth something tangible about your customer. Here are a few reasons why you should be talking to your customers:

A Path to Product-Market Fit

Product-market fit is that golden moment when your product resonates so well with your target audience that it practically sells itself. Once you embark on customer discovery, you'll start to understand whether the product you've built is the one they need, want, or love.

Moreover, the process of customer research helps you gauge their willingness to engage with your product. It's one thing for a customer to express interest and another to genuinely interact with your product.

You might discover there is interest, but usage is low, which could signal a discrepancy between your product's design and the customer's needs. In such cases, these valuable interactions will help you refine your product until it aligns perfectly with what your market desires.

Of all the ways that design can help 

Uncover New Insights

Customers, being the daily users and the ones experiencing the problem firsthand, are likely to provide valuable perspectives that you, as the founder, may not have thought of. They can reveal nuances about the problem that your product or service is trying to solve, offering a more comprehensive view of the issue at hand.

Customer research can also serve as a reality check, dispelling any assumptions you may have about your product or the problem it aims to solve. Customers can highlight overlooked challenges or offer new ways of looking at things, ultimately driving innovation in your product development.

Customers Are Your Compass

As a founder, your primary responsibility is to serve your customers, and to do that, you need to understand them. Your users are your guiding star, the compass that should direct every decision, every strategy, and every move your company makes.

Investing time and energy into customer research reinforces your bond with your customers. It underscores the fact that they are not merely numbers on a spreadsheet but real people with real needs. By making customers your compass, you ensure that their needs and problems remain at the heart of everything your company does, creating a product or service that truly serves them.

Common Interview-Level Pitfalls

Before we talk about how to craft good specific interview questions, let’s discuss pitfalls that happen at the level of the entire interview:

Over-Reliance on Formal Meetings

One of the major pitfalls in customer research is restricting customer conversations to formal meetings only. The time you spend on design research into customer needs shouldn't be sporadic or even regimented; rather, it should be part of your daily routine. Regular interactions with your customers often yield unexpected insights.

For instance, using tools like Slack Connect can create an open line of communication with your customers, making conversations more casual and fruitful. Similarly, getting involved with customer support helps you understand where your product falls short and identifies improvement opportunities.

Dominating the Conversation

Remember, a customer interview is not a sales pitch or a product demo. The primary objective of an interview is to learn from the person you're interviewing.

Let your customers do most of the talking. Be an active listener and allow their thoughts, feedback, and experiences to steer the conversation.

This is not a time for you to share your thoughts, it’s a time for you to learn about your customer’s worldview, their motivations, their needs, and their problems.

Seeking Validation, Not Understanding

Customer interviews are not meant to solicit approval for your ideas. Instead, the focus should be on understanding the customer's life, their problems, and their needs.

Asking for feedback on your idea might lead to biased and misleading responses. Aim to gather evidence to inform your understanding of the world from the customer's perspective.

Vague Questions Leading to Abstract Answers

Asking about abstractions, tendencies, or generalities can lead to vague and non-actionable insights. Questions like "How do you usually do X?" often lead to broad responses that are not particularly useful.

If your customer uses terms like "usually," "generally," or "not often," it's an indication that you need to dig deeper. You should ask them to quantify their response or request details about a specific instance.

Missing Out on Follow-Up Questions

The best way to dig deeper is with a good follow-up question. Follow-up questions allow you to delve deeper into the customer's responses, unearthing richer insights. Consider queries like "Why is that important to you? What happens if that goes wrong?" or "Is that unusual compared to other times you’ve tried to X?" 

These can help you understand the customer's experiences and challenges in a more nuanced way. Follow-up questions don’t just uncover new details you might have missed in the response to your first question. They can also reveal the underlying “why” behind a given answer. 

They can show you why this problem is important to your customer. Follow-up questions can also reveal to you why your customer does things that may seem illogical or against their interests.

Learning the art of follow-up questions is an essential skill for good customer research. If you don’t ask follow-up questions well, you’ll miss essential learnings that could shape your product development.

Common Question-Level Pitfalls

Here are the common question-level pitfalls that can hinder your understanding of your customers and their needs:

Asking General Questions

Questions like "How do you normally file your taxes?" can invite ambiguous answers that provide little value. A better approach is to seek specifics, such as "How did you file your taxes in the last three years?" This prompts your customers to recall specific instances, giving you a more accurate picture.

Specific questions also allow for insightful follow-ups, including:

  • What other methods did you consider?
  • Why did you decide that was the best way to file your taxes compared to the alternatives?
  • If there were changes in how you filed, why did you make those changes?

These follow-up questions can further enrich your understanding of their decision-making process, guiding your product design better.

Proposing Counterfactuals

Avoid posing counterfactual or hypothetical questions like "Would you pay $1000 to have a professional file your taxes?" These can lead to speculation, not reality.

Instead, aim for real-life examples such as "How much did you pay in the last three years to file your taxes?" This gives you factual information about the customer's past behavior. Then, follow up with questions like:

  • Did it feel like it was a good deal?
  • Among the other options you considered, how much did each one cost?
  • Is that the least/most you’ve ever paid for filing your taxes?

This way, you’ll get more light on the customer's value assessment, helping you determine how to price your products or services.

Leading with Leading Questions

Leading questions are those that prompt or encourage the desired answer. Questions like "Isn’t it such a pain to file taxes?" already suggest a negative experience. It can influence the respondent's answer, thereby biasing the insights you gain.

Instead, phrase your questions more neutrally like "How much time did you spend filing your taxes last year?" This question allows customers to share their own experiences without your bias.

Subsequent questions could include:

  • What part of filing your taxes took the most time?
  • How many different sources of receipts did you have to gather to prepare your filing?
  • What was the hardest part of that filing process?

These follow-up questions will help you understand the users’ challenges in greater depth, allowing you to design a solution that addresses their pain points.

Veering into Pitching

It's tempting to jump into solutions and start pitching your product, but this is a surefire way to skew the conversation and the feedback you receive. A pitching approach can make respondents uncomfortable or prompt them to give flattering but misleading compliments.

They could pay you a compliment like "That would be amazing!" or give non-committal answers like "That could work." If you find yourself pitching, it's essential to step back, apologize if necessary, and steer the conversation back to understanding the specifics of their experience.

Guiding Principles from the Mom Test

The book "The Mom Test," specifically written with startup founders in mind, provides practical insights into avoiding common pitfalls in customer research. It suggests three guiding principles to help founders conduct effective, unbiased customer interviews.

Talk about Their Life Instead of Your Idea

The focus should be on understanding your customers' experiences, problems, and needs. Delving into stories from their lives will provide more authentic and insightful data than discussing your product.

Ask about Specifics in the Past Instead of Generics or Opinions about the Future

Asking customers about specifics from their past can yield more reliable information than asking for generic responses or future predictions. People's memories of their past actions are typically more accurate than their speculative answers about future behavior.

Talk Less and Listen More

Allow your customers to share their thoughts and experiences openly. During these moments of sharing, you will uncover the most valuable insights that can help you improve your product and service.

Start Navigating Customer Research Like a Pro

Navigating founder-led customer research is a game of specifics, not generalities. Customer research is about hearing the symphony of a customer’s life, needs and problems. In that symphony, the customer's voice plays the leading tune, and your product is merely a note in composition. So, lean in, lend an ear, and let their songs guide your ship to the golden shores of product-market fit.

Why not enhance your voyage by pairing up with a skilled designer? At NUMI, we'll connect you with a designer who knows the ins and outs of customers research, and how it feeds into the broader product development process. Hire a pro today.

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