Do you have a problem worth solving for your startup? 28 questions to ask your potential customers

I am getting ready to start a round of customer problems interviews for a project of mine.  I believe it is critical to talk to potential customers even before starting to write one line of code. To tell the truth, I don’t even have any clearly identified problems yet, but I hope these interviews will give me some insights. I am listing here questions you want to ask to your potential customers.

Focus on the problem first, not your solution

The main cause of startup death is building a solution to a problem that simply isn’t that important to the targeted users. Even if you use the best and latest web development framework to build it, you won’t have enough customers to make it worth your time. To avoid that, you want to make sure before you start coding, that you have found a crowd that has a problem big enough they might even pay to have it fixed. Your goal here is to understand the problem, not make a feature list.

What are the goals of the “customer problems interview”?

  • Identify your target customer’s top problems.
  • Get a deeper understanding of those problems: what are your clients trying to achieve, what are their expectations, etc.
  • Identify their desired outcomes: what exactly are people trying to achieve?
  • Identify the constraints: what do they want to avoid doing but still get the desired outcome?
  • Validate that the problem is a real pain point. What is their pain level?
  • Investigate how they are solving this problem today. This will probably define your main competitor. What are their current alternatives?
  • Start to segment your market.
  • Find paths to your customers.
  • Find early adopters. Who has the highest urgency to solve this problem? Who is the most ready to try new solutions?
  • Understand which metrics they will use to evaluate your product. How will they know your solution offers a concrete improvement?

The SPIN framework

If there is only one book about sales and selling that you read during your life, please make it SPIN Selling by Neil Rackham. He and his team spent more than 12 years studying, very scientifically, how great salesmen work. You might be surprised, but great salesmanship is not about putting high pressure on customers or using strong closing tactics. It is quite the opposite.

SPIN stands for Situation, Problem, Implication, and Need-Payoff. It is a great framework to use when you want to understand somebody else’s problem before offering any solution. I suggest using the same outline to conduct your interviews.

Situation questions

When you ask these questions to your customers, it will help you learn more about your them, their lives, their businesses and their industries, depending on what kind of product you want to build. This is not a shotgun approach; ask only what you really need to learn. You can collect demographic information at this step.

  • What is the size of your business?
  • What kind of business do you run?
  • What equipment/software are you using?
  • How many people are in your company?
  • How do you learn about new products in your industry/community?
  • What websites, blogs, or magazines are you reading regularly?
  • What trade shows are you attending?
  • Who are the key influencers or famous people in your industry/community/culture?

Problem questions

You want to explore the customer’s problems, challenges, needs, frustrations, and concerns. If you can guess what those problems might be, ask and validate your assumptions at this step.

  • What is your biggest challenge regarding __________?
  • What is most frustrating about doing __________?
  • Would you say that __________ is a problem for you?
  • How big of a problem would you say this is?
  • Do you think all the people in your industry share this exact same problem?
  • How would you rank these problems?
  • Are you satisfied with __________?
  • Have you tried to solve this problem before? Why didn’t it work for you?

Implication questions

These questions are the most critical. Their goal is to link the customer problems to concrete consequences and pain. You want to explore how serious the problem is for them: a problem is only as bad as the consequences it creates. It is probably here that you will find your real competition and it might just be “doing nothing.”

  • If this problem is not solved, what are the undesirable consequences?
  • What are the problems that not being able to do __________ is causing?
  • How are you trying to solve this problem today?
  • What effect does this problem have on your business?
  • Have you tried things that haven’t worked? Why didn’t they work for you?

Need-Payoff questions

These questions help express the benefits a solution might have for these people. Ask them to imagine the “future state” they would like to achieve. If the gap between the consequences of the problem and the best outcome is too narrow, there may not be a problem worth solving for this crowd. If it is the case, look for another group of people.

  • What would be the ideal outcome?
  • How would being able to do __________ would help you?
  • If you could wave a magic wand to solve this problem, what would be the result?
  • How important is it for you to solve this problem?
  • What would be the benefits of having this problem immediately solved?
  • How much would you pay to solve the problem immediately?

How to implement it

This is not a rigid formula and you must adapt it to your own situation. Try to do all the interviews face-to-face or by phone, as it will allow you to dig deeper. I will write an update on my lessons learned during my next round of interviews later.

Customer Development is NOT about gathering a list of what features customers want by talking to them, surveying them, or running “focus groups.”
— Steve Blank

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Still confused on how to move forward? Drop me a line at sgignoux@gmail.com

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