How do you get in the door with a customer if you don’t have a product demo?
RA: It’s a misconception that you can’t get in the door and be successful if you don’t have a product built out. Quite frankly, it’s better not to have a product because you need to get customer feedback first.
The better approach is to be able to go in with something conceptual. If you come in the door with a concept on paper—you’ve maybe even created mock-ups—to help an individual customer visualize the features of a product, that’s enough for them to give you feedback about whether or not the product is completely addressing their issue or not addressing the issue at all.
Having some visual is great, but you don’t necessarily have to have a physical product. You take the feedback that customers give you, negative or positive, and make adjustments when you create the actual product.
How do you have a conversation about feature sets if your product is not built?
RA: First, approach the conversation properly. Most of the time, we’re so passionate about our product, that when we get in front of a customer, we’re trying to sell it. Even though we are excited, this is not an opportunity to sell. This is an opportunity to learn.
When you get in front of your customer, prepare yourself to listen, not to tell. Once you’ve arrived at that mindset, you will give your customer an opportunity to give you information that you never even thought about.
Just as an example, one of the VPs I sat down with just to have a conversation—I didn’t have anything, we barely had a PowerPoint™—told me that human resource issues are not the same at every company, that the issue at one company is not the same as at another company. I would not have been able to gain the insight that executive shared with me without taking the position of “I want to listen to you.” Behave almost like a customer’s counselor. Aske them to tell you their problems.
How many companies did you approach before you had enough pilot customers?
RA: It depends. If you make sure that you’re listening, and if early customers keep telling you the same problem, and you are hearing the same thing over and over, then you know that you are on to something.
Once you’ve taken that information in, develop and change your product to make it better and more fitting for the customer who told you what to change. Put that new version in front of the next customer until several of them say, “This is wonderful.”
If you present an LOI (a letter of intent) and a customer says, “Sure. I’ll sign this because I want you to build this out. This is a solution that I need,” then you know you know that you validated your solution. Now it’s safer to go into the development of an actual product.
You will not be investing time and money into a guess. Instead, you are building what customers have told you what they want.
How do you communicate with your pilot customers during development?
RA: When you’re communicating with your pilot customers during development you want to make giving feedback as easy and simple as possible. Customers do not have a lot of time. They are doing you a favor by evaluating your pilot, not the other way around.
Communicate in small pieces. Keep your customers engaged with your product. Ask simple questions, no more than five very straightforward questions. Break the responses down into yes or no answers. Train yourself not to take in too much information.
Once you develop a relationship, customers will try to make your product customer-specific. You can’t let that happen. Your solution must be something that will scale across a market and an industry. Striking this balance is an art you learn over time.
Say, “Hey, this is great feature set. I don’t think that that’s the core right now, but we will give it consideration.” Never promise you will change the features or add the functionality they request, but also don’t ever say you won’t do it at all.
What is your strategy for filling your sales funnel before your product is built?
RA: Focus and managing limited resources is the best way to go about it. When you have limited resources, you can’t address everything and everyone. Once you’ve created a prioritization process, then follow with the markets most likely to succeed most quickly.
You can make adjustments as you move into other markets or you move into other industries without spreading your focus and resources so thin. If someone comes up to me and says, “Everyone is my customer.” I don’t take them seriously. Everyone is not your customer. Everyone in this world will not like you, whether you’re a person or a company. So, focusing is the best way to approach it.
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