Example Customer Problem and Conversation

McKenzie Folan shares a tool to help you identify a true customer problem, the first step toward launching a successful business.

McKenzie Folan
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December 16, 2019

Identifying true customer problems on the road to customer discovery

Identifying a true customer problem is the first step toward launching a successful business. It’s essential that the problem you identify is mission critical to the customer and happens frequently in the customer’s operations. Make sure you take the time to listen to what customers are telling you, rather than what you want to hear. Below we use an example where you’ve heard that lawn maintenance companies often have trouble keeping track of where their teams are and the status of their jobs, leading to an inability to accurately schedule teams and maximize revenue. You’re talking to your friend John, who owns a lawn maintenance company, Lawn Pros.

  • You: Hey, John! How’s life at Lawn Pros?
  • John: It’s good! Revenue is really picking up, and we honestly have higher demand for jobs than we have teams to staff them.
  • You: That’s amazing! How do you keep track of all of it?
  • John: Honestly, it can be a big pain. We sometimes lose track of each team’s status, so we can’t schedule more jobs for them in a given week. Sometimes we turn away potential clients.
  • You: Really? Have you found any tools that you could use to keep track of the various teams and jobs?
  • John: Not really. 

Notice that you’ve guided the conversation towards the problem and the idea that you have without telling your friend about it directly, which would bias his responses. At this point in the conversation, you may be tempted to stop, thinking that you have the answers you need. John says he can’t find anything and it’s a big pain - proof that it’s a real problem for him, right? Not necessarily. Just because he says it’s a problem doesn’t mean it really is. See the rest of the conversation below:

  • You: Have you searched around or tried anything?
  • John: Come to think of it, I guess I haven’t looked that hard at it. 
  • You: Why not?
  • John: Well, I guess I’m being a bit dramatic. It doesn’t happen that much, and we’ve only really lost one or two potential clients. Most of our managers are good about checking in with HQ. More of a nuisance you know?
  • You: Yeah, that makes sense!

John hasn’t really looked into potential solutions, which we know means that it isn’t mission critical to him. He also claims that it’s not really a constant problem for him. Turns out that John wouldn’t really be a customer for you, and if you hear these same messages over and over, you may not have a true customer problem worth pursuing. If this had really been a true customer problem, the second half of the conversation may have instead gone like this: 

  • You: Have you searched around or tried anything?
  • John: Yes! I found a few different versions of scheduling and project management software that really weren’t focused on the lawn care industry. We’ve resorted to using a Google Sheet to keep track of where the teams are and what they are working on. 
  • You: Does that work?
  • John: It’s good for sharing the information easily amongst the team and keeps everyone up-to-speed in real time, but I wouldn’t say that it’s a perfect solution. We still face some issues.
  • You: What kind of issues?
  • John: Well sometimes our team members don’t have internet connection, so they can’t always update the sheet. It’s also just a spreadsheet, so there aren’t really any project management capabilities or easy ways to schedule our teams and communicate with them. I’d love a chat function or job messaging board embedded into the solution that we eventually use.
  • You: Yeah, that makes sense. I’ve been thinking a lot about this recently because I’ve heard that other similar companies are facing the same issues. Maybe I can try to build something. Would you mind if I ran some ideas by you once I think about it more?
  • John: Absolutely! I am more than happy to help in any way. I’d even be willing to test the prototype if it really will help us manage our teams more efficiently.

In this scenario, it’s obvious that this problem is big enough to John to look for multiple solutions and eventually come up with his own workarounds. Clearly this is mission critical to him, and he claims to face the problem weekly. Even more importantly, he’s agreed to be a development partner with you as you ideate - a great sign that this is a problem worth pursuing - and has offered to test a prototype. 

Keep in mind this is just one conversation, and you may face some customers who don’t experience the problem and others who do. Try your best to sift through the ones that represents the exception and not the rule. If you can find ~10 customers to be development partners, chances are you are onto something. In summary, there are three main things you need to look for when considering if the problem you are solving is a true customer problem:

  1. The problem surfaces from the customer in conversation unaided by the interviewer and without prompt
  2. The problem occurs with regular frequency (daily, weekly, etc.)
  3. The customer has attempted to solve the problem on his / her own with other solutions or workarounds

This type of questioning and thinking related to uncovering a true customer problem is only the first step in a more detailed customer discovery process. Once you’ve uncovered the true problem, test potential hypotheses, and develop the solution with customers. The steps of customer discovery will help you formulate your business thesis, which follows this format: 

“X (who) is going to buy Y (what) because Z (why).”

Keep in mind that you don’t necessarily have to ask your customers what they want; however, you need to identify their pain points and then test whether your solution is something they might use, want, or need. Remember this quote from Henry Ford: “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”  

The simple graphic below outlines the high-level customer discovery process along with a few tips for each:

For more details on some of the thinking above as well as more strategies for testing your ideas, read The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick.

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