How to maximize learning from pre-launch customer surveys and interviews

November 08, 2015

Your job as a wild-eyed entrepreneur with the next big idea is to start validating your idea early and often, long before any code is written or designs are sketched up.

Hopefully by this point you have landed a co-founder, dove into a significant amount of market research together, and written up a detailed profile of your ideal early customer. If not, take time to do so; if you enter into the process of surveys and interviews without doing this pre-work first, it will be a profound waste of time for you and your initial customers.

Surveys

First of all, don't just indiscriminately post a question or two on your social media channels. In fact, stay away from social media all together at this point; not because someone will steal your idea (a common irrational fear of new founders), but because it's a terrible way to learn.

Instead, consider what the purpose of pre-launch surveys are and craft your questions (and audience) accordingly.

At the end of the day, I've found that it's best to send your surveys directly to small handful of friends that meet your customer profile in order to validate if your customer profiles are even remotely accurate and determine if it's worth building your product.

In other words, take the customer profile that you wrote up and craft a set of questions to validate that you empathize with this person (i.e. their pain points, current solutions they use, etc…).

In some cases, depending on your market, you can also run a Google Consumer Survey or Survata survey.

Keep your survey as short possible and follow up with an interview to gather more nuanced data.

Here's an example of a simple 5-question survey to ask potential customers of a new Customer Relationship Management (CRM) solution:

  1. What is the name of your company and current job title?
  2. Briefly describe your main job responsibilities & expected outcomes.
  3. How does your team keep track of data about your current customers and sales pipeline?
  4. On a scale of 0–10, how satisfied are you with your current solution? (0 = Not at all satisfied, 10 = extremely satisfied) Why did you answer this way?
  5. What would you add, remove, and/or change about your current solution to make it a 10?

Here are some key things to note about this example survey.

  1. While of course you can look up their company and job title, this helps you easily identify who it was that took the survey and starts it off with an easy question to answer.
  2. It's helpful to both validate your understanding of your customer profile and/or learn new information in terms of what outcomes they are responsible for so you can better empathize with them.
  3. You'll hear many different answers here and this will likely flush out competitors and/or custom solutions you didn't know about before.
  4. A 0–10 scale is better than a yes/no, or even a 5-point scale, and should give you a real sense if there's a market opportunity here. If your competition is charging too much, is too bloated, or doesn't have enough features, this is where you'll hear about it.
  5. Before you begin the process of designing the nuanced details of your product, you want to hear from the customer what features you should or should not add.

Note: for customer-facing or marketplace apps, you should also consider asking a question about where this person hangs out online to help you with your validation experiments and marketing efforts down the road.

Facing the brutal facts

At this point you may be facing a “no go” reality. Perhaps you've learned there are solutions out there that you weren't aware of, or perhaps most of your potential customers are already sufficiently happy with their current solution. In these cases, often new ideas/solutions present themselves and you have your first “pivot” (better now than after wasting tons of time/money, hence one of the advantages of a lean methodology).

However, assuming you have a green light and more data around your customer profiles, now it's time for followup interviews.

Interviews

Now is the time to discover if actual customers will buy and/or significantly engage with your product. Don't go for “the sell” in the survey questions (it's not personal enough). Instead, interviews are the time to learn what you need to know to craft a solid initial product and land your first customers.

Using the survey questions as the foundation, decide on the followup questions with your team and schedule up interviews not only with your survey participants, but also with likely customers one connection away from your friends. In-person interviews are of course better than phone calls.

The ultimate goal of the interviews is to discover what feature set and price point you need to launch. Hopefully your “gut” and market research around these two points are reasonably accurate, but if not, you'll quickly find out.

Tactically, you can bring a notepad and write some things down, but don't go overboard there. It's best to write up your notes afterward. Some people say you should bring an audio recorder of some sort, but I'd recommend against that. It changes the dynamic of a conversation, which is more of a “sales” pitch than your interviewee probably realizes.

Finally, contrary to the surveys, interviews are time to go ahead and get specific about your idea. Again, this is the time to sell. An ideal follow up is, for many business models, having your interviewee sign a Letter of Intent (LOI). Once you get a critical mass of LOIs, you now have the validation you need to continue the process. How you defined “critical mass” is up to you (in general, the lower your price point, the more LOIs you should get). If you're having trouble landing early customers, you should seriously consider not moving forward.

Author's note: this post is part of a series of articles outlining an operational framework for building and launching web products. Feel free to subscribe to my newsletter and I'll let you know when I publish new content. Thanks!

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