“I’m sorry, but I have to go now,” the girl on the phone said apologetically.

“Oh, of cause, no problem,” I muttered sheepishly, “I don’t want to waste any more of your time. Thanks.” Click.

The “interview” was over, and I felt defeated. Why are these people not opening up? It was a waste of everyone’s time after all.

By now, I was completely hooked on “execution beats idea” approach for finding my niche. I’ve read though Lean Startup’s principles on “validating first” and “pivot until you pre-sell.” It was time to dial that first number on a carefully curated and color-grouped list. As coined by Steve Blank, the “Get out of the building and talk to you customers” is not a complex idea to understand. However, I was struggling with getting useful results. I’ll skip the emotional turmoil of talking to the first stranger and asking them for an “interview”. It’s a story for another day. Instead I will share my experience of “What not to ask them” once you have their attention.

I found many great resources on customer development and several good summaries of interviewing practice, plus a quick validation list from Noah Kagan. The main idea behind customer development interviews is to understand people’s behaviors and actions around a problem or need, and how it affects their everyday life. I mentioned more or less the same on Quora. Everything else is secondary and won’t help get to root issue.

After experimenting via online surveys, I’ve put together what I thought was a great list of questions. It took me some time before I’ve noticed several “anti-patterns” that were causing confusion and discomfort during conversations. Now, I use this check-list as a quick reference to warn me if  I’m veering away from customer’s core problem. Here’s what I learned NOT TO DO:

  • You don’t pre qualify your interviewees with a Yes/No questions
  • Your main questions can be answered with Yes/No after pre qualification *
  • You keep asking about your solution, not about their behaviors
  • You do not summarize back what they’ve just said
  • You use industry jargon instead of their language
  • Your questions make them feel stupid or inferior
  • You never ask about their emotions
  • BONUS: You don’t ask for soft payment (referral to others with similar problem)

I admit, I still catch myself making these mistakes in real time, even with the list at hand. When I do, thought, I follow up with a rephrased version. Most importantly, this list is helping me find people’s frustrations much faster.

* Do ask quantifying questions like how often the problem happens and how much it costs them.