Bad customer conversations aren’t just useless. Worse, they convince you that you’re on the right path. They give you a false positive which causes you to over-invest your cash, your time, and your team.
The Mom Test
The Mom Test is a set of simple rules for crafting good questions that even your mom can’t lie to you about.
The measure of usefulness of an early customer conversation is whether it gives us concrete facts about our customer’s lives and world views. These facts, in turn, allow us to improve our business.
Eventually you do need to mention what you’re building and take people’s money for it. However, the big mistake is almost always to mention your idea too soon rather than too late.
If you just avoid mentioning your idea, you automatically start asking better questions. Doing this is the easiest (and biggest) improvement you can make to your customer conversations.
The Mom Test:
- Talk about their life instead of your idea.
- Ask about specifics in the past instead of generics or opinions about the future.
- Talk less and listen more.
- “Do you think it’s a good idea?” Opinions are worthless.
- “Would you buy a product which did X?” Anything involving the future is an over-optimistic lie.
- “How much would you pay for X?” People will lie to you if they think it’s what you want to hear.
- “Would you pay X for a product which did Y?” If you’re far enough along, is to literally ask for money. If you have the deposit or pre-order in hand, you know they were telling the truth.
- “Why do you bother?” You are shooting blind until you understand their goals.
- “What are the implications of that?” Some problems don’t actually matter.
- “Talk me through the last time that happened?” Watching someone do a task will show you where the problems and inefficiencies really are, not where the customer thinks they are.
- “What else have you tried?” If they haven’t looked for ways of solving it already, they’re not going to look for (or buy) yours.
- “How are you dealing with it now?” While it’s rare for someone to tell you precisely what they’ll pay you, they’ll often show you what it’s worth to them.
- “Where does the money come from?” In a B2B context it’s a must-ask. It leads to a conversation about whose budget the purchase will come from and who else within their company holds the power to torpedo the deal.
- “Who else should I talk to?” If you’re onto something interesting and treating people well, your leads will quickly multiply via intros.
- “Is there anything else I should have asked?” People want to help you, but will rarely do so unless you give them an excuse to do so.
You aren’t allowed to tell them what their problem is, and in return, they aren’t allowed to tell you what to build. They own the problem, you own the solution.
Avoiding bad data
With the exceptions of industry experts who have built very similar businesses, opinions are worthless. You want facts and commitments, not compliments.
The best way to escape the misinformation of compliments is to avoid them completely by not mentioning your idea. If they happen anyway, you need to deflect the compliment and get on with the business of gathering facts and commitments.
You don’t need to end up with what you wanted to hear in order to have a good conversation. You just need to get to the truth.
Compliments are the fool’s gold of customer learning: shiny, distracting, and entirely worthless.
When someone starts talking about what they “always” or “usually” or “never” or “would” do, they are giving you generic and hypothetical fluff. Follow The Mom Test and bring them back to specifics in the past. Ask when it last happened, for them to talk you through it, how they solved it, and what else they tried.
While using generics, people describe themselves as who they want to be, not who they actually are. You need to get specific to bring out the edge cases.
There are tons of useful responses you can get. Even listening that the person is non-consumer is useful. To get toward truth, you just need to reject their generic claims, incidental complaints, and fluffy promises. Instead, anchor them toward the life they already lead and the actions they’re already taking.
When you hear a request, it’s your job to understand the motivations which led to it. You do that by digging around the question to find the root cause. Why do they bother doing it this way? Why do they want the feature? How are they currently coping without the feature? Dig.
Ideas and feature requests should be understood, but not obeyed.
Anyone will say your idea is great if you’re annoying enough about it.
Asking important questions
Every time you talk to someone, you should be asking a question which has the potential to completely destroy your currently imagined business.
One of the reasons we avoid important questions is because asking them is scary. It can bring us the upsetting realization that our favorite idea is fundamentally flawed. Or that the major client is never going to buy. Although it seems unfortunate, this we need to learn to love bad news. It’s solid learning and is getting us closer to the truth.
The premature zoom is a real problem because it leads to data which seems like validation, but is actually worthless. In other words, it’s a big source of false positives.
Start broad and don’t zoom in until you’ve found a strong signal, both with your whole business and with every conversation.
If you’ve got heavy product risk (as opposed to pure market risk), then you’re not going to be able to prove as much of your business through conversations alone. The conversations give you a starting point, but you’ll have to start building product earlier and with less certainty than if you had pure market risk.
Always pre-plan the 3 most important things you want to learn from any given type of person. Pre-planning your big questions makes it a lot easier to ask questions which pass The Mom Test and aren’t biasing.
Keeping it casual
When you strip all the formality from the process, you end up with no meeting, no interview questions, and a much easier time. The conversations become so fast and lightweight that you can go to a industry meet-up and leave with a dozen customer conversations under your belt, each of which provided as much value as a formal meeting.
Learning from customers doesn’t mean you have to wearing a suit and drinking boardroom coffee. Asking the right questions is fast and touches on topics people find quite interesting. You can talk anywhere and save yourself the formal meetings until you have something concrete to show.
If it feels like they’re doing you a favour by talking to you, it’s probably too formal.
Give as little information as possible about your idea while still nudging the discussion in a useful direction.
Commitment and advancement
In sales, moving a sales relationship to the next stage is called “advancement”. It’s like pushing a customer into the next step of your real-world acquisition funnel. They’ll either move forward or make it clear that they’re not a customer. Both are good results for your learning.
“Customers” who keep being friendly but aren’t ever going to buy are a particularly dangerous source of mixed signals.
If you don’t know what happens next after a product or sales meeting, the meeting was pointless.
The more they’re giving up, the more seriously you can take their kind words.
It’s not a real lead until you’ve given them a concrete chance to reject you.
When someone isn’t that emotional about what you’re doing, it’s pretty unlikely that they’re going to end up being one of the people who is crazy enough to be your first customer. Keep them on the list, but don’t count on them to write the first check.
Whenever you see the deep emotion, do your utmost to keep that person close. They are the rare, precious fan who will get you through the hard times and turn into your first sale.
In early-stage sales, the real goal is learning. Revenue is just a side-effect.
The goal of cold conversation is to stop having them. You hustle together the first one or two from wherever you can, and then, if you treat people’s time respectfully and are genuinely trying to solve their problem, those cold conversations start turning into warm intros. The snowball is rolling.
Going to them:
- Cold calls.
- Seizing serendipity
- Find a good excuse.
- Immerse yourself in where they are.
- Landing pages.
If it’s a topic you both care about, find an excuse to talk about it. Your idea never needs to enter the equation and you’ll both enjoy the chat.
Beyond saving you vast sums of time and frustration, bringing people to you also makes them take you more seriously and want to help you more.
Bringing them to you:
- Organize meetups.
- Speaking & teaching.
- Industry blogging.
- Get clever.
Warm intros are the goal. Conversations are infinitely easier when you get an intro through a mutual friend that establishes your credibility and reason for being there.
Framing the meeting format:
- Vision. You’re an entrepreneur trying to solve horrible problem X, usher in wonderful vision Y, or fix stagnant industry Z. Don’t mention your idea.
- Framing. Frame expectations by mentioning what stage you’re at and, if it’s true, that you don’t have anything to sell.
- Weakness. Show weakness and give them a chance to help by mentioning your specific problem that you’re looking for answers on. This will also clarify that you’re not a time waster.
- Pedestal. Put them on a pedestal by showing how much they, in particular, can help.
- Ask. Ask for help.
In terms of mindset, don’t go into these discussions looking for customers. It creates a needy vibe and forfeits the position of power. Instead, go in search of industry and customer advisors. You are just trying to find helpful, knowledgable people who are excited about your idea.
Keep having conversations until you stop hearing new stuff.
Choosing your customers
When you have a fuzzy sense of who you’re serving, you end up talking to a lot of different types of people, which leads to confusing signals and three problems:
- You get overwhelmed by options and don’t know where to start
- You aren’t moving forward but can’t prove yourself wrong
- You receive incredibly mixed feedback and can’t make sense of it
If you aren’t finding consistent problems and goals, you don’t yet have a specific enough customer segment.
The drilling down into ever more specific groups is called Customer Slicing. You take a segment and then keep slicing off better and better sub-sets of until you’ve got a tangible sense of who you can go talk to and where you can find them.
Running the process
The customer and learning has to be shared with the entire founding team, promptly and faithfully. That relies on good notes plus a bit of pre- and post-meeting work.
Avoiding bottlenecks has three parts: prepping, reviewing, and taking good notes.
Your most important preparation work is to ensure you know your current list of 3 big questions. Figure them out with your team and make a point to face the scary questions.
If you’ve already learned the facts of your customer and industry, then you should also know what commitment and next steps you are going to push for at the end of the meeting.
If you don’t know what you’re trying to learn, you shouldn’t bother having the conversation.
After a conversation, just review your notes with your team and update your beliefs and 3 big questions as appropriate.
Notes are useless if you don’t look at them.