What do you do when you can’t get in touch with your customers?

The COVID-19 crisis has been a bust for customer discovery. Gone are the days of visiting crowded cafés, bars, and co-working spaces to conduct interviews with potential users.
dreaming of live customer interviews
To make things worse, the customer interviews you did before the pandemic are suddenly out of date. Significant shifts in the availability of goods and services, coupled with radical shifts in customer behavior — like the 146% jump in online orders in the first three months of the pandemic, or the 80% jump in purchases of sweatpants in April — bring every aspect of your business model into doubt.

This makes the “customer validation” phase of customer development more critical than ever. It’s time to rethink all those assumptions about your business model built on pre-pandemic conditions. Share on X Customer research is likely the most important thing you can do right now to save your business, even if your customers are literally out of reach. Share on X

Every Obstacle Is an Opportunity

More than a decade ago, Steve Blank wrote about the importance of flexibility in the customer discovery process:

“While startups are inherently chaotic (and will never be run from a spreadsheet or checklist inside your building), the Four Steps of Customer Development are designed to help entrepreneurs leverage the chaos and turn it into actionable data.”

The most important part of innovation work is understanding the customer, and the most common method of doing so is customer discovery interviews. But we can no longer “get out of the building.”
peeking out from window blinds
Over my years as an innovation coach, I’ve spent time remotely mentoring entrepreneurs in Palestine (who have dealt with lockdowns for far longer than the rest of us), and I’ve worked directly in San Quentin prison as part of the Last Mile program, where aspiring entrepreneurs quite literally can’t get out of the building. So we’ve seen our fair share of these issues at Kromatic. A typical workday has us consulting with companies thousands of miles away that we never even meet face-to-face.

But remote interviews are not ideal for customer development. It’s important to see your users up close and in context — from their facial expressions and body language to how they physically use your product at their desk or in the corner of a coffee shop over a steaming latte. Unless they are astronauts, customers do not use products in a vacuum.

So what are some effective ways to conduct customer research under lockdown?

It’s a tough question, with a simple answer: Whatever it takes.

Adopting a Hacker Mindset for Customer Validation

“Whatever it takes” is how a hacker thinks. It’s a “Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness” mentality. Hackers are great at figuring out creative (and often lazy) solutions. Hackers get stuff done.

A hacker mindset is a growth mindset. It is more than just not letting obstacles get in the way of you growing your business; it is turning those obstacles into opportunities.

During the pandemic, I’ve continued holding weekly office hours to offer free advice to startups. One entrepreneur, Jahbarie, recently asked for support on his political startup designed to help voters connect more with the issues that they care about. He essentially wanted to build a social media platform focused around political issues that generates revenue from advertising.

But the pandemic has thrown his customer discovery cycle out of whack, and his customer validation completely out the window. He needed to confirm what type of person would be interested in his platform, and why, but social-distancing restrictions meant his usual beat of coffee shops and universities was out of the question.
san entrepreneur in empty coffee shop
And although he considered Facebook as an option, he knew that friends and relatives would not be reliable sources because they were already familiar with his startup idea and political orientation, which would cloud their responses.

So he took a different approach.

He went on Tinder. Yep, Tinder.

Dating Discoveries

By using a social app where he didn’t know anybody, Jahbarie was able to make connections with strangers to help him validate his business model.
social media app
Concerned with appearing too sly, he was honest with matches about his intentions, telling them he was not interested in dating. From 60 matches, he reached out to 20 people, landing half of them for Snapchat interviews, which he would screenshot and review later for behavioral cues. Two of those ten agreed to meet up for physically distant, in-person discussions.

Between his in-person interviews before the pandemic and his Tinder interviews, Jahbarie realized that his original target market was way off. He originally thought his target market would be 50+-year-old white men. But now he sees an opportunity to engage with a younger demographic who feel disconnected with politics and want to find a way to make an impact on issues they care about.

By enlisting strangers for comprehension testing, he got some terrific insights into how people feel about politics, who they trust, and how money plays into their political beliefs. It’s not perfect — his sample group represents a pretty narrow and specific population. But when it comes to customer research, something is always better than nothing.

From Jahbarie’s original value proposition — “A platform where citizens can vote on policy changes and donate to lobbying campaigns to support them” — he was able to draw on his Facebook base to create the test phrase, “It’s like Twitter, but you can influence Congress,” which he took with him to his Tinder interviews.

“Around 40% understood the test phrase and loved the concept, all of which were people I stereotyped to be nerdy,” he says. “The other 60% had a retreatist mentality when it came to politics and led me to my newer value propositions: Make your vote mean more and People-focused politics. This is geared more toward the idea of grabbing the individual’s attention. I went down this path because I realized that even if people understood the first test phrase, a lot of them viewed politics as a scam with no hope of changing.”

Now Jahbarie is creating consumer personas that he can use to hunt down people that have given up on politics because of the influence of corporate campaign money. “I believe that with this population, I can find the best way to combine my comprehension test phrase and value proposition.”

Learning from the Competition

Jahbarie also decided to do some generative research on his product — he wanted to cultivate additional ideas and see if there was anything he hadn’t thought of. He decided that he could get a lot of information by looking at what had been tried before. After all, plenty of people have tried to reform politics in the U.S., with mixed results. So he contacted other entrepreneurs doing something similar and asked them what issues they were facing.

It may seem unusual to tap potential business competitors for feedback, but why not ask? And it worked. He reached out to Marcie from Popvox, a company that harnesses technology to “help us be informed, more connected, and make government work better for everyone.” Marcie was happy to talk to him, and they freely exchanged ideas and information.

(Note: In Silicon Valley, there is a variant of this tactic that Sean K. Murphy affectionately named Picnic in the Graveyard. This is when the entrepreneur seeks out startups that failed so they can break down the business models and see why they failed.)

Hack Your Mindset

Jahbarie didn’t let a lack of social contact stop him from doing his customer validation due diligence and testing his business model.

Will his idea work? Time will tell.

But he would have been at a dead stop if he hadn’t found creative ways to tackle the customer development cycle.

Ultimately, every constraint opens up the possibility of a creative solution. If you can figure out a way around an obstacle that your competitors can’t, you’re that much more likely to succeed. Share on X
using a jet pack to conquer a wall while others stand and talk about solutions
So instead of thinking about what won’t work, figure out how you can work around, over, or under challenges, or even how those challenges can create opportunities and open doors you’d never considered before.

Like most businesses, the pandemic has thrown a monkey wrench into our own consulting and coaching activities. But we quickly learned — because agile! — that we could incorporate these challenges into our workshops and executive training to help others navigate these weird times, and even find opportunities in places they had never considered looking.
monkey holding a wrench

Additional Resources

So get to work! Here’s a list of other resources to help you:

Breaking Methods Webinar Series: A series of short-format webinars with overviews of innovative research methods.

Alexia’s hot tips for online interviewing: Basically what it says.

Texting the waters:  An assessment of focus groups conducted via the WhatsApp smartphone messaging application.

Focus Groups: Moving to an online, face-to-face model

Hacking Facebook groups for research: When you can’t find the perfect research tool, use what you have.

Lessons Learned

  • Every obstacle is an opportunity
  • The right mindset can turn constraints into creativity
  • Customer validation is not optional, and in times of radical change, it can be the most valuable thing you can do

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