Understanding your customer doesn't mean giving them exactly what they ask for

The customer is the source of truth

Now before you go all Henry Ford or worse, Steve Jobs on us, understanding your customers deeply does not mean you ask them what they want and then do what they say. But the fact is that customers are the final arbiters: they either buy or use your product or they don’t. Discovering what makes customers truly passionate is the key to moving the needle.

The better you understand customers and their needs, the more likely you will be to develop a product that not only provides need-addressing utility but also resonates at an emotional level. And to understand customer emotions, we must zoom in on individual people, not traditional personas.

We’ve written and spoken quite extensively about market segmentation. Both startup entrepreneurs often approach segmentation through product categorization, or a vertical industry, or consumer demographics.

Entrepreneurs love these methods because they result in huge “total addressable market” figures. Large companies use this sort of segmentation because it’s a convenient way to categorize existing customers ex-post facto. It’s not helpful, however, for new endeavors where the value to be created is unknown – where the truth is yet to be revealed. 

To find the truth, you must start by zooming in on individuals -- not large segments -- in an effort to discover what needs you might address with your solution. Once you have found individuals who are passionate, you can use the traits and behaviors to construct your market segments from the individual up.

A market segment is a group of people who share the same pain or passion and speak the same language. By speaking the same language, we mean they will look to each other to refer solutions addressing the shared pain or passion. We’re not looking for huge numbers of people or statistical significance at this point. This is not a bell curve -- it’s a few individual points!

Zoom in on the individual

Many teams struggle with starting way too broad, or even worse, do not understand their individual customers. To help you “get focused”, we created a handy tool you can use to help focus your thinking. This tool is based on the “fishing” concepts discussed in my book, The Lean Entrepreneur, so feel free to re-read that chapter if you need background on these concepts.

We call it the Customer Zoom tool, and it's designed to help you focus in on one of your specific customers. Download it here and follow along.

How to use the Customer Zoom

Using the Customer Zoom tool is comprised of three steps, which we encourage you to complete in a rapid fashion.

  • Unique traits brainstorm and select
  • Unique behavior brainstorm and select
  • Take a picture and write down your customer’s name

Remember not to overthink it, just get started. You should repeat the process below to identify multiple potential customers. If you have a multi-sided market, simply create a version for each of the customer on each side of the market.

Ok, here we go…

The Setup

Close your eyes. Recall a recent customer interview that was particularly insightful (if you have not yet interviewed customers, stop now). Imagine you are standing in a crowded room where this customer is one of the many people in attendance. You must describe this single person to someone else so that they can easily identify your customer in the crowd.

We’ll highlight an example from an enterprise team creating a new product for the automotive market. As always, we’ll be doing this work using sticky notes and a sharpie.

Get started

Step 1a: Brainstorm specific traits which make your customer unique, compared to other people in the room. These are the traits unique in the content of your proposed solution, not simply demographics.

Task: Brainstorm at least 10 traits (try to do this in 10 minutes or so)

Example: Owns a car over 10 years old, is young at heart, is adventurous, frugal with money, not afraid to borrow money, traditional bank, etc., etc., etc..

Step 1b: Review your lists of traits and select the top three most unique. Again, imagine you are describing your perfect customer to someone else.

Task: Select your top 3 traits, and then stick on your worksheet.

Example: Owns a car over 10 years old, is adventurous, frugal with money.

Step 2a: Brainstorm behaviors your customer is doing, which you could potentially observe. Remember to focus on the behaviors that are unique to your specific solution, or are indicators for your hypothesized pain points.

Task: Brainstorm at least 10 behaviors (try to do this in 10 minutes or so)

Example: Browsing more than one used car website, visited a car lot recently, asked a friend about a specific make/model, contact a car seller on Craigslist, researched car pricing, etc., etc., etc.

Step 2b: Review your lists of behaviors and select the top three most unique. Again, imagine you are trying to spot your perfect customer based on behavior alone.

Task: Select your top 3 behaviors, and then stick on your worksheet.

Example: Visited a car lot recently, asked a friend about a specific make/model, contact a car seller on Craigslist.

Step 3: You should now be so focused on a specific customer that you can actually find this person and take their picture.

Task: Take their picture, and describe their traits and behaviors on a sticky note. Write down the person real name (first only if need be).

Example: This is Steven, he owns a late model car since he’s frugal with his hard earned money. He’s been searching online and in-person for a new car.

That’s it!

Next steps

Now you have zoomed in on a specific customer whom you can use a starting point for you future customer development efforts. Repeat this process multiple times to tease out additional segments related to your product or service.

In the next exercise, we’ll explain more about what to do with this information. For those of you already familiar with the Moves the Needle process, you can use these customers as a starting point for your value stream exercise.

As always, please try this tool on your current projects and let us know how it goes. We’d love to hear from you.