Step 0: Don’t Freak Out – How To Get Started In Market Discovery

It’s easy to say “Get out of the building.” We know we need to do more market discovery – talking to more customers (and non-customers, and lost prospects, etc.) to find their problems. But for some of us that’s just not actionable advice.

In fact, a friend just starting out in product management, asked me recently, “OK, like, what are the actual steps for ‘finding the market problem?’ What’s step 1? ‘Get out of the building’ is still too high-level.'”

And I realized this is a question I identify with completely (story below). So, let’s talk about “Step 1” of finding market problems. (We’ll cover other steps in future articles.)

You Need To Do More Customer Visits, Right?

If you’re like most product managers, you aren’t doing enough “customer visits.” That means your market discovery is lagging, which means your new product and feature pipeline is not what it should be. And that means your revenue engine is going to be sputtering soon.

In this and following posts, I give you the steps you need to be successful at customer discovery so you can keep that revenue engine pumping out the economic horsepower.

There are a lot of moving parts in “finding market problems” – at least one of those will be challenging for you. But others have figured it out, and you can too.

The Good News

Your market has problems that they are waiting for you to discover and solve for them. But you aren’t going to find these problems sitting at your desk and thinking. You need to actually talk to the people with the problems.

(Don’t Want To) Make That Call

Let me just assure you – this isn’t all bread and roses for me either

I am great on the phone.

I am excellent at drilling down on the problem.

One of my superpowers is telling customers we’re not going to implement their enhancement

What I am not good at is setting up the appointments for those calls! (Whether it’s a customer or colleague or whoever.)

So I literally have to remind myself not to freak out when it comes time to do that. I have tools and techniques I use when I can, like Calendly. But mostly I just have to think “this is really easy for other people, so you can do it.” I have to give myself a pep talk – just to set up an appointment! We all are our own kinds of crazy, I guess.

From then on, things go fairly smoothly for me. But I know some of the later steps are more challenging for other people. So, let’s leave my issues behind and talk about what else we have to do.

The (Many) Steps Of Market Discovery

What all do we have to do when “finding market problems?” Here are some of the steps – it’s a daunting list. But getting started is the hardest part.

  1. Finding the people and recruiting your informants.
  2. Preparing yourself and your team.
  3. Doing the interviews.
  4. Capturing the interviews.
  5. Figuring out what you’ve heard – finding the weak signals.

And of course, once you’ve started to find the weak signals that indicate unsolved problems that you can solve with your product, you have a lot more to do:

  • Taking action on the weak signals
  • Turning the weak signals into business proposals
  • Pitching the business proposals

We’ll get to all that. But for now, let’s just start at the beginning (after not panicking).

Step 1: Finding and Recruiting “The Market”

Who are the people in your market? Those are the people you want to talk to. One obvious place to start is with your current customers. Especially the opinionated ones, and sometimes the difficult ones.

But there are a lot of other people you can consider.

If you read Teresa Torres’ great articles about customer discovery (which you should), she talks about going out to a local mall and asking people how they feel about cars. This was for a car company. Fantastic article, great idea – but for some of us a little bit tough to pull off. And doubly hard if our customers don’t frequent malls.

But in other articles she has some great ideas for finding people to talk to, even if they aren’t in malls. She lists:

  • Your connections
  • Your existing customers
  • Your lost prospects
  • A recruiting service
  • An in-app recruiting tool

Check out her article for more details on these and other techniques for recruiting informants.

I recommend starting by making a list. If you have specific people in mind – customers, prospects, friends, connections – put them on the list. You can also put categories of people – “IT project managers at mid-size companies,” or “my competitor’s customers.”

Your friends in Sales, Customer Support, Customer Success, Field Services, and Consulting can be a great resource for connecting you with customers.

It’s best if you can give them specific criteria to use for selecting customers to refer. “When my topic comes up with a customer, can you let me know and introduce me? I’d love to get their insights on something I’m working on.” If you have a strong relationship, they will know that it’s good for them when you interact with their customers, and they will be happy to make the introduction.

Go Where They Are

Another way to get informants is to go where they congregate, places like:

  • Meetups
  • Malls
  • Conferences

After you introduce yourself, and perhaps have a short conversation, you simply ask “I’m doing some research on my topic. Would you mind if I set up a call with you for next week so I could get your insights?”

How I Accelerated My Customer Visits

So, how did I get better at setting up my customer calls? I found a great “tool.” In fact, it was one of my colleagues on the product team, who turned out to be 100x better than I was at setting up appointments.

I highly recommend getting a collaborator who can augment your skills, or compensate for your lack of skills (as in my case). A collaborator who’s good at what you’re not is a fantastic ally. And since these customer discovery interviews are always better if there are two of you, it’s a win-win situation.

What About Step 2?

OK, so we’ve gotten through Step 1 – finding people to talk to. What do we do next? That’ll be in the next article. We’ll cover two topics:

  1. How to conduct your “customer visits” – hint, you’re not always visiting in person.
  2. What questions do you ask?

Three Things You Can Do Today

  1. Make a list of the customers and others you want to talk to for customer discovery.
  2. Come up with a good trigger to help your friends in sales, support, and services select good candidates for you to interview.
  3. Find a collaborator!

And as a little sneak peek for the next article, you can click here to get my guide to asking great customer discovery questions. . (Don’t worry, the next article will have a LOT more good ideas for discovery questions.)

About the Author

Your host and author, Nils Davis, is a long-time product manager, consultant, trainer, and coach. He is the author of The Secret Product Manager Handbook, many blog posts, a series of video trainings on product management, and the occasional grilled pizza.

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