Prospecting Recipes for Conducting Problem Discovery Interviews

How to get customers to talk to you about their problems

How do you get customers to openly talk to you during problem discovery interviews if you’re “not allowed” to pitch your solution?

This is the top question I get from founders on conducting customer interviews.

Most people think that getting customers to talk to you will be hard, but customers (people in general) love talking about themselves. All you need is the right framing.

In this issue, I’ll share several prospecting recipes we’ve battle-tested across thousands of teams.

Let’s dive in.


Getting a customer to a problem discovery interview is a three-step process:

  1. Get clear on who/what you’re targeting
  2. Pick a channel strategy
  3. Pick/test one or more prospecting recipes (tactics)

1. Get clear on who/what you’re targeting

The first step is getting clear on who/what you’re targeting:

  • Prospecting Criteria #1: Target prospects based on how recently they switched (or used) a direct existing alternative.
  • Prospecting Criteria #2: Target prospects based on how recently they switched (or used) an indirect or complementary alternative.

For more on the why, see this earlier issue:

3 Common Customer Interviewing Mistakes That Lead to Mediocre Interviews and What to Do Instead

3 Common Customer Interviewing Mistakes That Lead to Mediocre Interviews and What to Do Instead




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2. Pick a channel strategy

We can divide channels broadly into three groups (via Aaron Ross):

  1. Seeds: These are leads that come from many-to-many campaigns based on word-of-mouth and relationship-building.
  2. Nets: These are leads that come from one-to-many campaigns like inbound and growth hacking.
  3. Spears: These are leads that come from one-to-one outbound campaigns.

So, where do you start?

Planting seeds takes time and requires that you’ve figured out value delivery. So we can table that for after you’ve got an MVP.

Most teams should typically start with spears, then move on to nets:

If you’ve already built up an audience or list beforehand, it can make sense to sometimes start with nets. But I’d still recommend intentionally crawling (to maximize learning) before you walk and then run.

3. Pick/test one or more spear prospecting recipes (tactics)

Finding people to interview can be challenging at first. It helps first to internalize a few mindsets:

Mindset #1: Continuously talking to customers is a key activity for Continuous Innovation.

Your ability to learn, test, or sell anything is severely handicapped unless you can first talk to customers. So don’t defer channel building to later. Start now.

Mindset #2: Customer Discovery is always valuable even for customers.

Don’t underestimate the power of active listening. People want to be heard.

Mindset #3: Don’t ask for feedback or favors, deliver value even when interviewing.

As these interviews are about establishing a learning versus pitching frame, you have to bank on alternate forms of value to compensate interviewees.

Here’s a getting-started playbook to implement:

a. Start with people you know

Value currency at play: Social capital

  • Friends and Family Prospecting: Start with people you know who fit your target profile. Some are wary that feedback received from close contacts may be biased. I think talking to anyone is better than talking to anyone.
  • Existing Customers Prospecting: Start with existing customers (if you have them) before venturing out to strangers.
  • Warm Referral Prospecting: Then, use them to get two or three degrees out to find other people to interview. Not only does this help you practice and get comfortable with your interview script, but it’s also an effective way to get warm introductions to other prospects.
  • Recruit advisors: If your 1-degree network is a non-starter for your target prospect, start working on extending your network. Remember mindset #1: You can’t build a business unless you can reach your customers.
  • Ask for referrals: At the end of every interview, ask the interviewee if they can refer you to someone else you could interview. Remember mindset #3: Interviews are about delivering value. If you run a “good” interview and ask for a referral, you trigger the reciprocity principle.

b. Lead with indirect value

Social capital can get you only so far. Here are some indirect value recipes to help you go further.

  • Pose as a Marketing Agency: Compensate people for their time with money. In B2C markets, a $25-75 gift card goes a long way. Some are wary that feedback received from paid interviewees may be biased. This isn’t a concern provided you follow the discovery golden rule: Measure what customers did in the past, not what they say they’ll do in the future.
  • Pose as a Blogger/Podcaster: Interview people for an article you actually publish or start a podcast and invite them as guests. The power of this tactic is you can ask anything off the record.
  • Pose as a Researcher: Similar to the last tactic, but this time, you promise to share the results of your research as a condensed value-added summary or report.

c. Lead with direct value

Once you’ve got a few “good” interviews under your belt, it’s pretty typical to start understanding your customers better than they do. This is because most of us don’t introspectively study our problems past the surface-level symptoms.

When you conduct a “good” interview, you go past symptoms and start uncovering root causes. This is a superpower that helps roll out this phase of prospecting.

“When you’re able to describe your customer’s problems better than they can, they start seeing you as the expert.”
- Jay Abraham

Value currency at play: Problem insights.

  • Cold-outbound: In an interrupt-driven world, cold-outbound has dismal response rates unless you have something of value. Demonstrating deep problem (not solution) understanding is the fastest way to get a prospect’s attention. The actual outreach is typically a multi-touch combination of some of these: emails, LinkedIn, other social DMs, and calls.

Once you can repeatedly deliver on problem resonance, you can take the next steps to move from one-to-one (seeds) to your first one-to-many (nets) campaigns such as Webinars, Content Marketing, Speaking at Events, etc.

The ABCs of Prospecting: Always Be Collecting qualified leads and follow-up with an invitation to a conversation.

Finally, remember that the quality of conversations trumps the quantity. Contrary to common belief, you typically don’t need to talk to hundreds of people to uncover deep insights. If you invest the time in learning how to run good interviews, 10-20 interviews are often all you need to start leading with value.

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