by Joanna Malaczynski, founder of DESi
If you are building an innovative company, you will have to spend a good chunk of your time on customer discovery.
Here are three tips for you based on my discussions with entrepreneurs who have come before you:
Take Time to Understand the Needs and Expectations of Your Customers.
Before you do anything else, you need to take time to understand the needs and expectations of your customers on an ongoing basis as you develop your product and business. Pete Girard, Co-Founder of Toxnot, can attest to the importance of this.
Toxnot is a sustainable product and supply chain management software used by manufacturers and designers to eliminate problematic chemicals from their products. Girard explained that understanding what customers truly want — and why — requires personal conversations and is an essential part of successfully developing new features. To this point, Girard noted, “we implemented a customer success team to help with on-boarding, to really listen, and to learn from our customers.”
Girard also stated that a number of his potential clients sell products to large retailers, and that these large retailers can significantly drive the demand for sustainable products. Girard believes that understanding what these influential retailers expect of their suppliers today and in the future is an important component of understanding how to help his own customers future-proof their product lines.
Girard’s experience illustrates that customer discovery needs to take place on an ongoing basis and is an educational process for your business. It also is not limited to what your customers demand today, but what they anticipate they will demand tomorrow based on their market ecosystem.
Engage with End-Users.
If you are in a B2B business, it is quite likely that your customers’ customers are end-users of a product. Engage with those end-users. You will build stronger relationships, gain credibility, and help your customers succeed with their customers. Which means you are more likely to succeed as well.
Charles Dimmler, Co-Founder of Checkerspot, understand this process. Checkerspot is a materials company that creates solutions for outdoor brands looking for sustainable and high-performance materials for their products. Checkerspot’s customers include outdoor equipment and apparel manufacturers.
Dimmler sees the role of his company as being two-fold. The first is to create innovative high-performance materials and solutions for his customers. The second is to understand the desires of the end-users of his customer’s products. “We want to be much more intentional about the design of materials and product development,” he says, “an important part of that is knowing what end-users will want, even if they cannot readily articulate it.”
Consumers do not always know what is possible. How would they predict that they will love hazelnut gelato if they have only been exposed to vanilla ice cream? The same is true for the performance features that go into outdoor gear and apparel. Dimmler believes that formalizing a customer discovery process that includes the end-user is key. By building relationships with end-users, Checkerspot can bring more value to its customers — i.e. the brands that sell high-performance outdoor products to the consumer.
You can become more valuable to your customers as well if you start looking at the end users. Ask your customers questions about them. Go talk to end users directly. The more you are willing to invest in this process, the more it will pay off for you.
Approach Customers as Potential Business Partners.
Your customers are not only your customers; they are your stakeholders in the success of your business. They can also be your best business partners. This is especially true if you are looking to scale your business, as Scott Bolin, Co-Founder of Tethis, can attest.
Tethis is a company that makes a sustainable and high-performance absorbent ingredient for diapers. This product is the eco alternative to the status quo (a toxic petrochemical) used by major diaper manufacturers. Tethis is in the process of developing a pilot facility to scale production of its product in order to conduct hundreds of diaper trials that will help the company develop the perfect eco-absorbent formula for the modern diaper. Bolin is looking for a diaper manufacturer industry partner to help him scale to production. His search for the right partner includes asking some of the following questions: Do they have the resources to invest in his company? Do they have the mindset to help him carry the project forward? Do they have experience leveraging technology and collaborating in a partnership? Do they have the willpower to make a change?
When looking for potential customers and partners, Bolin advises innovative companies to “check your assumptions” because for any given industry, market and customer, there will be unique priorities and approaches to doing things that will likely not align with your personal ideas and expectations of what is important and relevant. It is key to understand these priorities and approaches and get on the same page, if possible.
Bolin’s experience illustrates that when shopping for a potential partner, you want to engage in the same type of discovery you would engage in when developing your customer base. Understand your prospects’ business, their m.o., and the qualities that make them a good match to you.
Joanna Malaczynski is the founder of DESi, a consulting firm that helps innovative companies gain market traction. She brings her clients fifteen years of experience in industry research, customer discovery, and stakeholder engagement. Prior to DESi, Malaczynski founded EcoValuate, a software company that helped consumer brands green their products.