I-Corps Teams are asked to conduct at least 100 customer interviews in seven weeks. Sound like a lot? While it’s certainly no small feat, speaking to 100 customers is an achievable goal with the right strategy and a little dedication. Below are five suggestions for hitting your three-digit goal from Tom Schryver – a national Lead Instructor for the I-Corps Teams program, and the Executive Director of Cornell’s Center for Regional Economic Development.
1) Think broadly about who your customer might be
It’s easy to only consider the end-user of your product when searching for interviewees. Though these consumers are important, their purchasing decisions are likely influenced by a number of different people who can also be considered customers. To illustrate this point, Schryver uses the example of a company that sells laptop computers: there are many people who may be involved in the purchasing decision for a new laptop including an individual’s boss, the office I.T. department, and even family members. Accordingly, all of these various groups and individuals should be consulted to gather customer feedback.
2) Don’t let fear hold you back
Understandably, participants are often afraid to contact and speak with people they’ve never met. This fear takes a variety of forms: sometimes entrepreneurs are afraid they’ll contact someone who doesn’t want to talk, sometimes they’re afraid they’ll say something that deters a potential customer, and sometimes they just don’t want to risk receiving harsh feedback. Though these fears may be overwhelming, you can overcome them by altering your mindset and sticking to a systematic outreach plan.
In reality, customers will not always want to talk, and those who do will have some amount of negative feedback to give. Despite this risk, the benefits of communicating with relevant audiences far outweigh any momentary social costs. Schryver notes that these benefits come from the negative feedback we receive, not in spite of it. Negative feedback helps entrepreneurs evolve their “beautiful and pristine ideas” and “make them real, forcing (entrepreneurs) to deal with the human travails that go along with them.” This process results in better products in the long run.
For those who are afraid of deterring potential customers, the key is to focus the conversation—as much as 80 to 90 percent—on the interviewee and their experience. Schryver states, “I’ve never seen an instance where the customer leaves the conversation upset, so long as they get to share their own experiences and opinions.”
3) Know where to find your customers
If your business caters to independent consumers rather than other businesses, think of a handful of places where these consumers might spend their time. If you begin to frequent these places in search of interviewees, you’ll have a steady flow of people to consult. The process may be a bit trickier for companies that sell to other businesses, but helpful strategies exist. Schryver recommends using industry reports and other publications to identify the key companies in a given sector, and then reviewing the organizational charts, Linkedin pages and websites of these companies to find the decision-making individuals you might do business with.
Another method for reaching out to businesses is going to trade shows and conferences. These events often have apps or websites that list attendees and speakers. To stand out from the crowd, you can access these lists and contact attendees beforehand to request an interview during the event. Even if you aren’t available to attend the conference or trade show, you can access these lists to find individuals to interview via phone or Skype.
4) Tap into your own network
Look for alumni from your university who are potential interviewees. They are usually happy to support students from their alma mater. The phrase “I’m a student…” or “I attended your alma mater” can open lots of doors.
5) Ask for referrals
One of the most important steps in the process of locating and meeting with interviewees is asking to be referred to others. If you end each discussion by asking who to talk to next, you could be on your way to 100 interviews in no time.
Schryver’s final word on the interview process is an encouragement:
“At the end of the day, I’ve never seen a business idea that was so obscure that the entrepreneurial lead couldn’t find 100 people to interview. It’s always possible.”