Finding the Voice of the Customer

Jawwad Farid explains how!

I have been teaching entrepreneurship as a practitioner for 8 years and the format that I follow is very simple. Start with a group of students willing to express their ideas in less than one hundred words. Mix in between 18 to 36 hours of instruction. Finish and close with a pitch. Sprinkle a handful of external judges and turn the final pitching session into a competition and you will change the lives of three dozen students for ever.

After mentoring and reviewing over 400 hundred plans and pitches, one thing has consistently stood out. The ones that I remember, the ones that stand out, the best of plans, from the winners and the also-rans, do one thing exceedingly well: they paint an astonishingly clear picture of the customer and his pain.

As Ken Morse put it at the 2007 MIT Business Acceleration Plan Competition, I can hear the voice of the customer in these presentations. This clarity around “the customer” doesn’t just help make great presentation and pitches, it also increases the chances that final recipe that you chose for your startup will be a big hit and the customers you so desperately need to get to the next level, will say yes.

So how do you find the voice of the customer?

Before you can find the voice of the customer you have to answer some basic questions. The thrust of these questions is simple. To sell your product you need to understand who is buying it. You need to understand how he reaches that decision and how you can reach him before he makes that decision? To be effective, you need to predict purchase behavior and the only way you predict behavior is if you understand the customer better than he understands himself. What do these questions look like?

Let’s start with the simplest:

Who is your customer – An individual or an entity? If the customer is an institution, who is the individual within the institution authorized to make the final decision?

When you close your eyes can you see him using your product? Buying your product? How does he arrive at the purchase decision?

How frequently does he use your product? How frequently does he end up purchasing it?

Why does he need your product? How would you describe the pain that leads to the purchase decision? Can you capture the essence of that pain in a single word?

Each product has many features? Which feature of your product is most valued by him? Why?

You follow the simple questions, with more specific ones that allow you to paint a portrait.

How would you describe your customer? What is he like? What motivates him? How much time does he spend at home? On the road? On the phone? What does he wear? What does he drive? What drives him?

What does he do to chill out? Where does he go to eat? How many years of education does he have? His ambitions? His Dreams? Who does he consult when he makes a crucial decision? How do you reach him?

If he starred in a story you were sharing with your grandmother, how would the story start? How would the story end?
While the questions above are simple, the exercise that leads to the customer portrait, is anything but. The first iteration of describing your customer generates a handful of words and maybe a paragraph. Then you throw in the customer’s pain and your product mix and play a game of mix and match. Ideally, features within your product address a specific pain point. You then ask yourself if your product is the only available alternate or if there are others? If there are others, then using your portrait of the customer how do you change your product to make it the only or preferable choice?

Let’s see some sample output from the above questions from the last class I ran a few months ago in Dubai. The group that did this work included two young Indian women, working on an interesting concept.

“Tanya, age 25, works with a consulting firm located in Nariman Point, in Mumbai. She lives in Bombay Central, and takes a black-yellow four wheeler taxi to work each day – this is the fastest way of travel for her. On a typical day she starts from home an hour before her office starts. The first 45 minutes of her travel time are spent in covering the initial 25% of her journey. This is the most frustrating time for her in the day as she is battling several challenges at the same time; the stress of late arrival, the increasing fare on the meter, the smog from traffic congestion, and the heat within an old, rusty, taxi cab. And if she is marked late, poof her day has gone for a toss even before it started!!”

If you close your eyes can you see Tanya in your mind? Can you hear her voice? Based on this description of the customer, what do you think the group is pitching? Heels on wheels is a dedicated two wheeler commuting option for young working women who want to share a quick ride to work with another working woman. Inspired by the Tuk Tuks of Bangkok, Vinita, Kiru and Santosh at SP Jain, Dubai, wished to bring a similar localized option to the congested streets of Mumbai.

Visualizing the customer is only the beginning of a long road. The next step on this journey is figuring out how to reach, influence and convince her. How do you find all the Tanya’s in Mumbai? When you find them what do you tell them? How do you modify and customize your product to meet their exact needs? Whether it is a pre-planned daily pick up every morning, six days a week, or a choice of routes to Nariman point; the model of the two wheeler that comes to pick her up or the profile of the woman steering the bike. Is Tanya looking for the cheapest and fastest commute to work, or a more stylish, comfortable ride? Is she looking for a driver, a friend or a psychotherapist? You won’t know till you actually find her and ask her.

This triangle between the customer, your product and product feature set becomes the centerpiece of your effort to describe, document and understand the customer. Getting this triangle right is not easy. It requires conversations with customers, insight into your product, its usage and its competitors and a realistic feel for what is needed and wanted versus what is just an item on a nice to have list.

Get the triangle right, pitch it correctly and you will have no problems signing investors and customers at the same time.

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