Over the last few years I have argued time and time again there is “no more powerful tool in your marketing toolbox than a cup of coffee with a customer.” That’s because the answers to your most important questions can only be found by direct interactions with your customers. Direct, authentic interactions with your audience always lead to the best learnings and insights.

Although it’s never been easier to reach a customer, it’s also never been harder to connect deeply with one either. If you’re going to be successful in learning from your customers, you must be purposeful and deliberate with each and every customer interaction you have.

Growth requires you to learn as much as you can as quickly as you can in order to build, deploy, and connect a product to your customer. Learning is the essential unit of success for any growth effort. The best way you can learn is to go directly to a customer. Which means growth is a function of practicing quality Customer Development.


What is Customer Development?

Entrepreneur and business school Professor Steve Blank introduced the language of Customer Development in the mid 1990’s as a four-step framework that became the cornerstone of the Lean Startup movement.

Customer Development (or Custdev) is the process by which you discover and validate who your customers actually will be (your market). The process hinges on gaining insights about who your customers are, their problems, challenges, and their behavioral reactions to any possible ways you may address these problems or challenges.

When applying Customer Development in Growth Marketing, the aim in all of your customer development is to gain empathy – a deep, robust understanding of your customers. Empathy means trying to truly walk in your customer’s shoes to see, hear, and experience the world in the same way they do.

In the context of marketing a new venture, whether B2B, B2C, startup, enterprise, or other, we use empathy to begin to understand our customers deeply in order to validate or invalidate your assumptions regarding their needs and how to connect with them.

The teams that persevere through the process have a drastic advantage over those that don’t. They are able to gain insights that would otherwise be missed and translate those insights into action to continually iterate based directly on the learning they’re gaining from their customers.

Frans de Waal, a biologist and professor of psychology, explains how empathy has three layers in his book, The Age of Empathy. The first layer is emotional contagion, where we recognize our ability to connect emotionally with another person. The next layer is feeling for another, our empathetic response when we see someone else’s situation. And the third layer is "targeted helping," the ability to actually feel the way another does. Research has recently even uncovered the existence of "mirror neurons," which react to emotions expressed by others and then reproduce them.

Our ability to gain empathy is not only already part of our emotional being, it’s also genetically programmed into our physical being. Anyone can gain empathy, the question is how?

Customer Development Mindset and Skills

The mindset is straightforward: the answers lie with your customers, not within the walls of your office. Listen, don’t talk. Learn, don’t sell. Understand, don’t pitch. Be curious, not rigid.

The skills are more robust. In my work I’ve observed four core skills to practicing customer development in your Growth Marketing efforts:

  • Relating: the ability to relate with another human being on an emotional level.

  • Questioning: the ability to see the world as it currently is, and then actively seeking the whys, why nots, and what ifs.

  • Observing: the ability to notice and explore the behaviors of others.

  • Connecting: the ability to see the similarities and differences in disparate facts, observations, and feedback to find combinations and trends of seemingly unrelated ideas.

When you combine the mindset of being customer-centric with the skillset of relating, questioning, observing, and connecting; your ability to gain empathy starts to take shape. Like anything worth doing, Customer Development is a competence you gain through practice and time. Don’t worry too much about the mechanics (tactics and techniques) of conducting your first few interviews. Instead, focus on your mindset and skillset.

Did you listen intently? Did you observe something unexpected? Did you relate to the customer you were talking to? Why or why not?

(In my next post, I’ll propose the Customer Development Interaction Hierarchy to take a deep dive into the mechanics involved in how we approach interactions with customers to apply these four core skills.)

Being Vulnerable in Front of a Customer

The foundation of both the mindset and these core skills of Customer Development is a crucial and sometimes frightening word – vulnerability.

The best Customer Development practitioners understand how to be vulnerable in front of a customer. This doesn’t mean artificially oversharing or manufacturing emotion in your interactions with customers. It also doesn’t mean being willing to take abuse.

Being vulnerable simply means being open to hearing things you might not want to hear or that completely catch you off guard, and then being willing to continue listening to investigate those surprising comments further.

Getting Customer Development Started

The first step is simply taking the first step – scheduling an interview and conducting said interview. Grab a coffee, have a drink, meet for lunch, go on a walk, meetup before a meetup. The mechanics are much less important than the intention. Over time, the customer-centric mindset becomes second nature and your ability to use the skills gets sharper. Improvements from interview to interview are typically drastic.

Here are six lightning tips to get you out the door and talking to customers right away:

  • Plan for the W’s - Who, What, When, Where, Why (or what do you hope to gain.

  • Lightly script your interview

  • Bring a friend (for moral support)

  • Start with people you know

  • Document everything (take notes right away)

  • Ask for referrals

Three Questions

1. Which customers do you need to gain more empathy for?

2. Which of the four core Customer Development skills do you excel at?

3. What does it mean for you to be vulnerable in front of a customer?