A Primer on Talking to Customers From Rob Fitzpatrick's The Mom Test

Everyone knows that a critical part of developing a new product is talking to potential customers. So most product managers and founders dutifully have customer conversations as part of their product development process. But what's insidious about the way that people talk to customers is that they often fail to glean any new insights or worse, get a false positive, causing them to over invest their cash, their time, and their team in an unvalidated product idea that ultimately doesn't sell.

This happens because our potential customers are unfortunately prone to lie to us. We are partly to blame for this, since we often lead the witness to a particular conclusion when we ask a question like "do you think it's a good product idea?" Our potential customers also tend to be overly optimistic people who want to make us happy when we pose hypothetical questions to them like "would you buy a product which did X?".

Rob Fitzpatrick has written the definitive playbook on how to ask questions in customer conversations to ensure they can't like to you. He calls these techniques The Mom Test, because if you follow his approach, even your loving mom can't lie to you. I wanted to share my three most actionable takeaways from the book which you can apply to your next customer conversation.

Talk about their life instead of your idea
The most counter-intuitive advice Rob offers is to actually avoid talking about your specific product idea at all in your early customer conversations.

This is because doing so suffers from the "Pathos Problem." It happens when you expose your ego, leading people to feel they ought to protect you by saying nice things. For example, asking questions like "I'm thinking of starting a business... so, you think it will work?" or "I had an awesome idea for an app - do you like it?" will likely garner compliments from the potential customer that are impossible to trust.

Instead of this, the most useful questions we can ask in these early customer conversations is about our customers lives: their problems, cares, constraints, and goals. We should measure the usefulness of these customer conversations by whether they give us concrete facts about our customers' lives and world views.

For example, let's say we're building a phone app to help people stay in shape. Instead of launching into what the app will do and asking whether they'd use it, we should instead start by deeply understanding whether the potential customer even has the problem we are solving for. So we might ask questions like:

  • "What are your big goals and focuses right now?"
  • "Is getting healthier on that list?"
  • "How often do you go to the gym?"
  • If not often, you might ask "Why not?"
  • "When's the last time you did try? Have you ever joined a gym or taken up jogging or anything?"

These questions help us to quickly understand where fitness falls in their list of overall priorities as well as their experience to date with fitness in such a way that they can't actually lie to us about it.

Ask about specifics in the past instead of opinions about the future
Rob also warns against a very common type of question that tends to get asked in customer conversations, which are hypothetical questions about the customer's potential behavior in the future.

For example, it's common to ask a question like "would you buy a product which did X?". The challenge with this question is we are asking for an opinion on an hypothetical situation from someone who is likely to be overly optimistic and want to make us happy. So we again can't trust what the customer says.

Instead we should get very specific about their past behavior, which they certainly won't lie about. We can ask how they currently solve X and how much it costs them to do so. And how much time it takes. We can ask them to walk us through what happened the last time X came up. If they haven't solved the problem, we can ask why not? Have they tried searching for solutions and found them wanting? Or do they not even care enough to have Googled for it? This line of probing on their past behavior will result in far more insights than posing questions about their hypothetical future behavior.

Validate by asking for commitments
Now as our customer conversations progress, we will ultimately need to present our specific product idea and get feedback on it. After doing so, we often hear feedback like the following that's easy to interpret as validation:
  • "That's so cool. I love it!"
  • "I would definitely buy that"
  • "Looks great. Let me know when it launches"

The reality is none of these statements can be trusted as actual validation because they are cheap for a potential customer to say to simply make us happy.

Instead we should ask for a very specific commitment as a next step in order to get to true validation. A commitment shows that they're serious by giving up something they value, such a time, reputation, or money. Here are example commitments that you could ask for in your customer conversations:

Time commitments
  • Clear next meeting with known goals
  • Sitting down to give feedback on wireframes
  • Using a trial of the product for a non-trivial period

Reputation risk commitments
  • Intro to peers or team
  • Intro to a decision maker (boss, spouse, lawyer)
  • Giving a public testimonial or case study

Financial commitments
  • Letter of intent (non-legal but gentlemanly agreement to purchase)
  • Pre-order
  • Deposit

Strong commitments will often combine multiple of these across categories. For example, agreeing to run a pilot of the product would cost them both time as well as reputation risk in introducing the product to the rest of the team.

By ending each customer conversation with an ask for a specific commitment, you get the clearest possible signal on their interest in your product. As Rob says, it's not a real sales lead until you've given them such a concrete chance to reject you. And in doing so, avoid any possibility of them lying to you.
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