Talking to Humans

by Giff Constable

Talking to Humans, written by Giff Constable, is a practical guide to the qualititative side of customer development. This contains my personal book notes.

These "Book Notes" are inspired by Derek Sivers' Book Notes. Be warned: these notes are rough and can be stream-of-thought at times, since I did not capture them with a view to publication. I hope to continue to refine them over time as I refer to them.

Talking to Humans Book

Core set of questions:

  • Who do you want to learn from?
  • What do you want to learn?
  • How will you get to them?
  • How can you ensure an effective session?
  • How do you make sense of what you learn?

Who do you want to learn from?

  • The typical customer you envision if you get traction with your idea. E.g.:
    • hospital management system has to think about the hospital administrator who will buy their software and the actual hospital workers who would use it
    • On-call veterinarian service needs to talk to pet owners
    • Online marketplace for plumbers might consider plumbers on the sell-side, and home owners on the buy side
  • Your early adopter, i.e., the people who will take a chance on your product before anyone else
    • Hospital chains still stuck with an archaic vendor
    • Vet service might target busy 20-something in a major city
    • Plumber marketplace might target solo practices on sell-side, first-time homebuyers on buy-side
  • Critical partners for distribution, fulfillment or other parts of your business

What do you want to learn?

How do you know your most important questions?

Do the "Business Assumptions Exercise", which means positing answers to the following questions:

  • My target customer will be? (Tip: how would you describe your primary target customer?)
  • The problem my customer wants to solve is? (Tip: what does your customer struggle with or what need do they want to fulfill?)
  • My customer's need can be solved with? (Tip: give a very concise description / elevator pitch of your product)
  • Why can't my customer solve this today? (Tip: what are the obstacles that have prevented my customer from solving this already?)
  • The measurable outcome my customer wants to achieve is? (Tip: what measurable change in your customer's life makes them love your product?)
  • My primary customer acquisition tactic will be? (Tip: you will likely have multiple marketing channels, but there is often one method, at most two, that dominates your customer acquisition -- what is your current guess)
  • My earliest adopter will be? (Tip: remember that you can't get to the mainstream customer without getting early adopters first)
  • I will make money (revenue) by? (tip: don't list all the ideas for making money, but pick your primary one)
  • My primary competition will be? (Tip: think about both direct and indirect competition)
  • I will beat my competitors primarily because of (Tip: what truly differentiates you from the competition?)
  • My biggest risk to financial viability is? (Tip: what could prevent you from getting to breakeven? Is there something baked into your revenue or cost model that you can de-risk?)
  • My biggest technical or engineering risk is? (Tip: is there a major technical challenge that might hinder building your product?)

Finally, what assumptions do we have that, if proven, would cause this business to fail? List up to 12. Include market size in this list.

Once you've written them out, mark the assumptions that would have a large impact on your business and feel highly uncertain. This is an open ended questions. Be creative and really examine your points of failure. These are the priorities for customer discovery and the experiments needed.

Example risks: on call vet service.

  • Pet owners are frustrated having to go to a vet and would rather have someone come to them.
  • Customers are willing to pay a big premium to have a vet show up at their door.
  • We think busy urbanite pet owners will be our early adopters
  • We think people currently discover their vets either through word of mouth or online searches
  • We can affordably acquire our customers through targeted Google search ads
  • We can recruit enough vets across the country to make this a big enough business
  • With travel baked in, our vets can see enough people in a day to be financially viable

Get stories, not speculation

Ask specific stories about the past. For example, the below could be a loose interview plan for the on-call vet service:

  • Warm up: concise intro on the purpose of the conversation
  • Warm up: basic questions about person and pet (name, age, picture)
  • Who is your current vet? Can you tell me about how you found and chose him/her?
  • Please describe the last time you had to take your pet to the vet for a checkup
  • Walk me through the process of scheduling a time to visit the vet.
  • What was frustrating about that experience?
  • What did you like about that experience?
  • Have you ever had an emergency visit to a vet? if yes, can you describe that experience for me?
  • Have you ever thought about changing vets? why / why not?

Ask open-ended questions

  • Ask questions that start with who, what, why, how. Avoid is, are, would, do you.
  • "If you could wave a magic wand and solve any problem, what would you want to solve?"
    • People may struggle with this open-ended question.
  • Conclude interviews with "What should I have asked you that I didn't?"

Testing for price

  • Two hardest questions through qualitative research are "will people pay?" and "how much will they pay".
  • Speculative answers on this topic are extremely suspect.
  • Ask:
    • How much do you currently spend to address this problem?
    • What budget do you have allocated to this, and who controls it?
    • How much would you pay to make this problem go away? (don't take the answer too literally)

How do you find your interview subjects?

  • Entrepreneurs new to customer development are often intimidated at the thought of approaching complete strangers. It might surprise you to hear that people are often very willing to help out. This is especially true if you are working on a topic that interests them and you approach them nicely and professionally. There are three general rules to keep in mind when recruiting candidates to speak with:
    • Try to get one degree of separation away (don’t interview your mom, your uncle, or your best friends)
    • Be creative (and don’t expect people to come to you)
    • Fish where the fish are (and not where they are not)
  • Find the moment of pain
  • Make referrals happen. Set a goal of walking out of every interview with 2 or 3 new candidates. When you end an interview, ask the person if they know others who fact the problem you are trying to solve. If they feel you have respected their time, they will often be willing to introduce you to others.
  • Conferences and Meetups. Get people's biz card, let them get back to networking, email them immediately after the conference while their memories are fresh, send them a short email that reminds them of where you met, and ask for a conversation.
  • Enterprise customers. Finding interviewees can be harder when you are focused on an enterprise customer. You need laser-like targeting. In addition to conferences, LinkedIn can be extremely useful. If you have hypotheses on the titles of the people you are seeking, run searches on LinkedIn. You might be able to get to them through a referral over LinkedIn, or you might need to cold call them through their company’s main phone number. You then have to decide on your approach method. You can either ask for advice (where you make it clear that you are not selling anything), or you can go in as if you were selling something specific.

Advice vs Selling

Asking for advice should be your default method early in your customer discovery process. You will have better luck gaining access. People like being asked (it makes them feel important). Steve Blank used to call people up and say something like, “My name is Steve and [dropped name] told me you were one of the smartest people in the industry and you had really valuable advice to offer. I’m not trying to sell you anything, but was hoping to get 20 minutes of your time.”Another effective spin on “asking for advice” is to create a blog focused on your problem space, and ask people if you can interview them for an article. When do you approach someone as if you were selling a product? This method is useful if you are past initial learning and want to test your assumptions around customer acquisition and messaging. Just don’t jump into sales mode too early.

Benefitting from Gatekeepers.

If LinkedIn isn’t helping you and you need to reach high up in an organization, another approach is to call the CEO’s office. Your goal is not to talk to the CEO but actually their executive assistant. His job is to be an effective gatekeeper, so if you explain, “I’m looking to talk to the person who handles X”, they will often connect you to the right person (especially if you are pleasant and professional — notice the trend on that one?). The added advantage of this method is if you end up leaving a voice mail for your intended contact, you can say “Jim from [CEO’s name]’s office gave me your name”. Dropping the boss’ name tends to improve response rates.

Cold Approach Examples


I received your name from James Smith. He said that you had a lot of expertise in an area I am researching and recommended that we speak.

I’m trying to study how companies are handling their expense report management workflows and the frustrations they are experiencing. I would be happy to share my research conclusions with you.

Would you have 30 minutes to spare next week when I could buy you a cup of coffee and ask you a few questions?

Many thanks for your time and I look forward to hearing from you,

Jane Doe


I have been working on some new solutions in the area of expense report management, and I was told that you have a lot of expertise in this area. We started this journey because of personal frustration, and we’re trying to figure out how to make expense reporting much less painful. Would you have 30 minutes to give us some advice, and share some of your experiences in this domain?

I assure you that I’m not selling anything. I would be happy to come by your office or arrange a quick video conference, at your preference.

Many thanks,

Jane Doe

Example Voice Mail Message:

Hello, my name is Jane Doe. I was referred to you by James Smith, who said I would benefit from your advice.

I am currently researching how companies are handling their expense management workflows. I understand you have a lot of expertise in this area. I was hoping to take just 30 minutes of your time to ask you a few questions. I’m not selling anything and I would be happy to share my research conclusions with you.

You can reach me at 555-555-5555. Again, this is Jane Doe, at 555-555-5555, and thank you for your time.

How to ensure an effective session?

Start with a warmup & keep it human!

  • Where are you from?
  • What do you do for a living?
  • How long have you been with the company?
  • Have a printed list of questions, but don't rigidly read from your list. Be in the moment.
  • Disarm your own bias! Take the mindset that you are trying to kill your idea rather than support it, just to set the bar high and prevent yourself from leading the witness.

Get them to tell a story about how they experienced a problem area in the past.

  • How have you tried to solve the problem?
  • What triggered their search for a solution?
  • What did they think the solution would do before they tried it?
  • How did that particular solution work out?
  • If they are struggling to remember specifics, help them set the scene of their story: what part of the year or time of day? Were you with anyone?

Follow up with questions about their emotional state.

  • "Imagine you are filming a documentary about your life. Pretend you are filming the scene, watching the actor playing you. At this moment, what is their emotion, what are they feeling?"

Is this their #1 pain?

Or is this something too low in priority to warrant attention and budget?

Parrot back or misrepresent to confirm.

But use this misrepresentation technique sparingly if at all!

Do a dry run with a friend or colleague!

Get a sense of what it is like to listen carefully and occasionally improvise.

Get feedback on your MVP.

Obviously, only once you've built it based on your problem discussions.

N.B. Questioning fees like client intake interview!

How to make sense of what you learn?

You should talk to 50 to 100 people if you're in the consumer space. Steve Blank makes people talk to 100 people even in the B2B space.

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