Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

Learning to Think With a "Customer Mindset"

OVERVIEW

In my last semester of business school, I decided to register for the pilot of an intensive leadership development course called, Ross Leaders Academy. This course integrated executive coaching, reflective learning, and a practicum in launching a business using the lean startup method. To learn the lean startup method, our team of 4 met every two weeks with a demanding pair of experienced coaches, who we were to treat as our company’s “Board of Directors.” During our meetings our coaches drilled us so that we would focus on understanding our customers, their most pressing problems, and what they value instead of rushing to build the coolest sounding solution.

Instead of doing the typical MBA exercise of best practices research, our coaches insisted that we interview potential customers directly.

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SKILLS AND AND INSIGHTS GAINED

Defining a Customer – Defining a specific customer is important because different customers have different problems requiring different solutions. Specifically defining a customer, however, is no easy task. Rules of thumb or adjectives like “small” or “new” are not good enough. Any reasonable person should be able take a list of companies and distinguish which companies are potential customers and which ones are not, using a description of the customer. It’s very difficult to develop a product that a customer will actually buy if you’re not exactly sure who they are.

Focusing on Customer Value – People don’t spend money on a product’s features. People spend money on things that give them something of value – like time, money, happiness, health, and the like. For example, car shoppers don’t buy anti-lock brakes because they find abstract value in the technology; they buy anti-lock breaks because they value safety and health. Knowing what a customer values is the key to knowing how to serve them. Before participating in the lean startup program I didn’t understand the important distinction between features and value.

Finding Their Real Problem – Every customer has a litany of problems but only a few of them are ones that they’d be willing to pay someone else to solve. What’s helpful to know is that the real problems are usually directly related to what that customer truly values. If a customer values time, for example, you have to keep asking about tasks that consume their time until you understand what their real problem is and why it exists. I’ve been humbled by how long it takes to get to this level of understanding, our team didn’t start having useful insights until we completed more than 30 interviews.

IMPACT AND LESSONS LEARNED

Having these insights about product-market fit and learning to think from the perspective of a customer has shifted how I approach problem solving. I realized that my mindset had shifted about two weeks before the end of the program, when thinking about a new business to help grocery shoppers identify if the foods they were buying had unhealthy food additives.

The old me would’ve started thinking about all the cool features the product could have and schemes to monetize it. Instead though, I found myself thinking and talking about who the specific customer was, and why they valued a diet free of chemicals. Instead of trying to think of all the people who valued the product, I thought instead about people who would care about it the most. Thinking this way helped me come up with ideas that I could’ve never thought of without a customer mindset.

In that moment, I realized that I had begun to internalize a customer mindset and that I would never look at products or business models the same way again.

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