When You Don’t Know if You’re Solving the Right Problem

Or, why you shouldn’t share your ideas with customers

👋 Hello, and welcome to a new edition of Expander. I’m Abhishek, and each week I share the essential skills, frameworks, and practices you need to learn to grow in your career. Send me your questions and in return I’ll humbly offer BS-free actionable advice.

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If you find this post valuable, check out some of my other posts:

  1. Do you know the ‘real’ reason people use your product?

  2. Decision making for new hires

  3. Five factors to keep in mind while changing jobs

  4. An antidote to poor estimate, overwork, and burnout

Q: I’m the only PM of a struggling B2B startup. I’ve been a founder before. The two ventures I started didn’t end well. We weren’t able to build compelling products both the time. I’ve this feeling that I don’t know how to solve the right customer problems.

This is a problem of idea validation. Yes, that stage in a business when a PM or a founder has a vague idea about what they want to build, and they visit potential customers to “validate” if it’s at all a good idea, and if the customers would be willing to pay.

Just to be clear before going ahead, the ideas I share are geared towards B2B. What’s the difference? Well, in B2B it’s absolutely crucial to make sure we are solving the problem of a customer (for which they are willing to pay) instead of a problem (which they can live with).

The case of B2C products is a bit different. Building an MVP and cracking distribution (through word of mouth or virality) is usually the right strategy. Mostly because we aren’t solving a “real” pain. For example, nobody ever woke up in the middle of the night wishing there was some way for them to update their status (before Facebook and Twitter existed).

Generally speaking, B2C products are vitamins whereas B2B products are pain-killers. More on that later (perhaps in some other post). Having cleared that out, let’s move ahead.

The classic mistake most PMs make is “ask” customers if they are willing to pay. If you ever ask, “If we build this, would you pay for it?” this is how it’ll go down. Nine out of ten customers would say yes. Then you’ll take the next three months to build an MVP (which if you ask me is just a working prototype) and pay as visit to those who said yes.

But it’s been three months since they said yes. Even if they were a wee bit interested in the beginning, they have moved on. Now the answer is, “Yeah, sounds like a great idea but it’s not the most important problem in my organisation right now. Maybe later. Keep me posted.” Your three months’ effort just when down the drain and you aren’t sure what to do next.

First, you want the customer’s commitment (to pay), not compliment (on your idea). Second, you should never ask a customer what they think about the idea. Never! In fact, you should completely avoid mentioning your idea when you talk to potential customers. If you do this, I promise you’ll start asking better questions immediately.

Before you validate the idea, you have to validate the problem. You have to find out if it is really a problem worth solving. This is the easiest (and biggest) improvement you can make to your customer conversations.

So, instead of asking: Do you think it’s a good idea? Would you buy a product which did X? How much would you pay for X? Start asking: Why is this a problem? Why do you bother solving it? What are its implications?

Your goal is to figure out how strong their motivation is to solve the problem. Is this really that big a problem that would add a tonne of value to their lives and their company? If it is, do others in the org realise it? Ask them to talk you through the last time they had to deal with the problem.

Seeing is better than listening. If you can see their workflow and understand how they deal with the problem, you would feel their frustration as well. This would give you some idea of how big this problem really is.

Don’t forget to ask what else have they tried. Because, if it’s really that big a problem, they must have tried and failed to find solutions. If they haven’t looked for ways of solving it already, they’re not gonna look for (or buy) yours.

One other classic mistake that amateurs make is have customers supply the solution. You have to understand it’s not their job. Just like you aren’t allowed to tell them what their problem is, they aren’t allowed to tell you what you should build. They own the problem, you own the solution. Keep it that way.

The primary goal of the problem discovery process is to stumble on insights you weren’t aware of and, even better, insights that surprise you. It’s not that hard. The only thing people love talking about (more than themselves) is their problems.

By taking an interest in the problems and minutia of their day, you’re already more interesting than 99% of the people they talk to. Now you just have to talk less and nudge more. Try, “Tell me more about that,” “That seems to really bug you,” “What makes it so awful?” “Why haven’t you fixed it already?” to get the ball rolling.

Keep an eye out for strong emotions. There is a difference between: “Yeah, that’s a problem” and “THAT IS THE WORST PART OF MY JOB AND I HATE IT WITH ALL MY HEART!”

Apart from strong emotions, strong incentive is a good indicator. Any problem that, when solved, gets the customer promoted or noticed in the org means they have skin in the game. They’ll go out of their way to make sure the deal gets closed.

This is also a good time to ask where the budget’s gonna come from and who’s gonna approve. “Who else should I talk to?” You always wanna know who the final decision-maker is. You want to avoid a situation like, “Hey I talked to my boss… and she thinks it’s not the best time for us,” especially after you have validated the problem.

In conclusion: explore the problem, don’t mention your idea, ask good questions. Try to learn about your customer’s life, work, problems, roadblocks, dreams, aspirations, and goals. Above all, try to find their intrinsic motivation to solve the problem.

When you are done asking everything you wanted to ask, don’t forget to ask one last question: “Is there anything else I should have asked?” People want to help. Give them an excuse to do so.

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Share Your Thoughts

Do you agree with what I said, or do you think otherwise? Share your comments, counters, and questions. Also, don’t forget to share how you would approach today’s problem. Use the comments!

Until next week,
Abhishek 👋