The Mom Test is a book on best practices for interviewing potential customers in connection with customer development. This post contains my personal notes from reading the book.
If you are interested in how to interview customers, I recommend this book.
These “Book Notes” blog posts are inspired by Derek Sivers’ Book Notes. When I take the time to read a book, I take a few moments to distill the core concepts into something I can refer back to without having to go back through the book. Until now, I kept those notes private, but realized there is no reason not to share them with interested people.
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.
Ask Good Questions
- Talk about their life instead of your idea
- Ask about specifics in the past instead of generics or opinions about the future
- Talk less and listen more.
- “Why do you bother?”
- Great for getting from the perceived problem to the real one.
- “What are the implications of that?”
- Distinguishes between I-will-pay-to-solve-that problems and kind-of-annoying-but-whatever problems.
- Some problems have big, costly implications. Others dont.
- Gives you a good pricing signal.
- “Talk me through the last time that happened.”
- OK, but ideally they would show you rather than tell you.
- “What else have you tried?” Trying to figure out:
- What are they using now?
- How much does it cost and what do they love or hate about it?
- How much would those fixes be worth?
- How traumatic would it be to switch to a new solution?
- Did they google around for other ways to solve it?
- If not, that’s a bad sign. I.e., did they care enough to search for a solution?
- Rule of thumb: If they haven’t looked for ways of solving it already, they’re not going to look for or buy yours.
- “How are you dealing with it now?” (Strike this)
- Beyond workflow information, gives you a price anchor.
- “Where does the money come from?”
- Not really something you would ask consumer, but it is a must-ask in B2B context.
- This knowledge will eventually turn into a repeatable sales roadmap.
- “Who else should I talk to?” (skipped this for casual problem searching)
- End every conversation with this
- If someone doesn’t want to make intros, that’s OK, but you’ve learned that you’re either screwing up the meeting or they don’t actually care about the problem you’re solving.
- “What should I have asked but didn’t?
- People want to help. Give them an excuse to do so.
- This question is a bit of a crutch, you’ll discard it as you get better at asking good questions as you get to know the industry.
You can tell it’s an important question when its answer could completely change (or disprove) your business. If you get an unexpected answer to a question and it doesn’t affect what you’re doing, it wasn’t a terribly important question to begin with. Every time you talk to someone, you should be asking at least one question which has the potential to destroy your currently imagined business.
There’s no easy solution to making yourself face and ask these questions. I once heard the general life advice that, for unpleasant tasks, you should imagine what you would have someone else do if you were delegating it. Then do that. And remember, you’re allowed to ask about money. You’re a startup. It’s okay.
Rule of thumb: You should be terrified of at least one of the questions you’re asking in every conversation.
Love bad news: Some of the most informative (and thus best) responses you can get are along the lines of, “Umm, I’m not so sure about that” and “That’s pretty neat.” Both are lukewarm responses which tell you they don’t care.
The classic error in response to a lukewarm signal is to “up your game” and pitch them until they say something nice. Unless they’re holding a check, the only thing to gain from “convincing” them are false positives.
You’re not here to collect compliments; you’re trying to learn the truth. Their lukewarm response already gave you that.
If they’re still engaged in the conversation, it’s worth asking a couple follow-up questions to understand the nature of their apathy. Is the “problem” not actually that big of a deal? Are they fundamentally different from your ideal customers? Do they not care about the specific implementation? Are they worn out and skeptical from hearing too many pitches, like cafe owners in the aftermath of Groupon? Are they just plain tired today?
Look before you zoom
Start broad and don’t zoom in until you’ve found a strong signal, both with your whole business and with every conversation.
Everyone has problems they know about, but don’t actually care enough about to fix. And if you zoom in too quickly and lead them to that semi- problem, they’ll happily drown you in all the unimportant details. Zooming in too quickly on a super-specific problem before you understand the rest of the customers life can irreparably confuse your learnings.
“Does this problem matter” questions, for, e.g., a blog-related idea:
- “How seriously do you take your blog?”
- “Do you make money from it?”
- “Have you tried making more money from it?”
- “How much time do you spend on it each week?”
- “Do you have any major aspirations for your blog?”
- “Which tools and services do you use for it?”
- “What are you already doing to improve this?”
- “What are the 3 big things you’re trying to fix or improve right now?”
- “What are your big goals and focuses right now?”
We don’t always need to start from square one of “do they care at all?” Sometimes we already know the problem exists as a top priority and we can safely zoom in immediately. E.g., marketing is always a top 3 problem for small business.
Avoid Bad Data
Three types of bad data:
Deflect them or ignore them. They are a negative signal. If you’re getting them, you might be in pitching mode. Stop!
When someone starts talking about what they “always” or “usually” or “never” or “would” do, they are giving you generic and hypothetical fluff.
Ask good questions to anchor them back to specifics in the past. Ask when it last happened or for them to talk you through it. Ask how they solved it and what else they tried.
Examples of fluff-inducing questions:
- Do you ever…
- Would you ever…
- What do you usually…
- Do you think you…
- Might you…
- Could you see yourself…
No need to avoid these questions 100% of the time, but their responses are useless. Sometimes these questions can help you transition into more concrete questioning, e.g., “Do you ever X?” “Oh yeah, all the time” (transition:) “When’s the last time that happened?” “Can you talk me through that?”
If an interview “flips” to your side and is excited, that’s good, but be careful when they start offering feature requests. Write them down, but don’t add them to your todo list.
When you hear a request, it’s your job to understand the motivations which led to it. You do that by digging around the question to find the root cause. Why do they bother doing it this way? Why do they want the feature? How are they currently coping without the feature? Dig. You should dig in the same way around emotional signals to understand where they’re coming from. Just like feature requests, any strong emotion is worth exploring. Is someone angry? Dig. Embarrassed? Dig. Overjoyed? Dig!
Questions to dig into feature requests: “Why do you want that?” “What would that let you do?” “How are you coping without it?” “Do you think we should push back the launch to add that feature, or is it something we could add later?” “How would that fit into your day?”
Questions to dig into emotional signals:
- “Tell me more about that.”
- “That seems to really bug you — I bet there’s a story here.”
- “What makes it so awful?”
- “Why haven’t you been able to fix this already?”
- “You seem pretty excited about that — it’s a big deal?”
- “Why do happy?”
- “Go on.”
People love talking about their opinions and emotions. Digging into a signal is giving them permission to do a brain dump.
Cut off pitches
- “No, no, I don’t think you get it…”
- “Yes, but it also does this!”
Say something like: “Whoops - just slipped into pitch mode. I’m really sorry about that - I get excited about these things. Can we jump back to what you were saying? You were telling me that…”
If they say they really want to hear about what you’re working on, promise that you’ll tell them at the end of the meeting or loop them in for an early demo, and that you just want to talk a bit more about their stuff before biasing them with your idea.
Rule of thumb: The more you’re talking, the worse you’re doing.
Keep it Casual
Learning about a customer and their problems works better as a quick and casual chat than a long, formal meeting. The Meeting Anti-Pattern is the tendency to relegate every opportunity for customer conversation into a calendar block. Beyond being a bad use of your time and setting expectations that you’re going to show them a product, over-reliance on formal meetings leads us to overlook perfectly good chances for serendipitous learning. If it feels like they’re doing you a favour by talking to you, it’s probably too formal.
How long are meetings? Early conversations are very fast. The chats grow longer as you move from the early broad questions (“Is this a real problem?”) toward more specific product and industry issues (“Which other software do we have to integrate with to close the sale?”)
For example, it only takes 5 minutes (maximum) to learn whether a problem exists and is important. A bit further along, you’ll find yourself asking questions which are answered with long stories explaining their workflow, how they spend their time, and what else they’ve tried. You can usually get what you came for in 10-15 minutes, but people love telling stories about themselves, so you can keep this conversation going indefinitely if it’s valuable for you and fun for them.
Once you have a product and the meetings take on a more sales-oriented feel, you’ll want to start carving out clear blocks of 30ish minutes. You might lose 5 minutes due to miscellaneous tardiness, spend 5 minutes saying hello, 5 minutes asking questions to understand their goals/ problems/budget, 10 minutes to show/describe the product, and the last 5 minutes figuring out next steps and advancement. That’s your half hour.
Push for commitment and advancement
Once the key facts about the customers and industry have been learned, it’s time to “zoom in” and reveal our idea and show some of our product. Bad news: this invites compliments. Good news: we’re now in a position to begin asking for commitments. When someone isn’t emotional about what you’re doing, they’re probably not one of your early evangelists. Keep them on your list and try to serve them, but don’t expect them to write the first check.
When you do see deep emotion, keep that person close. They are a “rare, precious fan” who will give you your first sale.
In early stage sales, the real goal is learning. Revenue is a side-effect.
Once you’ve learned about your industry and customers are designed a solution, push for commitments to separate dead leads from real customers.
Currencies of Conversion
- Time commitment
- 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
- 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
- Cold calls: The goal of cold conversations is to stop having them. You hustle one or two from wherever you can, and then you turn those cold conversations into warm intro. The snowball starts rolling.
- Seizing serendipity: If it’s not a formal meeting, you don’t need to make excuses about why you’re there or even mention that you’re starting a business. Just ask about their life.
- Find a good excuse
- I’m a [law / grad] student and doing research for my thesis. It would be a huge help if I could ask you a couple questions for it.
- I’m “writing a book” and hoping to interview them.
- I’m “writing a blog post” and hoping to interview them.
- Downside: no matter how well the chat goes, it’s impossible to transition to a product or sales conversation because it reveals the initial deception and destroys trust. That makes using this only good for one-time learning rather than an ongoing relationship.
- Landing Pages
- Collect emails and email them to say hello
- General launch can be a solid start - see who seems to like it most and reach out to them for deeper learning
- Organize meetups
- Want to figure out problems for HR professionals? Organize a “HR professionals happy hour”
- People will assume you’re credible just because you sent the invite emails or introduced the speaker.
- Great thing to do in a new industry or geography.
- Bootstraps your industry credibility.
- Speak & teach
- If you’re making better PM software, you have expertise and a strongly held opinion about how things could be better.
- Teach at conferences, workshops, online videos, blogging, free consulting or office hours.
- Industry blogging
- Once you have readers of your blog, write a post and ask people to get in touch.
- Even without reader, when you send cold emails from your blod email, people meet because they check yoru domain, see your blog, and figure you’re an interesting person to chat with.
- Blogging also gets your thoughts together for future customer conversations.
- Create warm intros from:
- Industry advisors from advisory boad
- University professors
- They get funding from friendly, high-level industry people.
- They’re investing in research so they’re self-selected to be excited about new projects.
- Cash in favors: All those people who said “sounds good, keep me in the loop.”
Frame the meeting
Bad ways to frame the meeting, both asking for it and once it begins
- Can I interview you
- Thanks for agreeing to this interview
- Can I get your opinion on what we’re doing (needy)
- Do you have time for a quick coffee / lunch / chat /meeting? (will waste their time)
Good way - Vision / Framing / Weakness / Pedestal / Ask (Very Few Wizards Properly Ask for help)
- Vision: You’re an entrepreneur trying to solve horrible problem X, usher in wonderful vision Y or fix stagnant industry Z. Don’t mention your idea.
- Framing: Frame expectations by mentioning what stage you’re at, and if it’s true, that you don’t have anything to sell.
- Weakness: Show weakness and give them the chance to help by mentioning the specific problem you’re looking for answers on. This will help clarify that you’re not a time waster.
- Pedestal: Put them on a pedestal by showing how much they, in particular, can help.
- Ask: Explicitly ask for help.
(Doesn’t have to be in that order.)
Hey Pete, I’m trying to make desk & office rental less of a pain for new businesses (vision). We’re just starting out and don’t have anything to sell, but want to make sure we’re building something that actually helps (framing). I’ve only ever come at it from the tenant’s side and I’m having a hard time understanding how it all works from the landlord’s perspective (weakness). You’ve been renting out desks for a while and could really help me cut through the fog (pedestal). Do you have time in the next couple weeks to meet up for a chat? (ask)
- To start the meeting:
- Basically repeat whats in the email and then drop into the first question.
- “As I mentioned in the email”
- If someone else made the intro, mention them as a voice of authority. “Tom connected us because you have a pretty unique insight into what’s going on behind the curtain and could really help us get pointed in the right direction.”
Make sure you have your list of 3 big learning goals and an idea of possible next steps and commitments I can ask for is the meeting goes well.
For mindset: don’t go into the discussions looks for customers. Creates needy vibe and forfeits the position of power. Instead, go in search of industry and customer advisors. You are just trying to find helpful, knowledgable people who are excited about your idea. You’re screening them, not the other way around.
How many meetings?
UX community says keep talking to people until you stop hearing new information That should be 3-5 conversations if it’s a relatively simple industry and focused customer segment. If you’ve run more than 10 conversations and still getting results all over the map, customer segment is not narrow enough or too ambiguous.
Startups don’t starve, they drown. There are never too few options, too few leads or too few ideas. You always have too many. You get overwhelmed, do a little bit of everything. If you aren’t finding consistent problems and goals, you don’t have a specific enough customer segment.
Good customer segments as a “who-where” pair. Who are they and where can I find them.
How to find the customer segment
- Start with a broad segment and ask:
- Within this group, which type of person would want it most?
- Would everyone within this group buy/use it, or only some?
- Why does that sub-set want it? (e.g. what is their specific problem)
- Does everyone in the group have that motivation or only some?
- What additional motivations are there?
- Which other types of people have these motivations?
- Two sets of answers should come back:
- Collection of demographic groups
- Set of goals / motivations
- If answer is generic, go back and slice it again by repeating the questions above. Within that sub-group, who wants it move? Repeat.
- If there isn’t a clear physical or digital location at which you can find your customer segment, then it’s probably still too broad.
- Once we have the “who-where pairs”, we can decide which segment to start with based on who seems most:
- Profitable or big
- Easy to reach
- Personally rewarding
- Don’t plan or theorize forever on this. Just spend a few minutes and reach a concrete initial segment so we can go talk to them and move the idea forward.
Prep & Review
A common anti-pattern is for the business guy to go to all the meetings and subsequently tell the rest of the team what they should do. Bad idea. Telling the rest of the team “What I learned” is functionally equivalent to telling them “What you’ll do.”
Learning bottlenecks can be created from either end: the founder in touch with customers can do a bad job of sharing it, or the product team can refuse to engage with customers and what they say.
Symptoms of a learning bottleneck:
- “You just worry about the product. I’ll handle the customers.”
- “Because the customers told me so!”
- “I don’t have time to talk to people — I need to be coding!”
- Avoiding bottlenecks has three parts: prepping, reviewing, and taking good notes.
- Know your current list of 3 big questions
- If you’ve already learned the facts of the customer and industry, them know what committment and next steps I’m going to push for at the end of the meeting.
- Update an existing list of beliefs - spend an hour writing down your best guesses about what the person I’m talking to cares and wants. If you have an appropriately focused segment, will need to do this only rarely.
- If a question could be answered by desk research, do it. Don’t waste interview time.
- Due basic diligence on LinkedIn.
- Doesn’t need to be a long process. Just answer the basic question: what do we want to learn from these guys?
- After the interview, review notes, update your beliefs and big 3 questions as appropriate.
- Think about the convo itself: what questions worked and which didn’t? How can we do better next time? Any important signals or questions we missed?
How many people?
2, ideally. One for talking, one for note-taking.
- When possible, write down exact quotes.
- Add symbols to your notes as context and shorthand.
- Emotions are important (use symbols: :), :(, :| for embarrassed)
- Their life
- Pain or problem
- Goal or job-to-be-done
- Background or context
- Feature request or purchasing criteria
- Money or budgets or purchasing process
- Mentioned a specific person or company
- Follow-up task
- Dedicated notebook is fine, but index cards might be even better with one quote or learning per card. Just make sure the notes are lightweight enough that I’ll actually review them.
Warning signs you’re just going through the motions:
- You’re talking more than they are
- They are complimenting you or your idea
- You told them about your idea and don’t have next steps
- You don’t have notes
- You haven’t looked through your notes with your team
- You got an unexpected answer and it didn’t change your idea
- You weren’t scared of any of the questions you asked
- You aren’t sure what you’re trying to learn in this conversation
Process before a batch of conversations
- If you haven’t yet, choose a focused, findable segment
- With your team, decide your big 3 learning goals
- If relevant, decide on ideal next steps and commitments
- If conversations are the right tool, figure out who to talk to
- Create a series of best guesses about what the person cares about
- If a question could be answered via desk research, do that first
During the conversation
- Frame the conversation
- Keep it casual
- Ask good questions which pass The Mom Test
- Deflect compliments, anchor fluff, and dig beneath signals
- Take good notes
- If relevant, press for commitment and next steps
After a batch of conversations
- With your team, review your notes and key customer quotes
- If relevant, transfer notes into permanent storage
- Update your beliefs and plans
- Decide on the next 3 big questions
This stuff is fast
Don’t spend a week prepping for meetings; spend an hour and then go talk to people. Anything more is stalling.
Don’t spend months doing full-time customer conversations before beginning to move on a product. Spend a week, maybe two. Get your bearings and then give them something to commit to.
You’ll keep talking to customers for the life of your company, of course. I’m not advising you to become a recluse after the first two weeks. Your customers are a crucial source of ongoing insight. With the tools in this book (especially Keeping it Casual) you should be able to keep benefitting from customer learning without feeling like you’re wasting so much time on it. You can do it alongside growing your business rather than in place of it.
Results of a good meeting
Facts — concrete, specific facts about what they do and why they do it (as opposed to the bad data of compliments, fluff, and opinions)
Commitment — They are showing they’re serious by giving up something they value such as meaningful amounts of time, reputation risk, or money
Advancement — They are moving to the next step of your real-world funnel and getting closer to a sale