“The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, he’s one who asks the right questions.”
Claude Levi-Strauss

At the early stages of customer development when talking to our customers we want to understand their problems & needs as opposed to pitching our solutions.

“Your SOLUTION is NOT my PROBLEM”
Dave McClure (500Startups)

Asking and framing questions is a skill and there are many benefits from good questioning and framing techniques. By asking the right questions we can gather the maximum amount of information in a shorter time frame and assess what is going on more effectively. There are open and closed questions. A ‘closed’ question can be answered with a single word or short phrase e.g.

  • Is this a good product? – Yes/No
  • Do you like working on this product? – Yes/No
  • Were there benefits to working on this product? – Yes/No
  • How long have you worked on this? – 6 months

By asking closed questions (i.e. yes/no answers) you are not getting any valuable information and it can make your customer feel as if they are being interrogated. When doing customer interviews we want to first understand our customer’s problems. To do this we need to ask open questions to get those INSIGHTS. Open questions allows this and deliberately seek longer answers. They require the customer to think, reflect and give opinions. ‘What’ is an ‘open’ question, so to rephrase/reframe and ask some more ‘insightful’ questions here are some examples?

  • What’s your vision for this product and your company?
  • Where would you like to take this business to?
  • What are you currently looking for (e.g. performance, quality)?
  • What savings would make you happy (e.g. time, money, effort)?
  • What would make your life easier (or make your job easier)?
  • What do you find too costly (e.g. takes time, takes substantial effort)?
  • What frustrates or really annoys you?
  • How are current solutions underperforming?
  • What are the main challenges & difficulties you face?
  • What risks do you fear?
  • What keeps you awake at night?
  • What barriers are keeping you from adopting new solutions (e.g. investment, learning curve, resistance to change)?
  • How do you measure success or failure?

Open questions begin with what, why, how, describe. These are far more effective and less intrusive when you need to ask a series of questions. ‘What’, ‘How’, ‘Describe’ helps us to probe and understand the problem in more depth. For example the following questions;

  • What were the reasons that you had to do that?
  • Describe your day? Describe the process?
  • What is the consequence when that happens?
  • What can you do to prevent this from happening in the future?

In early stage customer interviews we want to LISTEN which is a difficult task as opposed to PITCHING our solution. Avoid ‘telling’ …. OR asking these ‘closed’ questions.

Have you tried? or Let me tell you … have you tried? “

More than likely they have tried A, B and C. The customer does not need you to provide solutions at this stage (unless they specifically ask you for that). A simple, open question, that gathers information would be e.g.

“What have you tried to solve this problem?”

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.”
Voltaire