Customer Interviewing: Valuable In Any Context

Customer Interviewing: Valuable In Any Context

As we highlighted previously, customer interviewing is a critical aspect of entrepreneurship. Whether starting a business, or working within a business to develop new products, understanding the experience of potential customers is necessary to deliver capture value in the marketplace.

Students need to practice customer interviewing in a variety of contexts. This helps them hone their skills, but also helps them realize the variety of situations where they can apply this skill in their career path.

The following exercise is an adaptation of the “Retooling Products to Reach New Markets: The Lindt Candy Dilemma” exercise Dr. Kimberly Eddleston at Northeastern University developed and shared here. We adapted it slightly to focus more on the customer interviewing opportunity.

Step 1: Explain the Activity

Pass out Lindt Lindor Chocolate Truffle Balls to students. I explain that when I was younger I would see these at my grandparents’ house during the holidays, and that you hated them when you were a kid. I want to create the expectation that the target market for these are the elderly during holidays.

Note: This is not Lindt’s targeting strategy. It helps me to create the learning lesson I’m looking for by creating the opposite customer persona from the one for whom I will ask them to design.

I instruct students to retool the chocolate truffle ball for a new audience – my son. I give them the following characteristics:

  • American boys age 10-14
  • Love candy & chocolate
  • No allergies
  • (really!) hip/cool parents
  • Always multitasking

I show them this picture of my son, and tell them this is my son, so they have a visual of their intended customer.

It is important to show them a picture of a new customer they can contact. If my class is during a time when my son is available (i.e., after his school), I will allow groups who ask to call my son to interview him. If my class happens when my son is in school, if groups ask to interview him, I answer questions on his behalf.

I direct students they will deliver a 90 second pitch for one product they develop based on the Lindt Lindor chocolate truffle ball that appeals to my son. I tell students they cannot develop any sort of M&M type candy, as this is the easy path.

My son judges the product pitches and picks a winner (if he is available he joins me for class, if he is not available I record the pitches and he watches them that night). Students include the following in their pitch:

  • Product name & tagline/slogan
  • Product concept/description (user experience, packaging, etc.)
  • Value proposition (the benefits the customer should expect)
  • Drawing of the product/packaging

Step 2: Launch the Activity

Organize students into groups of 4 or 5 members. Give students 30 minutes to develop their new product offering. Students will ask many questions about what they can and cannot do. For instance, they ask if they can change the wrapper, or if the new product has to have the filling, or if they need to include multiple flavors.

I will not answer most questions, as I want them operating under considerable ambiguity. I reply to all questions that their job is to create a version of the product that aligns with Lindt’s product portfolio but that is appealing to my son.

During this stage, students often spend far too much time on the idea generation phase. I walk around the room, reminding them of the time left. This creates some urgency for them to move beyond idea generation and complete all aspects of the assignment.

Students know they are designing a product for my son. If they ask me about my son’s preferences, I will sidestep those questions. I want students to not get information from a second-hand source, but to realize they have access to the actual customer. Some students ask to talk to my son, so I call him and let the team talk to him (if he is available).

If my son is not available, I will answer questions on his behalf as honestly as possible. If my son is available to judge at the end of class, I put him in a different room during the class, so students do not know he is there. All students will easily conclude they can interview him if he is in the room during the activity.

I want to make it possible, but not easy, for students to gather information directly from their intended target customer; I want them to take a risk and ask if they can call my son.

Students typically figure out or guess that my son is into video games. Those who talk to him, or ask me, find out he is a big fan of playing Minecraft. Many of these teams begin designing chocolate in the shape of Minecraft items (i.e., chests, animals, Steve, etc.) These have been the most common concepts from my students. I see a wide variety of tweaks to this general strategy – some include coupon codes for extras in the game, some include colored filling.

Teams who do not interview my son or I create a variety of products they think will be attractive to preteen boys. Ideas have included products themed around Fortnite or some other video game, Disney, Legos, Harry Potter, sports, emojis, etc. These are drastic failures as my son is singularly focused on gaming.

Some students have younger brothers or nephews who are the same age as my son. These groups often design a solution for those boys. Some will even call and interview their relative.

What they forget is that I told them the customer is my son. If his interests differ from those of their relative, they will design an ineffective product for my son.

Students who effectively interview my son or I realize the product my son wants is something he can easily and cleanly eat while playing video games. Winning products usually include packages that conveniently sit beside him or in his lap during gaming and include some sort of dunking product functionality.

Note: this will change drastically based on the person you choose as a new customer. Generally speaking, girls want a different product than boys, gamers want something different than athletes, etc. That is a valuable learning lesson to reiterate during debriefing.

Only one group in the many semesters I have conducted this exercise asked for feedback on their prototype. Because most groups spend so long on idea generation, they do not have time for multiple prototypes. This group, however, Facetimed my son multiple times with a variety of prototypes, each time gathering valuable feedback on his wants and needs. This group won by a landslide in that class. This is a valuable learning lesson to reiterate during debriefing.

Step 3: The Pitches

If my son is available, I bring him into the room and students pitch to him. If he is not available, students pitch to me, I record pitches and let them know my son will judge pitches that evening. Each team presents their product name, slogan, description and value proposition while showing their drawing.

After the pitches, if my son is in the room, he chooses the winner and explains his justification. If my son is not available, he watches the pitch recordings at night and looks at the drawings I bring home. In this case, he chooses a winner, and records a debrief video that I share with the class.

Step 4: Debrief the Exercise

This exercise forces students to reimagine an existing product instead of creating a new product. The key learning is about customer interviewing. I recommend using this exercise after students have been practicing interviewing around new ideas/products. This allows you to show them the value of interviewing in a new context, which reiterates this most important skill to entrepreneurs.

As Kimberly offers in her original post,

Other entrepreneurship topics that this exercise effectively supports include the discussion of product life cycles, turning creative ideas into innovations, how to grow a business by reaching new markets, types of product development projects (i.e. derivatives, platform, breakthrough), creating a total product offering, and image compatibility in developing an effective advertising campaign.”

Discussion questions to ask students include:

  • What was the most difficult aspect of retooling the product? Why?
  • Did you think about interviewing my son? Why or why not? If you thought about it, and did not interview him, why not?
  • Did you think about asking my son (or I) for feedback on your prototype? Why or why not? If you thought about it, and did not ask him (or me), why not?
  • What lessons did you learn about new product development?

The main points to reiterate during the debrief:

  • If you know your customer segment, interview them! Don’t guess what they want, ask them what they want.
  • Do not get lost in idea generation. Quickly gather feedback on ideas/prototypes from your customer.
  • Customer wants/needs and jobs-to-be-done will differ drastically between target groups.

Get the “Customer Interviewing: Valuable In Any Context” Lesson Plan

We’ve created a detailed lesson plan for the “Customer Interviewing: Valuable In Any Context” exercise to walk you, and your students, through the process, step-by-step.

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