Solutions are risky, focus on context if you want more customers.

This week I am going to be talking about customers again. While the C in COMPASS stands for 'Customer', it could just as easily be 'Context'.

My dictionary defines context as "the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood". What this means to me is that to understand customers, we must see them in their context.

It's important because, almost by definition, we bring a certain kind of lens to our perception of customers. We tend to see them a particular way based on our interactions with them, what we've read about them, our gut instinct, and so on.

But the risk is that we've taken a 'slice' of the customer and extrapolated from there. Extrapolation is a useful skill, but it has its limitations. We can't risk inventing the customers' life from whole cloth.

The underlying cause is often our "solution centricity". There are very few people who see a problem and decide to tackle it without having envisioned what the solution is first. It is usually the "aha" product idea moment that triggers the decision to solve the problem for customers.

So it's often the case that we start our journey building products while our knowledge of the customer is most narrow and filled with assumptions. Subconsciously, we've formed a lens through which we will see and interpret everything from this point forward. This becomes our context!

The danger is that we're making decisions about what customers truly need and what will change their behaviour, at the point where we have the least information about them that we're ever going to have.

It could be that we'll get lucky. That we saw the customer straight and got an accurate insight into their lives and our decisions from then on will be well-founded. I don't end up working with many such lucky customers myself, and please let me know if you are one. In any case, I don't advocate for planning to be fortunate as a strategy.

An example from my own experience: I work with CEOs of software companies who want to build a better software business. I think that the COMPASS-based tools & approach that I use will add value to any such undertaking. So is my customer the CEO of software building companies? Well, not quite.

I need those CEOs to have experienced a certain amount of pain in how software gets built; the challenges of hiring good tech people, of translating ideas into software, of trying to sell a product that does not fit a market or a channel. You often can't "see" these things, or get a measure for them. But they are an essential part of the context that makes a customer for me.

Absent that context, someone who learns about what I do might say "I don't need that”, whether they do or not. I've learned that I have to be very context-aware and understand the world in which my prospects live. Probably you should be the same.

So, what can you do?

  1. Recognise that your view of the customer is probably more limited than you think. Acknowledge that some of your cherished assumptions may be risky.

  2. Embrace the customer discovery process. Begin active research to build and test hypotheses about why customers do what they do, the impact of their problems, and so on.

  3. Start testing your map of assumptions — techniques such as interviews, questionnaires, prioritisation exercises, value proposition design exercises, and so on.

The result will be a far more holistic view of the customer. Establishing context tends to narrow your definition of 'customer’, so that there may be less of them overall. But, with the right context driving your decisions, you are much more likely to make those customers yours.

Matt MowerComment