Your Customers Won’t Change, You Should

In the journey to product-market fit many companies take a giant leap of faith in how important and prevalent the problem they are solving is. That’s the #1 reason for startup failure. To make sure it doesn’t happen to you, you must look at your customers for what they are and not for what you want them to be.

As you might already know, I met my husband relatively late in my life (at least compared to what I had planned for myself). I felt I was behind in the race, and went to a therapist for the first time. Two weeks in, she said one sentence that had a dramatic impact on how I felt about this topic. She told me that I am a unique person and that means that I need someone unique that would fit me. 

The reason the impact was so dramatic was that up until that point, I tried to do the exact opposite: on one hand, I would date someone and try to change myself to fit them. At the same time, I dated people who weren’t a great fit for me to begin with (for example someone who told me straight up that they are not ready for a long-term relationship) and convinced myself that if they just got to know me for real, they would understand that this is what they had wanted all along. Unfortunately, it only works in the movies.

The acknowledgment that I don’t need to change, and neither do they, was mindblowing. It took me about a year to fully implement it, but by the end of that year, I felt I can continue the journey on my own. I quit therapy much happier than I entered it and with the patience to wait for my special one. It took two months for Arik to show up, and the rest is history.

The reason I’m telling you this is that I see too many companies thinking that they can cause their potential customers to realize that this is what they had wanted all along. Like in my love story, this too only works in the movies.

Unlike my love story, where the secret was to find a perfect match between two people who love and accept each other just as they are, in your product-market fit journey one side does need to change – your side. To navigate this process successfully and morph yourself into whatever your customers need, you must first acknowledge that you cannot change them. It makes things much easier and much faster when you work with reality and not against it.

Here are a few points to keep in mind that will help you maintain the right mindset for success.

Accept Your Customers as They Are

It sounds trivial. “The customer is always right” is an overused phrase. But let’s dive into why this is the case. It’s not because the customer knows better. It’s not because they have legitimate demands. It doesn’t even mean that you always have to do what they are asking for, but they are always right because they are the only ones that have their point of view, and you cannot argue with that.

You should treat what your customers want, feel, and need – whether they know it or not – as an objective truth. You might feel that this is putting additional constraints on you, but the opposite is true. If you accept that what they say is true in their world, you can then decide what to do with it. You can decide to ignore it. You can decide that you are not going to invest in what they need. It’s a legitimate choice that gives you much more freedom than the alternative. But you can only enjoy this choice if you are not arguing with how they see their own reality because that’s not for you to say. 

Acknowledge Unpleasant Truths

More specifically, if people don’t have a specific problem that you are solving, or it’s not painful and urgent enough, there is not much you can do to convince them otherwise. You will do much better if you get it quickly from the conversation rather than at the end of a long sale cycle that doesn’t yield results. If you are still in your product-market fit journey, you might need to decide to understand what problems they do have and see if you can solve them – it’s a decent choice and what you should be doing in most cases. But you can only do that if you understand what they tell you. It’s not always straightforward, and we’ll talk more about it next week, but many times they have their ways to tell you, but you don’t listen because you don’t want things to be this way.

Most companies approach their potential customers ready to convince them that they are the perfect match for them. It’s hard, especially in the early stages, that you don’t yet have a playbook and the product as well as the value proposition are still malleable. But while you are trying really hard to say the right words, you must listen carefully to see if these words work.

Of course, you want to leave on a positive note, you want to secure a second meeting at all costs, and you want to look shiny and attractive. But if the other side doesn’t find you attractive and you continue, you are not making any real progress. So while you continue racing, make sure you listen and perform reality checks to see if your customers are still with you. Negative signals could be gentle, but even if they are blunt you might miss them completely if you are not ready to accept that “they are just not into you” as the movie said. 

If you realize that’s the case, by the way, you might want to call it out. Say that it seems like the problem we are talking about isn’t a top priority for them, and see how they respond. You will at least know where you stand, and this might be the beginning of an open discussion about what problems they have that are top priorities that you might be able to solve. That’s where the real discovery begins.

“They Don’t Get It” Often Means You Don’t Get It

If you feel that your customers simply don’t understand you, you can’t blame them. To fully own your success, you must change how you define and communicate your product and its value.

Instead of saying “They didn’t get the value”, start saying “The value we talked about wasn’t something they want”. It might look like a minor change, but it is a significant one in the sense that your value isn’t an objective truth that they need to get. Instead, you are exploring what works to resonate well with a value that they will want, and they represent the truth at least for their own case (you must apply critical thinking to see if this customer represents a larger audience). 

In some cases, you will come to realize that a certain market segment isn’t a good fit for the value you can offer, and you will need to move to another market segment. But even when the market segment is the right one, changing is on you.

The change could be in each part of the product circuit model: you might need to change the product since it doesn’t deliver the value that you promised (and that your customers really want). You might need to change the approach to the solution since people don’t believe in it. But you might also need to change the value proposition or even the problem that you are solving.

Note though that sometimes you only need to change how you talk about the problem so that it resonates better with your customers and they feel that you are talking about their own world. Sometimes these changes will have a deeper effect and will require changes to the product itself.

In either case, treat your customers as the anchor – because they know themselves best, and you are a guest in their world. In your journey to product-market fit remember that it is your job to morph to fit them, and not vice versa.

Our free e-book “Speed-Up the Journey to Product-Market Fit” — an executive’s guide to strategic product management is waiting for you

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