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Extreme Customer Insights: A Startup Marketing Secret Weapon

In my first startup marketing job I was given the task of attempting to call a couple hundred customers to try to rustle up a dozen or so customer references. That task opened my eyes to how important customer insight was for our startup’s marketing efforts. I quickly learned that there we things things we spent a lot of time talking about in our messages that customers simply didn’t care about. I learned that some of our assumptions about how customers made purchase decisions was deeply flawed. And I learned that there were a host of smaller improvements that I could make to our marketing as a result of the insight I gained on those calls.

Since then, in every company I worked in, I’ve tried to create programs that helped us as a marketing team develop a “talking to customers” habit.

This week I did a talk at Communitech’s Strategic Marketing Peer2Peer meeting and my topic was how to develop this habit, what questions I think marketers should focus on in these interviews and how you can use what you’ve learned in ways that go way beyond the traditional customer case study. Here are the slides (and scroll down for a summary of some of the key points).

How Do You Make Talking to Customers a Habit?

Startup Marketers are busy folk dealing with shifting deadlines and priorities. Setting aside time to interact with customers and prospects can easily get pushed to the bottom of our priority list. Making customer interaction a habit often involves taking a programmatic approach. Here are a some ideas of how to make talking to customers more of a habit:

  1. Start a Customer Advisory Council or User Group
  2. Make it a habit (or a rule) that travelling employees must visit at least one customer or prospect
  3. Organize customer dinners at tradeshows or events
  4. Institute a Win/Loss program to debrief with prospects/customers
  5. Kick off a Customer Reference program
  6. Assign key accounts to employees and start a program where those accounts must be called/visited at least once a quarter.
  7. Give employees a monthly number of prospects/customers they have to speak to

What types of Questions Should Marketers Ask on Prospect/Customer Calls?

In my experience doing a great customer call is a skill that gets better with practice. There are three key areas that marketers need to explore in these calls: Customer, Market and Buying Process. These question are different from what the Lean Startup folks would call “Customer Discovery” mainly because they are less focused on product feature and function and more focused on how customers communicate, how they describe value, how they view offerings like yours, how they make purchase decisions and what motivates them.

The exact questions will depend on your target market and offering but here are some sample questions:


  1. What does your typical day look like?
  2. What other products do you use?
  3. What do you love? What do you hate?
  4. What kind of person are you?
  5. When do you read your email?
  6. What device do you read email on? What device do you surf on?
  7. What events do you attend?
  8. What sites/publications/ newsletters do you read?
  9. Who do you admire?


  1. Who do you think we compete with?
  2. If you weren’t using our product what would you use?
  3. Describe what we do.
  4. How would you describe the benefit of what we do?
  5. How would you measure the value we provide?
  6. What market are we in?

Buying Process

  1. How did you know you needed something like our solution?
  2. What triggered your search for a solution?
  3. Was there anything that would have stopped you from making a purchase?
  4. Did you talk to anyone before making your decision to buy? Who?
  5. Did you make a short list? Who else was on it?
  6. What was your short list criteria?
  7. Did you do any research before you bought? Where?
  8. Who else was involved in the purchase? How?




  1. A great read, I found the list of example questions especially helpful. I like the two-birds approach of improving client communication and getting truly useful information at the same time.

    We’ve recently started a customer reference program, and while that’s a good start, there’s clearly more that can be done.

    I think the questions regarding the buying process for the customer would be useful in determining how the competition is improving, and could potentially be a substantial competitive advantage. This is much easier than trying to infer progress through tools like Google Analytics, and much more direct.

    • Hey Will – thanks for the comment!
      That’s a good point about how hard it is to track some of this stuff through data alone. When I gave this talk we got into a good discussion around how do these efforts combine with you efforts around analytics and surveys. In my mind the data is great but it can only take you so far. Often it tells you “what” is happening but it doesn’t tell you “why” it’s happening. So the data might tell you where you need to probe but you still have to get with your customers/prospects and do the probing.

  2. This was a good read. We often get too busy trying to acquire new clients that we tend to forget about enhancing the experience of our existing clients.

    It incredibly important to also validate the pain points that the product or service aims to solve. What we have done is that we asked similar questions in getting to know the customer, but also asking them about what we think is the top 3 pain points. Once it is validated, we focus our solutions to those pain points and also focus our messaging.

    • Thanks for the comment.
      You make a good point about pain points. I think it’s really useful to hear how the customer describes the pain and the value of the solution in their own words. We often use really different vocabulary. The closer we can get our messaging to the way customers describe things the more it’s going to resonate.
      And just to be clear – I think you need to be doing this with prospects and clients. The key things you can get from clients easily that you can’t get as easily from prospects is the information around the purchase process. But when it comes to pain and value, prospects are important and in the early stages – they are often all you’ve got 🙂

  3. Love the question: “If you weren’t using our product, what would you use?” Loaded with potential to get a customer voice on why you’re really great as well as what could be improved to ensure that you don’t get blindsided by an unexpected user need or new competitor.


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