In the early days of starting a business, nothing is more important than talking to customers. Serving your customers well means knowing your customers well, and to know your customers well, you need to find answers to some important questions — like what kind of need your product might fill for them, where and how they might come across your product, what might compel them to buy it (or pass it by).

Start by sketching out your ideal customer. How old is he/she? Where does she live? Where does he shop? How many kids does he have? How much free time does she have?

Now go find 20 of these people, and set up some conversations. Twenty conversations over coffee will give you more useful information than just about any other approach to starting a business.

ANTREPRENEURS, KNOW YOUR CUSTOMERS

Tips for making the most of those coffee conversations:

Conduct interviews one at a time

Preferably in person. And start by asking your interviewee, to be honest — blunt, even — so you can get the most valuable feedback possible.

Be prepared

Know your goals and questions ahead of time.

Ask open-ended questions

If your question can be answered with “yes” or “no,” toss it out. You’re not going to learn enough from asking it. Instead, ask questions that encourage your interviewee to dig deep and talk. I love asking questions that start, “Tell me about a time when…”

Listen, and then listen some more

The focus here is on listening and learning, not selling. Keep your questions short, and don’t rush to fill empty space with talking. Let your interviewee think, and let them speak. Just listen. The more you talk, the less you’re learning.

Dig deeper and confirm what you’ve heard

When appropriate, ask (open-ended) follow-up questions. Trust your instincts, and dig deeper. Listen. Occasionally, confirm what you’ve heard by saying, “So, if I’m hearing you correctly..” and then repeat what they said. This is a good way of actively listening and confirming that you understand. At the same time, you’re building trust because your customer feels listened to and understood.

Stay focused on your customer’s problem, not your product

People love to talk about products, features, and solutions. Try to bring the conversation back to the customer’s problem. You’re looking for stories about their problem, how they tried to solve their problem, and whether they were successful in doing so. You’re looking for them to tell you about products and services they currently use — your competition. You want to hear about their emotions.

Behavior first; feedback later

In the earliest days of your customer development conversations, you’re trying to understand behavior. You’re not looking for feedback about your brilliant business idea. Not yet. Instead, focus on your interviewee’s problem, and whether (and how) they’ve tried to solve it in past. Keep your product/service/prototype under wraps for now — you’ll get feedback on that later — and just get to know your customer.

Get ready for disappointment

You’re going to hear things you didn’t expect, and you’re going to hear things you don’t want to hear. And that’s a good thing. It’s all part of the process.

Ask for introductions

Every customer interview should lead to two or three more. Ask for introductions.

Take notes

After the interview, jot down as many notes as you can think of. Spend five to 10 minutes synthesizing your thoughts and putting them down on paper. By collecting all the feedback you’ve received from potential customers, you’ll be able to look at the big picture of what you’ve learned and begin formulating your next steps and tweaks based on that feedback.

Matt Dudley