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Cindy Alvarez is the author of "Lean Customer Development: How to Build Products Your Customers Will Buy". She heads up product design and user research for Yammer, a Microsoft company. People trust her because she has a psychology degree from Harvard University, but her most valuable skills were honed working in tech support and posting on usenet.

Cindy has been using customer development techniques for well over a decade, across a variety of roles and organization sizes. She hates that alleged Henry Ford quote “If I’d asked customers what they wanted, they would’ve said ‘a faster horse’.” 

She’s @cindyalvarez on twitter and blogs at http://www.cindyalvarez.com

  • AP

    Anthony Panepinto

    about 3 years ago #

    @cindyalvarez Hey Cindy,

    Awesome having you on here! It's perfect timing to ask you a few questions for where I am at in my career.

    1. We've just launched our new product venuevortex.com and we're in the customer development stage. We're looking to make our product more sticky and are having a difficult time with it. I know that you're busy so I'll explain the main idea. (Elevator pitch - we're connecting people that are planning events with top quality venues).

    User flow:
    - You visit venuevortex.com.
    -You selects the city in which you're looking for a venue and hit search.
    - You gets a curated list of results and can tweak the results using the filters on the left side to narrow them down by Event type, venue type, capacity, budget and amenities.
    - You find a venue or a few of them that you'd consider booking. -You can either click "More Details" on one venue and then click "Get In Touch" to send the venue representative a message (you need to sign up to send messages to venue reps) OR you can send one bulk message to several venues by clicking the "Add To My Queue" button on whichever venues you like.
    - Once you've added a few to your Queue that you like you can click the "Send a request to the 5 venues you've chosen" button and compose their message or if you click "Get In Touch" with one you can send a message to the one venue.
    - The message is delivered to the venue representative or representatives and you can expect a response within 1-12hrs max.

    Problem is, users aren't signing up and two they aren't sending requests.

    We've tried facebook ads, joining relevant twitter conversations, and we're now running Google Adwords, google adwords seem to be working in getting us sign-ups but our customer acquisition cost is far too high considering that venues will only pay us when they receive requests.

    Any ideas on how to make the product more sticky? And better for users?

    Thanks so much again!
    Anthony

    • CA

      Cindy Alvarez

      about 3 years ago #

      What's the big problem you're solving? That there are people who need to set up events but it's hard for them to find venues (especially affordable/interesting ones)?

      What have you learned from talking to your prospective customers?

      • AP

        Anthony Panepinto

        about 3 years ago #

        Exactly, so the people we've spoken with so far have all been in agreement that it's difficult to find venues that are available on the date they need, with prices, that are unique, and with our product they have all of that information + they're able to reach out to several venues at once.

        The main issue is scale/getting in front of enough eye-balls.

        • CA

          Cindy Alvarez

          about 3 years ago #

          So if I had one of the admins I work with sign up, she'd go through the flow and use your product and have zero problems finding a venue?

          Have you watched over the shoulder as people tried to do this? I don't mean to be combative but there are VERY often seemingly trivial experience issues that kill services like this and it's almost impossible to learn about them without doing a concierge style service for a number of people.

          Who is your target audience?
          In the past 6 months, how many events have they planned?
          How are they currently finding venues?
          Are you assuming that you're going to generate a new market (i.e. people who didn't plan events in the past will now do so b/c your product makes it so much easier?)

          • AP

            Anthony Panepinto

            about 3 years ago #

            It's a simple process so your admin would be able to find and reach out to a venue quite easily I'm sure, but on the second thought that's obviously biased and I won't know how easy it is for others unless I conduct usability testing. Usability testing is a good idea - I'll give it a go.

            Our target audience is millennials (24-35) that are looking for venues for their meetups, their wedding, product launches, birthdays, baby showers etc...

            We're only 2 months old! So we've only had 1 event successfully planned with the aid of our service.

            From the people we've interviewed they're using google search to find venues, and they spend a lot of much time calling and emailing places that were unavailable, out of budget, or just not what they were looking for. We made venuevortex.com to make sifting through this chaos easier.

            Lastly, exactly - our goal is to make finding and booking venues so easy that people who wouldn't typically book them can do so with our platform.

            The main thing we'll focus on is usability testing because people are probably dropping off somewhere along the process. Thanks for the tip.

            • CA

              Cindy Alvarez

              about 3 years ago #

              OK, additional detail I would say CONCIERGE MVP!

              You should be committing to handholding and helping 10 to 12 people find and book an event, before you spend another cent on ads.

              Within your friends of friends, you should be able to find that many people who are planning a work offsite or baby shower or birthday party in the next month.

  • HQ

    Hila Qu

    about 3 years ago #

    Hi @cindyalvarez I was reading your series of "should I send a survey", and found a lot interesting thoughts in them. Thanks for sharing.

    I have a related question. From your past experience, what are some mistakes companies made when attempting to develop their customer segment/persona? Is there any methodology or framework you would recommend to make customer persona more meaningful and actionable? Thanks!

    • CA

      Cindy Alvarez

      about 3 years ago #

      1) Over-relying on demographics
      2) Not talking to humans

      • CA

        Cindy Alvarez

        about 3 years ago #

        To add detail --

        Over-relying on demographics: it's very common to think of customer segments in terms of age, socioeconomics, or self-identifications like "soccer mom". But those are very limiting and they speak to "what a person is LIKE" not "how a person BEHAVES".

        For example, if you were starting a baby toy company, you might assume your customer persona includes "parent". But grandparents buy toys! So do aunts and uncles and childfree-by-choice friends of people with kids.

        2) It's so easy to find market research type data showing averages of behaviors. But talking to actual humans is where you get at the complexity.

        4 Share
        • HQ

          Hila Qu

          about 3 years ago #

          @cindyalvarez Thank for your answer. Segment by "How a person BEHAVES" makes a lot sense, and from there, understand human needs.

      • AD

        April Dunford

        about 3 years ago #

        If I could upvote this 10X I would :)

  • SL

    Spencer Lanoue

    about 3 years ago #

    Hey Cindy, thanks for taking the time to come answer our questions :)

    My question is around which team should own customer development in a startup with ~250 employees.

    We have a very, very wide range of customer segments.... from managers to VP's of many different teams at SMB's and larger enterprises.

    I don't believe we understand them as well as we should. And it would make my life so much easier (and all of our efforts more effective) if we had a better picture of who these people were.

    So I'm curious: who should own the job of customer development? Is it the marketing team? UX research? product? someone else?

    • CA

      Cindy Alvarez

      about 3 years ago #

      Customer development needs to be owned by someone with the power to make decisions and changes.

      In small startups that either needs to be the founder or someone that the founder has explicitly and repeatedly trusted and deferred to ("oh, we thought X but your interviews showed Y and so we're going to trust that")

      In a bigger startup that's not realistically going to be a founder. So it has to be someone who cares a lot, who is empowered to push changes, and who is okay with delivering sometimes-unpopular truths.

      At Yammer we do this on my UX research team and I think that's a good fit because we meet these criteria. It CAN also be a good fit for a PM group, but only if they are explicitly rewarded for doing a good job at cust dev. If they feel like "this is taking time away from my 'real' PM work," then it's not going to be effective.

      4 Share
  • SE

    Sean Ellis

    about 3 years ago #

    Hey Cindy, awesome to have you doing an AMA with us! My question is from past or current teams, do you have a particular growth experiment that was either a big win or a big learning experience that you can share with us?

    • CA

      Cindy Alvarez

      about 3 years ago #

      People are more likely to respond to a personal name than a generic one. Send from "Sean Ellis (from GrowthHackers)" not "GrowthHackers team".

      If you're a big company this is even more extreme! My team sends emails identifying ourselves as Yammer - no one wants to talk to MSFT! Other teams have tried this too - a PM from Visual Studio had better response rates identifying herself as from the VS team as opposed to from MSFT.

      3 Share
      • SE

        Sean Ellis

        about 3 years ago #

        Funny, this was a test we ran this past week. Still waiting on the results!

    • CA

      Cindy Alvarez

      about 3 years ago #

      Another - be opinionated about how someone SHOULD use your product!

      At KISSmetrics and Yammer, we've seen good numbers from using specific things that a person could do to get value from our product. Many entrepreneurs/PMs think that this is pigeonholing your product and are reluctant to do it. But the truth is that we think about our products 24/7. We KNOW all the cool shit you can do with them! The average customer isn't giving us hours of their attention. They're busy, they're distracted, we're a tiny part of their day. If they have to think too much, they'll open another tab window and may never come back.

  • AA

    Anuj Adhiya

    about 3 years ago #

    Hi Cindy,

    Thanks for joining us!

    What do you see as the biggest mistake most startups making with customer development in terms of questions asked or interpreting responses?

    • CA

      Cindy Alvarez

      about 3 years ago #

      Asking biased questions. It's really hard to avoid, but it can completely color the responses you get.

      For example, "Anuj, don't you think it would be easier if you could _____?"

      You're probably going to answer yes. And that's going to mislead me for 2 reasons -- one, I'll want to believe that your "yes" means you'd likely buy my product -- & two, you will probably forget or not feel comfortable bringing up what really WOULD make your life easier (which is the problem area where you really WOULD buy a product from me to solve it!)

      5 Share
  • SP

    Steven Pesavento

    about 3 years ago #

    Hi Cindy, It's great to have you here today.

    What’s the one thing that someone reading this AMA could/should take away apply to their own startup/career?

    • CA

      Cindy Alvarez

      about 3 years ago #

      Humans are complicated and irrational (that's what makes us awesome).

      The more human-hours you clock, the more you'll understand how people behave and why people make certain choices - without understanding those, you're just shooting in the dark.

      You might luck out and create something people will buy, but you probably won't - and the reason you'll miss will be something seemingly trivial.

      4 Share
      • AA

        Anuj Adhiya

        about 3 years ago #

        The bit about humans being irrational has been one of the hardest things (as a "rational-leaning" individual) for me to wrap my brain around.
        Do you think there is a pattern in terms of specific situations, environments, products etc where we are likely to behave more irrationally than others?

        • CA

          Cindy Alvarez

          about 3 years ago #

          We are more irrational when we are:
          tired/distracted
          a n00b
          in unfamiliar territory
          perceived risk is high
          decisions seem very final

          There are product solutions that help reduce the friction in these.

          We can reduce the number of decisions we force you to make (set intelligent defaults that make sense for MOST people, explain WHY someone might want to deviate from them)

          We can use friendly conversational copy vs. formal stilted business jargon. Anything on your website, you should feel comfortable saying out loud to another human. If reading your marketing copy makes you feel like a jerk or a tool, your copy sucks.

          We can reassure people for all decisions that are un-do-able (return policy, reset to default options, etc.)

          We can refrain from explaining HOW everything works! This is particularly hard for people who work in tech because we LOVE knowing how things work. But most people don't. And even we don't, in a lot of situations. I don't care how my shower works - I just want to turn a knob and get hot water. I think we're seeing some apps really capitalize on this - like Uber or Postmates - I don't care HOW the car finds me, I just want to punch a button and have a car appear. I don't want to care HOW someone gets to El Farolito and places my order, I just want a carnitas burrito.

          2 Share
  • LS

    Logan Stoneman

    about 3 years ago #

    Cindy! Great to have you here this morning :)

    How do you balance the needs/wants of your current customers and those of your future customers? If the needs are different, how do you choose what product to create?

    Oh and side question: Your hatred of the Henry Ford quote is interesting. How do you think real breakthrough innovation, like the car, happens? Is it possible to build a product customers cannot imagine they need?

    • CA

      Cindy Alvarez

      about 3 years ago #

      Your aim is to make your business survive.
      Where do you see the ability to solve the biggest problems for a set of people for the best profit?

      Several times now I've been at companies who had one customer base who LOVED the product, but were a niche/power-user audience. We could deliver good value for these people -- they loved us! But there WEREN'T ENOUGH OF THEM to make a sustainable business. (obvi sometimes a niche audience works, but only if each person in that niche is willing to pay a lot of $)

      So if you current customers want X but you think there's a bigger opportunity to provide Y to a set of future customers who are more numerous or will pay you more, then you have to start shifting to Y.

      How do you do that? Well, you start with your cust dev to make sure Y is feasible. Then you start building in the Y direction, and at some point customers will start asking, "why are you building Y? We want X? What's going to happen to this product?"

      The wrong thing to do is ignore them. That just breeds mistrust.

      When I was at Yodlee and we went through this, I wrote a lot of very honest messages around basically, "hey, we need to support this audience in order to be a sustainable biz. That means we're going to do less of X and more of Y. We understand that you want us to do more X, but that's not aligning with our vision. So at some point we might lose you as a customer - we really hope not, but we understand. And we hope we can still provide you value with the Y solution even though it's not what you're asking for"

      and people were surprisingly respectful of that. They weren't HAPPY, but they also weren't blasting us.

      5 Share
    • CA

      Cindy Alvarez

      about 3 years ago #

      Did anyone imagine they needed Uber? or TiVo? :smirk:

      • CA

        Cindy Alvarez

        about 3 years ago #

        So to dig in on this -- if you watch people perform a task, you will notice the weird workarounds and inefficiencies they have, or the places where they are frustrated.

        The people have stopped noticing that this is a problem, or have resigned themselves to it. So they're not actively looking for solutions. But you as the outsider can notice that there is a problem and ask the naive question that all-too-often shows the way to a better solution.

        1 Share
        • AA

          Anuj Adhiya

          about 3 years ago #

          "Ask the naive question" - love it!

          Are there any other such "hacks" (if I can use that term) to get people to explain/realize that there is a problem/is a need for a better solution?

          • CA

            Cindy Alvarez

            about 3 years ago #

            How long did it take, last time you did ________?
            ...Oh, wow. Is that typical?
            How often do you do ________?
            ...So, you'd say you spent X hours doing _____ last month. That sounds like 20% of your job!

            That IS a leading question-and-answer. So don't abuse it! You definitely don't want to be this leading when you're trying to FIND problems. But once you've seen a problem and it really looks painful to you but the other person doesn't realize it, sometimes you have to push like this.

          • CA

            Cindy Alvarez

            about 3 years ago #

            Another is to ask, "What would you be able to do if you didn't have to do _______ when you're doing ______?" i.e. "What would you be able to do if it took you 1/4 the time to complete that task?" or "What would you be able to do if you didn't have to wait for engineering resources every time you wanted to change the website?"

            If someone can immediately say "OMG, I would be able to _____!" then that's a good indicator that this is a big problem. If someone just says "well, it'd just be better" or "well, it'd just be nice-to-have...", you have your invalidation.

  • SE

    Sean Ellis

    about 3 years ago #

    Another question for you Cindy... What is the biggest difference you've experienced working at a smaller company like KISSmetrics vs a larger company like Yammer/Microsoft in a user experience, product or growth role?

    • CA

      Cindy Alvarez

      about 3 years ago #

      There's a lot of perceived "but we can't DO that" in a Microsoft-sized company. I spend a lot of time explaining that YES, you can go find customers on LinkedIn. YES, there is nothing illegal about interviewing someone using a competitor product.

  • CA

    Cindy Alvarez

    about 3 years ago #

    Good morning all!

  • MB

    Morgan Brown

    about 3 years ago #

    Hi Cindy,

    Thanks for doing this AMA! Question for you. Obviously product design can drive growth but you can also create dark patterns either intentionally or through over optimizing on the growth imperative. It can be a slippery slope.

    How do you balance product design decisions that can drive growth with UX principles that put the user first/in control.

    To be clear, I'm not saying it's an either/or choice (it's not) just more interested in how you think about balancing design that can create growth with user centered principles.

    Hope I'm being clear. Thanks!

    • CA

      Cindy Alvarez

      about 3 years ago #

      Sure! One guideline I've encouraged is:

      - it's okay to STRONGLY SUGGEST ("You should follow Morgan on Twitter") or even to be a bit disingenuous ("Morgan and 38 others are waiting for you to respond") but not to outright lie (you clicked an innocuously-named link and suddenly you've sent invites to Morgan and the other 38 people in your contacts list)

      Remember that people want to be a hero, not a schmuck.

      If you can give someone a way to invite/recommend/add AND provide value, they can be a hero. For example, the original Dropbox "invite a friend and you both get free storage" offer.

      But no one wants to spam friends/coworkers with an invite to something if there's no immediate perception of value. That doesn't have to be free stuff - Slack, for example, has done this with design. Their invites look so beautiful that I feel like I'm getting something of value before I even join. The person who sent that invite gets to be a hero.

      3 Share
  • AS

    Alex Sherstinsky

    about 3 years ago #

    @cindyalvarez Hi Cindy, sorry I got to this late -- busy day building!

    My question is: do you think that a Product Manager should also be a UX expert in this day and age? Any musings on this topic are appreciated. Thank you for joining us today!

    • CA

      Cindy Alvarez

      about 3 years ago #

      I think everyone in a product discipline -- and at Yammer that is product manager, designer, researcher, product writer or data analyst -- should have "a major and a minor". You have your job role, but there's a secondary thing where you know enough to generate ideas and be a sounding board and a communications bridge. You aren't an expert - it's impractical to be an "expert" in multiple areas and still be hustling. But you're good in that second area.

      4 Share
      • AS

        Alex Sherstinsky

        about 3 years ago #

        @cindyalvarez Thank you for returning to the site and for your answer -- it makes perfect sense to me, and I like the "major" and "minor" analogy. All the best to you! Thanks!

  • AA

    Anuj Adhiya

    about 3 years ago #

    One more....
    Do you think there's something you do outside of work that keep you creative and has an impact on what you do professionally?

    • CA

      Cindy Alvarez

      about 3 years ago #

      I read a lot of psychology and behavioral economics - understanding the weird ways that human brains work gives me a lot of ideas for how to tweak wording or focus attention in certain ways.

      I also run half-marathons. Distance running is a lot like growth hacking - it makes you faster if you keep doing it, but there are no shortcuts to running 13 miles. You just have to run 13 miles.

      4 Share

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