How to find people for customer discovery interviews

Lorenzo Bernaschina

The first question I had once I understood the importance of customer development in building something people want was “Okay, but how do I find people to interview?”.

In this article I share what I learned about:

  • Who to interview
  • How to find prospects to interview
  • How to ask for an interview
  • How to schedule an interview
  • What to do if the interviewee does not respond or cancels

Who to interview

The customer discovery interview is all about capturing a factual customer journey. Consequently, to gain valuable insights from your calls, you need to focus on active buyers who can provide the most complete information.

In his best-selling book “The ultimate sales machine”, sales expert Chet Holmes introduces the concept of the "Buyer's Pyramid" which outlines the levels of buyer readiness to make a purchase.

The Buyer's Pyramid
The Buyer's Pyramid
  1. Know they are not interested: Individuals who have concluded that the offering doesn't align with their needs, preferences, or priorities.
  2. Don't think they are interested: Individuals who don't perceive the product as relevant to their current needs or challenges. While they may not outright reject the offering, they're not actively seeking it out either.
  3. Not thinking about it: Individuals who haven't encountered a problem that prompts them to seek out solutions, so they're not actively engaged in the buying process at this point.
  4. Open to it: Individuals who may have encountered a problem that the offering could potentially address and they're open to learning more about it.
  5. Buying now: Individuals who have recognized they have a problem and decided to move forward with acquiring a solution.

Active buyers are the prime candidates for customer discovery interviews. Having reached the stage of actively considering a purchase, these individuals have likely conducted extensive research, possess a clear understanding of their needs, and have specific criteria in mind for potential solutions. Engaging with active buyers in customer discovery interviews provides an opportunity to gain deep insights into their pain points, preferences, and decision-making processes.

Conversely, individuals who fall into the categories of "open to it," "not thinking about it," or "don't think they are interested" represent potential early adopters who may be more receptive to innovative solutions but have not yet fully recognized their need or the value proposition of the offering. This makes them the perfect audience to test your pitch.

Buyer audience
Buyers audience

Step 1: Learn from active buyers

You don't have a product yet and you are not ready to pitch, so this first phase is all about learning. Go and see, in the space you are competing, what people are doing today. I covered in greater detail what to ask in a customer discovery interview.

Step 2: Formulate an MVP hypothesis and pitch to early adopters

When you start predicting what people will say before they say it, you are ready to assemble your findings into a demo or mockup and approach early adopters to test your hypothesis. It usually takes 10 to 30 interviews to get to this point.

While practicing and refining your pitch, it's crucial to safeguard your time and the integrity of your research from people who:

  • encourage you to continue developing the product without adding detailed motivations on why
  • provide numerous feature suggestions not based on well-argued pain points
  • ask to be informed about a free beta version available to play around with it

Instead, look for pre-orders ($$$) as a reliable signal that you have identified an urgent pain point for the customer to solve.

Step 3: Pitch to active buyers

After practicing with early adopters and achieving some conversions, you can then return to the active buyer segments and pitch to them.

Define a prospecting criteria

Before diving into strategies for engaging with prospects and optimizing your chances of securing a call, it's essential to establish a clear prospecting criteria.

Active buyers are characterized by experiencing an event that disrupts their existing solutions. These individuals not only encounter such events but also take proactive steps in response, often exploring existing alternatives.

For example, when COVID started, suddenly people could no longer train in the gym. Some lived with the problem and waited for it to reopen. Some equipped themselves with small accessories such as exercise mats. Some bought expensive machines such as treadmills or exercise bikes to keep at home.

When identifying active buyers, it's crucial to prioritize behavioral indicators over demographic data. Consider factors such as the tools or solutions they currently use, motivations for seeking new options, and recent purchases.

Recency is important. By focusing on individuals currently undergoing the decision-making process, you can gather firsthand and factual information during the interviews.

How to find prospects to interview

You need a multi-faceted lead generation approach. In his book “Predictable Revenue”, sales expert Aaron Ross broke the sales pipeline into 3 main sources:

  • Outbound prospecting: involves actively reaching out to potential customers who may not have expressed interest in your product or service yet. Outbound prospecting techniques include cold calling and emailing.
  • Inbound leads: involves potential customers who come to your business through various marketing efforts such as content marketing, social media, SEO, and paid advertising. Inbound leads are typically already interested in your product or service, making them warmer prospects compared to outbound leads. They often have some level of familiarity with your brand and may have engaged with your content or visited your website before reaching out.
  • Referrals and partnerships: involves leveraging existing relationships with satisfied customers, strategic partners, industry influencers, and other stakeholders to generate new business opportunities. Referral programs, affiliate partnerships, and co-marketing initiatives can help businesses tap into new networks and expand their reach.

In the early days, nobody knows about you and you don't have compelling messages to share. This makes outbound prospecting the only viable option. One of the most effective starting points are warm intros (friends in your network who can help in forwarding on a message).

If you don't know anyone or you have exhausted your first-degree connections, think about other ways and places where you can find more people. For example, Circle communities, Slack or Discord channels, a specific advanced search query on LinkedIn Sales Navigator or Twitter, etc.

Building the channel is more urgent than building the product. Prioritising learning over building not only allows you to make something people want faster, but also forces you to find a way to distribute it effectively once it is ready.

As understanding of customers increases, investment in inbound channels should begin. For example, you can start sharing your learnings into a series of blog and social media posts.

Referrals and partnerships are going to take time to develop. You need to have delivered something valuable to your customers first.

How to ask for an interview

First, approach it with a learning mindset, not a pitching one. People are more at ease when they believe they can help. If you let them take the authority position instead of asserting yourself as the expert at pointing out their issues, you will have a better chance of meeting them.

In the beginning, if you don't have any personal authority or credibility, you want to borrow it from other people. This is a way of building trust. Warm referrals are extremely helpful.

Below are some templates that worked well for me from "Lean Customer Development" by Cindy Alvarez:

  • Briefly (5-10 words) state the type of problem you're working on
  • Acknowledge why you believe your connection can help
  • Acknowledge how helpful this contact will be
  • Explicitly ask for her to forward your message
  • Include a ready-to-forward prewritten message that explains
    • what you're looking for
    • the amount of time commitment
    • an assurance of privacy

I'm trying to learn more about how startup teams conduct market research. As an entrepreneur, I know you have a ton of connections with startup founders! Can you help me out by forwarding this message to a few relevant folks?

For people who respond, I'll be reaching out to setup a 20-minute phone call to ask about their current customer development process.

It won't be something that requires advance preparation; just hearing about their experiences would be a huge help for the project I'm working on. I've included a message below that you can forward:

— — —

My name is ______, and I want to learn more about how startup teams conduct market research for a project I am working on.

It would be incredibly helpful for me to hear about your experiences and ask you a few questions. It will take no more than 20 minutes, there is no need to prepare in advance and the information will remain confidential.

Can I schedule a call with you for sometime next week?


[include your name and contact information]

You can use this message for cold outreach via email or social DMs too. Your chances of getting a response are lower than having someone introduce you, but still higher than you might think.

In my experience, I found social DMs response rate higher than cold emails. Remember that people are busy and you are putting them in a situation where they don't quite know what they are getting into. So they need to know a little bit more before they commit to meetings like these. Having a curated and credible profile attached to your message really helps them get more context. Adding incentives like gift cards can also increase your chances of meeting.

How to schedule an interview

The initial introduction message doesn't include scheduling for two main reasons:

  • Lengthy messages often result in fewer responses.
  • It might come across as too aggressive to attempt scheduling on the first interaction.

Once you've received a positive response from someone, here's how your next message might be structured:

Thank you for your willingness to help me out!

I'd like to schedule a 20-minute call so I can learn from you. You don't need to prepare in advance; just hearing about your experiences with _______, from your personal perspective, will be a huge help for me.

Does one of these times work for you?

  • Monday, July 8 9am PST (12pm EST)
  • Monday, July 8 11:30am PST (2:30pm EST)
  • Tuesday, July 9 7am PST (10pm EST)
  • Thursday, July 11 2pm PST (5pm EST)

Make it as easy as possible for them to schedule a call:

  • Offer 3-4 options, not all on the same day of the week or at the same hour of the day
  • Be explicit about the time zone you are proposing (better if you can figure out in advance your interviewee time zone)

Tools like Calendly or Zcal can actually make it easier for both to schedule a meeting. However, it's important to share them politely, especially with someone you have never met.

Here are a couple of ways to do it:

Let me know when works for you. Or if you'd prefer you can choose from my Calendly

Feel free to share some times you're available, or you can also pick from my Calendly if it's easier.

Instead of simply sending over your Calendly link and saying “Here ya go!” you can “open the door” for someone to first give their availability.

What to do if the interviewee doesn't respond

After sending the initial request, I suggest waiting a few days before following up and then resend the request along with an additional message like:

I'd still love to talk to you. If you're available this week, let me know, and I can coordinate a time.

Sometimes, this follow-up elicits a response, which leads to the scheduling and completion of the interview. However, in the event of another non-response, I advise not to insist.

What to do if interviewee cancels or fails to show up

After a day or two, I send a follow-up message offering to reschedule. In most cases, the interviewee responds positively. However, if there's no response, it's best to let it go and focus on other opportunities.

It's your turn!

Customers, like bees, gather around specific "flowers", so it's crucial to identify these blooms and provide the right "nectar" to attract them effectively.

Think about:

  • Who you want to reach
  • Where to reach them
  • How to approach them

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