How to sell to customers who don’t have the problem

Summary: Customer Development on innovative products is hard because customers haven’t made the behavior changes necessary to get value from the solution.  This dilemma is actually your opportunity: by teaching customers you can change their behavior and create new customer problems – problems you are uniquely positioned to solve.  

Out-teach your competition
–37 Signals

The Customer Development dilemma for innovative products

Innovative products capitalize on emerging trends that require customers to change behavior. Think about the most innovative products you use and love: Evernote, Twitter, AirBNB. All of them required a behavior change on your part. This is also why Customer Development for really good ideas will never be straightforward. People don’t know they have a problem – and thus can’t validate your solution – until they change their behavior.

I’ve been in this dilemma with SoHelpful and today I’m going to share my situation –  and tell you why I think I have a solution.

What doesn’t work: trying to validate a solution when they don’t (yet) have the problem

Here is a typical situation: an entrepreneur has a problem and decides to “scratch her own itch” – that is, to create solution for a problem she personally has.  She hacks a solution and it solves her problem.  She then decides to do Customer Development but quickly gets frustrated because “they don’t get it”.

(this is usually when she calls me for advice)

What she fails to realize is that she has changed her behavior – a behavior change that created new problems her solution solves. But her customers haven’t changed, so validating the solution doesn’t work.

Example – the wrong way to do Customer Development on SoHelpful

I found myself in this situation 9 months ago. I decided to follow the lead of my friend Joel Gascoigne and start helping entrepreneurs around the world over 30-minute Skype calls.  It worked really well but I was cobbling together WordPress, Wufoo forms, email, and Google Calendar to create a system to do it.  I decided to do Customer Development on the idea of creating a more robust product to simplify everything.  I quickly realized that trying to validate the solution was a waste of time.

Consider a few hypothetical interview questions for SoHelpful – questions that wouldn’t work:

  1. How do you manage the scheduling component of your Helpful Marketing strategy? That is, how do you block off time to help people and how do they schedule it with you?
  2. Can you tell me the process you use for getting recommendations (testimonials) from people you’ve helped?
  3. Suppose you’ve just finished helping someone who could be a potential client for a colleague – someone who you also refers clients to you.  Can you tell me how you make the introduction?

Do you have any idea what I’m talking about?  Of course not!  These questions presume your behavior has already changed – that is, you were already trying to meet more potential customers worldwide by helping them over Skype as I was doing.

(obviously these are egregiously bad Customer Development questions – never use jargon like “Helpful Marketing” or any technical terms unless you’re 100% positive everyone knows what they are.)

What works: validating their motivation to change behavior

The advice I give entrepreneurs is to stop trying validate the solution and instead test underlying motivations that could change their behavior.

Here are some questions that did work:

  1. Do you help potential customers, entrepreneurs, or others? Why?
  2. What do you get from helping people? Why don’t you help more people? How do they find you?
  3. Do you want more global business relationships? How are you getting them?

These questions worked because I was asking about deeper motivations and needs. Almost everyone recognized the huge value in helping others – new business relationships, learning about emerging customer problems, ideas for blog posts, etc. Many had even read Adam Grant’s great book on the topic, Give and Take.

But most were doing it randomly, haphazardly in coffee meetings and lunches – and thus they often had a negative experience from the time commitment and feelings of “I don’t know what I get from this”. They shared wonderful stories about the satisfaction from helping someone who later became a paying customer – and then frustration at the hassles of scheduling meetings, time wasted in traffic, and never hearing from the person again.

I realized they absolutely saw the value of helping potential customers – they just didn’t know how to do it efficiently.

How can you to get customers to change behavior so they will buy?

Unfortunately validating customers’ motivation to change behavior doesn’t solve the problem – you still need to get them to change!

People understood SoHelpful when I talked about how it saved me time, how it made my writing better, how it grew my blogging and social media audience, and how it lead to sales.  People understood why SoHelpful was valuable to me, but they still didn’t need SoHelpful because I hadn’t changed their behavior.

It turns out this isn’t a problem for your startup – it is your biggest opportunity.

The solution?  Teach

Friday night I had a SoHelpful call with Dave Haeffner and asked his advice about this problem. He referred me to Nathan Barry’s new book, Authority. I read it cover-to-cover until 2 AM and I instantly had my answer.

It seems so obvious in retrospect – the very dilemma I’m having with SoHelpful is an asset, not a liability. I have the opportunity to teach people how to market themselves differently and achieve what they most desperately want: more quality relationships, more sales, more customers, and more readers.



Teaching changes behavior and creates new problems YOU are uniquely qualified to solve

I can prove that teaching changes behavior and creates sales.  I had previously seen Nathan’s ConvertKit product and I didn’t understand it. I wouldn’t have used it if you had paid me.

But it turns out I had a deeper problem – I needed a more efficient way to share what I was learning with others. Unfortunately I didn’t know ConvertKit was the solution because I didn’t appreciate the value of teaching people via email courses. In Authority, Nathan created demand for ConvertKit by teaching me a new way to achieve my higher goal.

And I’m a happy paying customer for a product you couldn’t have paid me to use 4 days ago. That’s the power of teaching.

Photo Credit: IMs BILDARKIV via Compfight cc


  1. Hugo Castro October 29, 2013 at 5:13 am #

    Hey Kevin, you completely nailed it, I mean I’ve been wondering for some time why my interviews did not provide a strong signal but now I’ve read your post it makes sense, a lot. What I’m trying to do here is so ground breaking that there isn’t a need per se although after people realize what I’m doing they try to visualize the possibilities, what they can win with it and most important they provide feedback on how this could work. By the end of the day they want to know more and want to keep updated by our progress.

    Btw, I started blogging about my entrepreneurship journey here ->
    Would love to hear your thoughts.

    • kevindewalt November 1, 2013 at 3:21 am #

      Exactly Hugo!

      I had a front-row seat watching Eric Ries develop the Lean Startup. Ignored and dismissed in the early days…

  2. Raj May 25, 2014 at 8:26 am #

    Hi Kevin,

    I was kind off with you till you talked about teaching. I understand that we need to teach users in situation you describe but you didn’t clarify on how best to do this?

    Is that in the course?

    Kind Regards


    • kevindewalt May 25, 2014 at 9:43 pm #

      Hey Raj, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this. How do your customers learn things now? That’s where I would start.

      • Raj May 26, 2014 at 2:41 am #

        Thanks. That’s a good point for me to bear in mind. I will let you know if I find out what works.

  3. Charles Kollo (@Charlesck1) January 12, 2017 at 5:12 pm #

    Man… I never comment on blogs, but you rocked this one! Glad it is still up several years after.
    I will probably talk about it in my next blog post!

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