Customer Development for SaaS: Do training, not interviews

18 months ago I wrote a free book called Beginning Customer Development based on 6 years of Lean Startup experiences. Although it is a good general guide, I’m now developing specific strategies for validating, building, and selling SaaS products.

Here is a more effective way to validate customer problems than traditional interviews.

Why SaaS founders can’t find customers to interview

If you’ve read anything about Lean Startup or Customer Development you’ve learned about customer interviews. Since the biggest risk for startups is building something nobody wants, it makes sense to first validate your ideas by talking to customers.

Theoretically … yes … but my recent experience has been different.

Real customers are sick of problem discussions

Customer Development theory was developed in the late 1990s when building software was really expensive.

CXOs were desperate for solutions – any startup with VC funding could get customer meetings to talk about solving problems.

Today? Customers are overwhelmed by the number of products that are doubling every year. And what are the founders of these companies doing?

Contacting the same customers … requesting meetings … to ask about the same problems.

Customers are sick of it. Unless you give them a compelling reason to have a meeting you’re unlikely to get a meaningful conversation.

Customer Development interviews for All Aboard!

I found myself in this situation 6 months ago and came up with a better approach for quickly getting customer interviews.

We had an idea for a concierge onboarding product based on conversations with our SoHelpful customers.

I hypothesized a solution but needed to quickly schedule a few dozen conversations with other SaaS founders and VPs of Customer Success.

At that time I was living in Beijing, China. Finding these customers, scheduling and doing Skype interviews was going to take forever if I started asking for problem interviews. I needed to give customers a good reason to schedule calls with me.

In the words of Neil Rackham (Spin Selling) I needed to offer a “conversation so compelling they would be willing to pay for it.”

A conversation they would pay for – concierge onboarding training calls

Chiara and I decided to offer 30-minute concierge onboarding training calls. We had spent 6 months refining our own workflow and process and offered to share the strategies with other SaaS founders.

I sent about 50 warm emails to friends and colleagues asking for references. Here is the email I used:

Hey Jack,

Great catching up over the holidays, hope you and the family are well.

I’m trying to meet more SaaS founders – do you know any who would be interested in learning more about concierge onboarding? Here are a few sentences you can send them, feel free to edit away:


I’m Kevin Dewalt about me, SaaS startup founder and Angel Investor.

I’m currently developing best practices & products to help other SaaS companies increase trial-to-paying subscriber conversions through “concierge” onboarding. Fast-growing SaaS companies like Customer.io have been using similar strategies to double conversions.

I’m happy to jump on a 30-minute call and talk about ways to customize concierge onboarding for your product.

Just contact me at kevindewalt@kevindewalt.com or @kevindewalt if you’re interested.

The experiment worked and I was able to line up 1-2 meetings a day for a few weeks – enough data to see we were on the right track.

How we conducted the calls

I would start the calls by doing sending them a generic presentation about concierge onboarding strategies.

Here it is in case you want to copy it.

I would use the slides to guide the discussions, but mostly we talked about their business, how they worked, what did/didn’t work for them, their goals – the same information I wanted to learn from a Customer Development interview.

I shared what we learned and helped them adapt our approach to their business.

We lead TO our solution

The best part? By educating customers on a better way to work we were positioning All Aboard! as a solution to helping them achieve their greater goals without having to “sell” the anything. A few of these conversations lead to our initial customers.

This is critical step for getting paying subscribers for B2B SaaS

These conversations formed the basis of our onboarding and sales strategy.

Most SaaS founders assume that trial-to-paying conversions will happen through great product design and marketing automation.

THIS … IS … A … GREAT … BIG … FAT … MYTH

(Don’t believe me? Read modern sales strategy books like The Challenger Sale or listen to top VC firms like Andreesen Horowitz)

Technology is great for nudging motivated customers to take action but pretty lousy for getting people to change their behavior. You will need to educate your trial customers about the great goals they can achieve by using your products. To motivate them to work differently you need to SELL.

We do our All Aboard! sales through concierge onboarding calls with qualified trial customers.

We run these calls just like our Customer Development training interviews – we teach them strategies for converting more trial customers to paying subscribers to help them understand why they should start using our products.

Bottom line: Don’t ask for meetings. Offer to teach them a better way to work

Teaching customers is a great way to validate a B2B SaaS product idea. A customer who signs up for your training is signaling interest by offering valuable currency: their time.

Best of all, you’ll jump to the head of the line of everyone else looking to “interview” them about their problems.

One Comment

  1. Matt Rosinski (@theloudfruit) August 14, 2016 at 7:58 am #

    Thanks for this Kevin! I’m reading through your email course and had recently read The Challenger Sale before discovering your work. I’ve had Chet Holmes’ book sitting half read on my Kindle for a couple of years now and you have prompted me to start again How I wish it would be converted into an audio book!

    In this post are you suggesting that Customer Development interviews are no longer necessary? I downloaded your Beginning Customer Development book in which interviews still feature as important.

    I hear the problem you are talking about above of customers being “sick of” problem interviews. I am wondering how to use the approach you suggest when the riskiest assumption is finding people actually trying to solve the problem?

    In your email course you gave an example of how you might talk to a trial SaaS customer with this example:

    “Your SaaS business isn’t growing fast enough because you’re not converting enough trial customers to paying subscribers. Many of these customers don’t understand their problems – you’ve got to get them on the phone, tell them what’s wrong and how much better life would be if they worked differently.”

    It reminds me a lot of using a traditional sales trial close to test the prospect for their hot buttons, agitating the problem before proposing a solution. What do you think?

I read EVERY comment and want to hear from you