In my first startup marketing job I was given the task of attempting to call a couple hundred customers to try to rustle up a dozen or so customer references. That task opened my eyes to how important customer insight was for our startup’s marketing efforts. I quickly learned that there we things things we spent a lot of time talking about in our messages that customers simply didn’t care about. I learned that some of our assumptions about how customers made purchase decisions was deeply flawed. And I learned that there were a host of smaller improvements that I could make to our marketing as a result of the insight I gained on those calls.

Since then, in every company I worked in, I’ve tried to create programs that helped us as a marketing team develop a “talking to customers” habit.

This week I did a talk at Communitech’s Strategic Marketing Peer2Peer meeting and my topic was how to develop this habit, what questions I think marketers should focus on in these interviews and how you can use what you’ve learned in ways that go way beyond the traditional customer case study. Here are the slides (and scroll down for a summary of some of the key points).

How Do You Make Talking to Customers a Habit?

Startup Marketers are busy folk dealing with shifting deadlines and priorities. Setting aside time to interact with customers and prospects can easily get pushed to the bottom of our priority list. Making customer interaction a habit often involves taking a programmatic approach. Here are a some ideas of how to make talking to customers more of a habit:

  1. Start a Customer Advisory Council or User Group
  2. Make it a habit (or a rule) that travelling employees must visit at least one customer or prospect
  3. Organize customer dinners at tradeshows or events
  4. Institute a Win/Loss program to debrief with prospects/customers
  5. Kick off a Customer Reference program
  6. Assign key accounts to employees and start a program where those accounts must be called/visited at least once a quarter.
  7. Give employees a monthly number of prospects/customers they have to speak to

What types of Questions Should Marketers Ask on Prospect/Customer Calls?

In my experience doing a great customer call is a skill that gets better with practice. There are three key areas that marketers need to explore in these calls: Customer, Market and Buying Process. These question are different from what the Lean Startup folks would call “Customer Discovery” mainly because they are less focused on product feature and function and more focused on how customers communicate, how they describe value, how they view offerings like yours, how they make purchase decisions and what motivates them.

The exact questions will depend on your target market and offering but here are some sample questions:


  1. What does your typical day look like?
  2. What other products do you use?
  3. What do you love? What do you hate?
  4. What kind of person are you?
  5. When do you read your email?
  6. What device do you read email on? What device do you surf on?
  7. What events do you attend?
  8. What sites/publications/ newsletters do you read?
  9. Who do you admire?


  1. Who do you think we compete with?
  2. If you weren’t using our product what would you use?
  3. Describe what we do.
  4. How would you describe the benefit of what we do?
  5. How would you measure the value we provide?
  6. What market are we in?

Buying Process

  1. How did you know you needed something like our solution?
  2. What triggered your search for a solution?
  3. Was there anything that would have stopped you from making a purchase?
  4. Did you talk to anyone before making your decision to buy? Who?
  5. Did you make a short list? Who else was on it?
  6. What was your short list criteria?
  7. Did you do any research before you bought? Where?
  8. Who else was involved in the purchase? How?