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You’re busy, I’m busy, we’re all busy — but not too busy to make customer research a habit.

We know that business is really about people.

If you want to create a product that really resonates with your people, or want to improve an existing product/service, start with a conversation (or virtual coffee dates, as I like to call ‘em). They’re so simple, cost nothing, and provide a metric ton of unexpected insights, regardless of whether you’re in idea mode or have already launched multiple products/services.

Many of us already have these conversations organically; I’m proposing that you bake these into your process in an intentional way.

The Virtual Coffee Date

Having virtual coffee dates (or informal interviews or discussions) can offer new product/service insights, help you test your assumptions, and build valuable connections.

A virtual coffee date is simply a virtual meeting (Skype, or any other video chat service) with someone you’ve pre-selected, with the intention of learning about their experience, opinions, and insights around a particular area.

Call them whatever you want: a virtual coffee date (VCD), “pick your brain,” discussion, conversation, interview, etc.; the key is to get into the habit of listening (without a pre-conceived notion of what your participant wants).

Whether you are in idea mode, are testing your products, or already have products in the market, everyone can benefit from more customer conversations.

The benefits of virtual coffee dates

Integrating virtual coffee dates regularly into your schedule as an ongoing business activity provides endless benefits:

  • Strengthen and grow your personal and professional network
  • Test your assumptions and biases
  • Hear people’s struggles in their own words
  • Better understand people’s motivations, concerns, struggles
  • Shape your products & services around real needs
  • Improve your observation skills
  • Reduce risk in your product development
  • Get more comfortable talking to potential customers
  • Achieve more resonance with your products & services

Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of “selling” other people directly. The beauty of the virtual coffee date is that it’s focus is on research and understanding, not sales. Once my clients realize that I’m not asking them to pitch their ideas or products, but merely ask questions, they relax a little and even enjoy the process.

1. Create a challenge statement

Start with a challenge statement: a sentence that summarizes what you want to learn and explore. When we were in the early stages of research for our software concept, our challenge statement was:

Understand the challenges involved in the creation and delivery of online courses.

Notice that the challenge statement is open-ended and non-prescriptive. It makes no assumptions about the best way to solve the challenge.

This challenge statement helped me narrow down my participants to those who were thinking about or were in the process of creating online courses. I wanted to understand both the tactical and emotional challenges that come along with creating online courses.

We had an alpha version of our software, but we wanted to ensure that we understood the full customer journey from “I have an idea” to successfully selling an online course, so that our marketing and services could complement our software in a holistic way.

2. Connect with your people

Your Immediate Network

It can be intimidating to reach out to those you don’t know very well, so start by connecting with people from your immediate network, including friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. Make a list of people you’d like to gather insights from.

What if you can’t think of anyone in your immediate network? You may want to reconsider your challenge statement.

If you can’t think of 10 people in your immediate network who would pay for your new product/service, how are you going to find 100s?

Keep it simple: send a personal email or message that explains that you’re doing some research around (your challenge topic), and asks if they might they be willing to have a quick (recorded video) chat.

Your Extended Network

You can also begin to grow your network by asking friends and acquaintances if they might know anyone who could offer insight into your research challenge. Always make sure this a personal email (or direct message), sent to one individual at a time.

Where else can you find people willing to have a conversation?

  • Facebook Groups
  • LinkedIn Groups
  • Slack Groups
  • Online Forums + Communities
  • Twitter
  • Friends/Colleagues of your friends
  • Your email list

Where are people already talking about your challenge or topic? Join in on the conversation, make some connections, and reach out to those who are already engaged. I will often reach out and send a direct message to those who engage with me in a forum or online community.

I might say something like:

“Hey [Name],

I saw your comment about [topic] in [forum/conversation/group] and thought it was interesting because [mention my research topic as it relates to them].

I’d love to learn a bit more about how you handle this specifically; might you be willing to hop on a video chat? I’d love to ask you a few questions if you’re open to it!”

So far I haven’t had anyone turn me down, and I’ve made some great new connections. I’ve been able to gather some really specific and valuable insights that have helped shape both our products and services by hearing some consistent pains mentioned over and over again.

Optionally, you may want to create a small questionnaire to narrow down those who might be a best fit for a conversation.

As an example, I received an email from a good friend and colleague this week that looked like this:

“Hey Marie, how was your weekend?

When we chatted you mentioned that you might know some people who ____.

I’m researching the topic of how executives of growth-oriented tech companies balance the need to improve exceptional software with the necessity to build strong teams. Do you know any SaaS owners that might be willing to have a conversation with me?

If so, I’m attaching a short questionnaire...”

Super simple, friendly, and specific, which made it easy for me to share with my network.

3. Run the calls

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to doing these conversations. I much prefer a casual conversation to a formal interview, but you may find that you prefer something more structured. The key is to stick to what works for you, because you want to make your participant as comfortable as possible.

I offer my person a link to book a 20–30min call in my calendar using an automated scheduling tool like Calendly.

  • Use video wherever possible; you can learn so much from people’s facial expressions and body language than you can from audio alone. You want to see how and when people light up, furrow their brows, fidget, etc.
  • Have a list of questions that you want to ask, while leaving lots of room for flexibility. Avoid any yes/no questions: keep them open-ended. “Tell me about a time when” can be a really great question to get you started. (Sample discussion guide)
  • Take notes. Record the session if possible, and make notes of any insights along the way. Document these in Evernote, or a spreadsheet.
  • Follow up and thank them for their time!

4. Record your insights

What did you learn from the call(s)? Remember to summarize your takeaways.

In some cases I’ll even translate takeaways into specific to-dos in Asana. These calls can often lead to content ideas, better documentation, or even new product ideas entirely.

While it may not always feel like there are specific take-aways from each call, these calls can simply be a way to make sure that you’re not getting stuck in your own expert head. Often when we achieve a certain level of expertise, it can be a challenge to truly understand other people’s struggles, concerns or fears around a topic.

Record your insights

One of these conversations led to a more in-depth exploration that led to some major a-ha moments! In the case of my course development research, I learned that perfectionism, self doubt, procrastination, overwhelm, and fear of launching were very real (and common) emotional challenges that were preventing people from launching their online courses.

These conversations with course builders (along with my clients) led me to develop a virtual bootcamp called “Run Your Learning Launch”, a program entirely focused on getting your rough draft, version-one online course launched.

Sure, I could have called this course “how to create an online course”, but by learning more about people’s underlying fears and motivations, I was able to focus the curriculum on what I knew was resonating with my audience. Knowing that momentum is contagious, I focused the whole course content on boosting their confidence with a quick win. In the end, these conversations led to language and wording that appeared on both the sales page and within the program itself.

Your audience is always telling you what they want if you’re listening carefully enough.

5. Repeat

I leave two hours per month minimum to do these research calls (often more). You could book one morning each month, a 30min time-slot each week, or something else entirely. It doesn’t matter, as long as you’re making an effort to have conversations with real people in an ongoing way as part of your process.

The most common mistake that I see product creators making is not engaging in enough conversations with their people, and in some cases avoiding it altogether.

Commit to making customer research a habit, and you’ll always create products that resonate.