“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” — Henry Ford
Successful startups must talk to customers. But as Ford said, they can’t just ask those customers what they want.
They have to “excavate the problem.”
Here are the 4 types of questions founders can use to identify their customer’s true problems.
1. “Last Time” Questions
These are the best way to kick off a customer interview.
“Tell me about the last bag of coffee that you purchased.”
Grounding the customer in a real experience helps you get real feedback. It keeps the customer focused on their lived experience instead of spouting off speculation.
Focusing on experience can uncover pain points like “horses smell,” “they’re expensive to feed,” and “stables are large and expensive.”
Failing to do so gets you “faster horses.”
2. Generalizing Questions
After describing a single experience, generalizing questions can help the customer move to another—potentially different—moment in time.
“Is that typical when you buy coffee?”
Now the customer is scanning their memory for other times they bought coffee, looking for anything particularly noteworthy.
These questions are critical when you feel like the first instance the customer brought up may not be indicative of their typical experience.
Imagine your customer telling you that the last time they bought a bag of coffee, they were on vacation in Hawai’i, and bought one right on the plantation.
That’s probably not their typical experience.
Generalizing questions help your customer move from one experience to another. But they can also kick them into speculation mode.
If your customer begins waxing poetic about what “buying coffee” means to them, it’s a good time to bring them back down with our next question type.
3. Focusing Questions
When the customer’s head is in the clouds, it’s time to bring them back to Earth.
Focusing questions help us do that.
Imagine your customer is saying that where a coffee comes from is the #1 quality they look for when at the store.
We can bring them back to their lived experience by simply asking:
“The last bag of coffee you bought, where was it from?”
Often, customers are less principled than they believe themselves to be. Focusing questions help us cut through the platonic bullshit and come back down to their actual actions.
Sometimes we’ll also notice inconsistencies between specific experiences the customer describes.
To analyze those, we can use…
4. Comparison Questions
Comparison questions compare a specific instance with another.
Like generalizing questions, they can be useful for identifying inconsistencies between what a customer believes to be true and what they’ve actually done.
They can also help us uncover the context that drove changes in behavior.
If your customer typically only buys coffee from local organic roasters, but last weekend they bought a tin of Folgers at the grocery store, understanding why those instances differ is key to identifying what drives your customer’s decisions.
“This time you said you bought coffee from your local roaster, but last time you just but a tin at the store. Why?”
Maybe they were sick. Maybe their mother-in-law was in town. Maybe they were behind on rent.
Lateral questions can help us identify the real “why” behind each of these experiences.
💯 Talking to customers is a must
But we can’t just ask them what they want.
Successful founders know how to “excavate” their customers’ real problems using four types of questions:
- “Last Time” Questions: Triggering the customer’s most recent experience.
- Generalizing Questions: Motivating the customer to scan their memory for similar, noteworthy experiences.
- Focusing Questions: Cutting through the customer’s speculation to ground them back in a specific instance.
- Comparison Questions: Forcing the customer to justify why they acted differently between experiences.