How to Ask Your Startup Customers the Right Questions



Giff Constable and Frank Rimalovski don’t think that entrepreneurs really know how to talk to their customers, or how to turn off their instinct just to sell to them.

Constable, the CEO of NEO, and Rimalovski, the executive director of NYU’s Entrepreneurial Institute, have found that most entrepreneurs don’t talk to their customers to find out their needs, and those who do aren’t asking the right questions.

In their new book, “Talking to Humans,” they are advocating an approach similar to the scientific method. First, you zero in on a problem, figure out a way to solve it, gather data, analyze it and find out if your solution is one that people would actually use, or if you are even solving a problem that needs solving.

“This is something that scientists and journalists get right away: scientists because it’s the scientific method and journalists because asking questions is what they do. We just want to take what they do and apply it to business and startups,” said Rimalovski.

Even the talk they gave about their book at NYU’s Leslie eLab wasn’t what you would expect. More of a lesson in a classroom than a presentation, Constable and Romalovski broke up the group who’d gathered into pairs and put them to work figuring out their partner’s dream car.

Given no product or service to try and sell or push seemed to open everyone up to actually talking to their partners instead of trying to sell to them. One group found that they used their cars for commuting and that their main problem was traffic, something they never would have discovered had there been a product of service they were trying to push.

Constable writes in the book that customer discovery is “not asking people to design your product for you. It is not about abdicating your vision. It is also not about pitching. A natural tendency is to try and sell other people on your idea, but your job in customer discovery is to learn. You are a detective.”

Basically you are a scientist “looking for clues that help confirm or deny your assumptions,” writes Constable.

According to authors, creating a start-up consumes about 10,000 hours of your life. It’s a big investment. In comparison, talking to your prospective customers to discover if they even need your idea takes about 200 hours. For them, talking to customers can wind up saving you weeks and months – you could discover that your idea isn’t needed or that, perhaps, with a few tweaks, it could become something wildly successful.

When put that way, talking to your customers really does seem like an obvious investment.

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About the author: John Zurz

John graduated from Queens College in 2013. A lifelong New Yorker he has had articles featured in both print and online publications.

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