The “build it and they will come” approach may have worked for Steven Jobs at Apple but does not work for most new products. For us mere mortals, it is important to conduct customer research before proceeding too far with a new idea. You want to know if there is a market for your product and what you might do to make the product better. The thought of contacting potential customers might be intimidating, but it is not as hard you might think with the right approach.
First, identify what you believe to be your potential customer target demographics. Who are they? Where are they located? You may have a few customers to consider: the end user, a buyer (someone in a purchasing department), or a distributor. Then identity what you believe is important to each customer and develop a discussion outline. Different customer types will have different knowledge and interests. Once you have customers identified, take a look through your contacts and see if you have any mutual relationships to help make an introduction if needed. Then reach out to healthy sample within in each group.
Remember, this is not a sales pitch. Saying anything like “I have this fantastic new product that does XYZ, don’t you just love it” will quickly put the person on guard and may shut down the conversation. This is an opportunity for you to learn what unmet needs your potential client might have, what obstacles might come about within the supply chain of your final product and any other information that might help you in the final stages of development.
People typically hate sales calls, but love to talk about their work, so when contacting someone for customer research make it clear that you are not trying to sell them anything, you are interested in learning more about their work and what challenges they face.
If the need for your product does not surface when talking about challenges, gently steer the conversation in that direction. Once the need is clear, ask if a product like yours might solve their problem. Listen more than talk and be open to new ideas. Honestly assessing potential customer feedback will only help you refine your idea and avoid costly mistakes.
Toward the end of each conversation ask if there is anyone the person knows who you can contact for a similar conversation and if you can use the person’s name as a referral. Interview as many potential customers as you can to get a diversity of inputs. You will always learn something from talking to a potential customer no matter how many you have spoken with and you may find you really enjoy it and make some great contacts.