Cold calling does not work during, customer development process, so what does work?

As many entrepreneurs start their customer development workshops at their accelerator programs, they quickly realize that “Cold calling” potential users to get feedback does not work, any more especially for B2B users. In 99% of the cases, most of our participants at the Microsoft Accelerator found out that they got voicemail, with no responses, over the last 4 cohorts.

Most accelerator programs tell you to call potential users, who are not your “friends and family” to prevent many cognitive biases. The first couple of weeks is spent by most entrepreneurs trying to identify potential users and spending time trying to get them to validate the problem. This is the most uncomfortable time for most entrepreneurs.

It is an absolutely important part of the development of your company, but the caveat is that many entrepreneurs find out that cold calling does not work any more. Most Americans are unlikely to pick up the phone from unrecognized numbers.

In fact, when you try to do it in B2B situations, and call the potential user’s work number, at their desk, it is worse. The number of times you go directly to voicemail is about 999 out of 1000. “Smile and Dial” is truly the most frustrating part of your customer development.

The situation is so bad that many entrepreneurs sometimes falsely believe after their customer development phase that no one truly has the problem.

Most people dont want to be interrupted, and dislike having a synchronous discussion with a stranger.

So, what are the alternatives to cold calling and what can you change.

First, you can change the “interruption” and align it with their routine, then you can remove the “synchronous” portion and make it “asynchronous” and third you can change the “stranger” to acquaintance.

1. To remove the interruption, the best is to put your feedback gathering into the flow of the problem. So, like native ads, you have to insert yourself into the normal course of the problem surfacing for your users. The best way to start this effort is to do a “Day in the life” scenario mapping of your potential user. I would typically do it in 30 min increments.

Find out when the problem surfaces and what the “Triggers” are for users. What I have found is that you can leverage moments of downtime to target your message and bring out the pain. For example if you are selling keyword optimization services to SEO marketers,  answer questions on Quora or LinkedIn Groups about these services so they are aware of the problem. Or ask a question on an active forum (something WhatsApp did) about the problem you are trying to tackle.

2. Email seems to work, to make the conversation asynchronous. If targeted, specific and brings value to your user before you make the request or have a call to action, it is powerful. Typically you’d want the email to be highly personalized (look at the users recent Twitter or social media feed) to start the conversation with highly relevant topical points, before asking for advice.

3. To remove the stranger problem, dig your well before you are thirsty. In fact, use social media (Twitter and LinkedIn groups work very well, as do Quora and SlideShare) to build “acquaintance” relationships well before you need them.

Finally, make it easy for people to give you feedback. Before they are willing to commit time to giving you feedback make them believe they will get value from your interaction as well.

I’d love to know what’s worked for you. Drop me a note on Twitter, if you have found a better way to engage users during customer development.

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