Have you ever encountered an enthusiastic aspiring entrepreneur who is convinced that she has the best ever million-dollar idea, but you are not so sure?  As this person eagerly explains her brilliant idea, you are decidedly unimpressed, but too polite to burst her bubble.  Well as a market researcher specializing in new products & services, I’m here to be the bubble buster.

Over my many years of teaching and consulting with startups and small businesses, I have been surprised how few companies take the time to truly validate customer interest before launching a new product or service.  Market research should be vital step in the development process before any launch.  That includes secondary research into your industry, competitors and customer types – but also some primary research in the form of customer validation interviews.

Not sure how to get started?  Here is a list of the most common mistakes I see when companies are looking for customer validation information:

Mistake #1:  Only reaching out to friends and family

Just because your parents, your grandma, your cousins, and your college roommates love the idea doesn’t validate the concept, unless you expect them to be your biggest customers.  While this is the easiest way get quick and early feedback, it is also your worst path.  First of all, your friends and family may not be your target audience, but also, they love you and want to support you, so they are not likely to be critical of your idea.  It’s much better to seek out strangers who will be honest with you even if you don’t like what they have to say. 

Mistake #2:  Interviewing anyone who will answer you

But don’t seek out just any strangers, accosting them in the street.  Think about who you are really trying to sell your product or service to.  Who is your target audience?  Ideally you want to get feedback from people who will be potential customers.  Take some time to develop a target market description and then seek out people who fit that description.  You can certainly rely on friends and family as a resource to connect you to potential interview candidates; or look to social media or your existing business networks to find connections to people who fit your target market profile.  An added bonus, if they are truly supportive of your product or service, you can get their contact information to reach out when you’re ready to open your doors!

Mistake #3:  Asking leading questions

I could probably write a whole book on bad survey questions from what I’ve seen, but this is the key offender in new product validation.  A leading question is a question that seems to lead the respondent to the answer you want to hear.  For example: “My new app makes it easy to share calendars with all your family members.  Don’t you think that is a great idea?”  Or “Haven’t you always wanted to eliminate dog hairs from your living room floor?”  “From a scale of 1 to 10, how great do you think this product is?”  Do you see where I’m going with this?  It’s hard to answer with anything other than positive feedback.  Instead of asking questions directly about your product or service, try to get to the problem you think you’re solving and ask open ended questions about the problem without focusing on your solution.

For example: “What frustrates you when you are scheduling family events?”  Or “What are your top issues as a pet owner?”  You might find that you think you are solving a problem, but it’s not their top problem or the way they’d like it to be solved.  Don’t lead them to your current solution, but instead consider modifying your solution to better fit their problems.

Mistake #4:  Asking questions about planned behavior

Raise your hand if you plan to focus on exercise and a healthy diet this year.  Now tell me if you exercised or ate a healthy dinner yesterday.  Is there ever a difference between things you “should do” or “would like to do” and what you actually do?  I am betting the answer is yes.  So, consider that for your interview questions as well.  Asking questions like, “How many times do you think you would use this service?” is significantly less informative than “How often last year did you use this comparable service?”  There may not be an easy comparison, but better to ask questions about past behavior that connects to your product or service than to ask questions about intentional behavior, when we all know that good intentions don’t always lead to action.

 Mistake #5:  Using a multiple-choice survey for your interview

I am a huge supporter survey questions with a fixed response of limited options – whether it’s multiple choice or some sort of rating on a scale.  These types of questions deliver some awesome quantitative findings to help drive decision making.  But they do not belong in a customer validation interview.  Here, you should seek to have as many open-ended questions as possible to get as much feedback as possible, without limiting the response options.  Have you ever taken a multiple-choice survey and felt that none of the choices were a good fit for your opinion?  Keep that in mind, and let your own interview questions stay open ended, whether you are doing the interview in person or through a survey tool.