This is a chapter from the book Starting & Sustaining which is a system to help you build and launch a web app with less pain and fewer mistakes. The entire book is free to read on the web.

You can also buy the book and additional resources which includes the digital version of the book, the audiobook, a playbook, and hundreds of dollars of discounts.

Spend time talking to customers

You have to talk to your customers–with your voice. Ideally face-to-face, but at least with voice. You may be inundated with customer requests via email, or you may have all sorts of usage data or survey results or countless other methods for gathering feedback. No matter what you do, never accept these as a substitute for real conversations with real people.

Remember, no matter what you think, you are not your target audience. Even if you are your own customer, you’re only ever going to be somewhat representative at best. And you definitely won’t be able to dream up all the ideas your entire customer base could come up with. Don’t settle for just the ideas in your head. Talk to your customers, and look for the interesting intersections of ideas that could make a real difference.

Data and written feedback are no substitute for conversation. Conversation is serendipitous. It uncovers ideas and leads you to a real understanding of what your customers are trying to do. It’s the unquestionable leader in gathering insight into what to build. Even if customers don’t make explicit feature requests, talking to them about what they’re doing or trying to do will get your gears turning and provide endless inspiration.

In the early days, data and analytics are borderline useless. You simply don’t have enough data points for the information to be actionable. Moreover, it obfuscates your customers’ true needs. In some cases, even they don’t know what they need. They might have an abstract concept in their head, but they won’t necessarily be able to articulate it. And a survey sure won’t get them any closer.

Beyond refining what to build, talking to customers is simply great customer service. Few tasks will pay as great dividends as spending time talking to your customers. It also opens the lines of communication so that your customers know you’re interested in hearing feedback. You’ll learn, build stronger relationships, and put yourself on the right track to develop the right things.

Another side effect is the simple serendipity of it all. There are some things that will take you no time at all and make a big difference for customers, but they’re almost too small for customers to be aware of or mention. In a phone call, these details come up in droves. They’re easy wins that quickly add up both in terms of good will and customer satisfaction. Remember, when you fix a little issue, you’re fixing it for all of your customers at once. That’s a big multiplier.

The key to all this is to avoid knee-jerk reactions to every request. You must focus on really getting to know their problems and their processes, and see past the requests to understand their needs. Deep insights come from deep understanding. Data can contribute to your knowledge, but by itself won’t be able to provide the insight that will help your business stand out.

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