Get People Talking! How To Use Open-Ended Questions For Market Discovery

In my last post I talked about the importance of “talking to customers.” In that post I focused especially on what you do with the market discovery knowledge you get from customers once you found it. (The “product management system of record,” I called it.)

In this post I’ll be more to the point: How do you actually have these conversations? How do you structure the conversation so you get the information you need to know, and so the customer feels it’s worth their time?

Even if you aren’t (yet) an expert in your product, talking to customers one of the best ways to create value. It’s a great way to learn quickly about the relationship that customers have with your product if you are a new product manager, or new to the company.

No matter your experience level, the fundamental benefit is that customer conversations help you discover new problems your product could solve.

(Accompanying this post, I’ve created a “cheat sheet” with a list of good questions for customer conversations, and some techniques for using them. Click here to download the cheat sheet.)

Problem space

Up to a point, the more you know about the product and the space before these conversations, the better.

But even if you know the domain and the product well, it’s good to go into these conversations with a “beginner’s mind.” This helps you keep the conversation in “problem space,” not “solution space.” As experts and as technologists we love solution space – it’s where we get to do cool technical things. Even our customers like solution space.

In market discovery activities like talking with customers, we strive to stay in problem space – because as you know, our biggest and most important job as product managers is to discover and validate new problems we can solve.

Let’s say you have the opportunity to talk to a customer when you’re brand new to the company and you don’t know much at all about the product, the space, the domain, the customer problems. How would you initiate that conversation? How would you handle the inevitable questions about the product that you’ll get from a customer?

I’ll answer all these questions in the rest of this post.

A simple formula for customer conversations

The formula is simple. Introduce yourself, and set some expectations.

“I’m Nils, I’m a new product manager here at Acme. I’m excited to work with you and our other customers to help you create value. I’d love to ask you a few questions about how our product is working for you, and about your work in general.”

After that introduction, I start with something along the lines of

“Can you tell me what you do?”

People love to talk about themselves. Not only will you learn a lot, but they’ll actually like you more.

Two powerful phrases that will always help you in any customer conversation are:

  • “Tell me more.”
  • “And then what?”

The customer will probably start by giving a brief description of what they do. You have an immediate opportunity to ask, “Tell me more.”

At this point the customer knows you are interested enough to listen to their story. You can help them continue their story with “Tell me more” and “And then what?” Or you can take the conversation down other roads. For example, how they use your product.

Learning about your product

At some point, you might want to throw in something like,

“How does <our product> help you with that?”

Other good and interesting questions you can use, without knowing much about the product at all, are:

  • “What are some day-to-day things you do with <our product?>.”
  • “What are some things you do only periodically with <our product>, like at the end of a project, or at the end of a quarter?”

So that’s a first set of questions that will reveal a lot. I wouldn’t recommend going through this list of questions as though it were a questionnaire. At any moment the conversation can take an interesting turn, or you can take it deeper with “Tell me more about that.” Or “And then what happens?”

How to handle a product question

OK, here’s the big challenge – what if the customer asks you a question about the product you don’t know the answer to?

You know what? This is always a risk! Even after years of experience with a product, there will be areas where you are not the expert, even if as the product manager you are the most knowledgeable person on the team. So you’d handle this situation more or less the same way no matter your experience:

“Gee, that’s a great question. I don’t know the answer off the top of my head, but I know who to ask and I’ll get back to you immediately with some more detail. Can you tell me more about why you’re asking?”

Notice two things. First, I added an open-ended question to my response. The customer asked a technical question, but it probably arises from some problem the customer is experiencing. I want to know more about this problem, how serious it is, how urgent it is to solve, and so forth. Second, I made a commitment to get back to the customer immediately with an answer. If you show good faith and responsiveness by providing the customer with an answer right away, you’ll go even further to build your relationship with this person.

Well, there’s a third thing to notice: I didn’t say “I’m a newbie and I know nothing.” I can say that if I want to, if it will help my relationship with the customer, but I don’t have to admit how little I know.


Accompanying this post, I’ve created a “cheat sheet” with a list of good questions for customer conversations, and some techniques for using them. Click here to download the cheat sheet.

A sample conversation

Here’s a conversation (hypothetical) I might have with a customer. (The domain is project management.)

“Hi, I’m Nils, I’m a new product manager. Who are you and what do you do?”

“I’m Bob. My official title is Senior Project Manager, but I like to think of it as Senior Goat Rodeo Manager, ‘cause that’s what it’s often like around here!”

“Bob, great to meet you, I can’t wait to learn a lot more about goat rodeos and how you use our product to help you with those. Can you tell me a little more about the goat rodeos you manage?”

“OK, LOL – internally we don’t call them that, of course (even though that’s what they sometimes are). I work especially on IT projects, and on projects where IT is working with other departments. Things like putting in a new phone switch and phones, or rolling out the ERP system.”

“Oh, a new ERP system. That sounds like a big project. Can you tell me more about how that project worked?”

(Customer talks about it. You notice they don’t mention your product.)

Asking about our product

“Bob, did you use our product for that project?”

“No, darn it! We didn’t have your product when we started that project, and we did the whole thing with our old method. It was a mess.”

“How do you think it would have gone differently if you’d had our product?”

(Bob talks about the benefits of your product – this is gold, by the way.)

“Have you run another project since that’s comparable to the ERP project, but using our product?”

“Oh yes. And it’s so much better than what we had before. I mean, it’s like the goats are a little bit tamer now, if you know what I mean.”

“Can you tell me more about that?”

(Bob talks about some of the reasons he likes your product, and, most likely, some of the things he’d like it to do better.)

“Bob, you mentioned X (a big benefit he gets from your product). Can you tell me how having X has impacted your work?”

(Bob answers – this is going to be gold as well. He’s going to talk about how his work is more efficient, or how his work is better received, or higher quality, or whatever.)

“Bob, what would happen if you couldn’t do X with our product anymore?”

(The goal of this question, and you might want to be careful about asking it, is to get an emotional reaction to the feature and what it enables him to do.)

Customer conversations have overlapping benefits

This is one way this conversation could go, out of millions. It represents about ten minutes, at most, of an interaction. In the process of this conversation I’ve learned a lot:

  • The types of projects that at least one customer considers appropriate for my product.
  • Some specific words that my customers use about their work, and about my product and its benefits.
  • One more specific benefits they got by using my product over what they were using previously.
  • Perhaps some level of understanding of the emotional connection Bob has to my product and to the results that he’s getting with my product.
  • Ideas for improvements, based on the things that Bob feels the product could do better.

Bob described the benefits he’s getting from the product, in his own words (which can often be directly used in marketing and sales engagements).

I got insights into how the product could be improved from his perspective. And I started to create a relationship with Bob that will benefit both him and me into the future.

It will benefit him because he now knows that I’m interested in what he does, I understand better what he does, and I will probably take his interests into consideration when I prioritize features.

And it benefits me because I now have a customer who knows I’m interested in him and his opinions. I can go back to Bob in the future to get more of his ideas, and to validate my ideas and designs and new features with him.

You can guide the Market Discovery conversation

I structured this conversation as a combination of open-ended questions, requests for more information, and a few close-ended questions (“Did you use our product for the ERP project?”) to help determine if I could go down a certain path.

I started with the list of questions from above, but then, as I learned more from Bob, I was able to move into new areas (especially using “tell me more about that” variations). As a result, I have a great relationship with Bob the Goat Rodeo Manager, and I know about how at least some of our customers perceive the product.

Finding product gaps

There are a lot of other directions I could have taken the conversation. For example, if I were interested in finding new product opportunities, I might use a line of questions like one of the following:

“What do you miss about your old tool now that you are using our product?”

This could help me learn about product gaps and areas where current customers might be actively frustrated.

“Before you got our product you were mostly using spreadsheets for managing things like your ERP project. What are you still using spreadsheets for?”

(If Bob is still using spreadsheets for project management tasks, those would potentially be ripe opportunities for new product features. Or perhaps for me giving him guidance on how he could use our product for those parts of the process as well – maybe he just doesn’t know how to do it, or needs some training.)

Three things for you to do right now

  1. Create a set of questions for doing customer interviews about the topics you need to learn about, and practice them so you’re natural when talking to customers.
  2. Schedule interviews with your customers, even if you don’t know very much about the product yet!
  3. Practice using these questioning techniques not just on customers, but on co-workers in other departments, and even in your regular life. They are very powerful!

Closing notes

  • Two recent episodes of the All The Responsibility, None of The Authority podcast are also about asking questions and doing market discovery, so you might want to check them out.
  • Don’t forget to download the bonus list of questions that goes along with this post (and with the podcast episode).

Tell me in the comments about your memorable customer conversations. I’d love to hear about any funny or meaningful interactions you’ve had, and the insights you gained.


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