All Hail the Customer Council

I regularly speak with startups at Seedcamp, and elsewhere, about how to engage with customers in the early stages of defining your product. There are a number of tried-and-true techniques that I have written about previously, but one method that a lot of startups have been using lately is the Customer Council.

Why is this a good idea? For at least two reasons.

  1. It reduces the stress of recruiting new users every time you want to test something.
  2. It leverages your passionate user base as a source of valuable information and as a network that can eventually drive revenue.

A Customer Council is pretty much what it sounds like, a group of people who are actual or potential consumers of your product, who are willing to give you advice in your early stages. Typically, it’s because they are early adopters and love what you do, and will do it out of the goodness of their heart (think open-source). Customer Council isn’t the method of interacting with them, but rather the group that you can lean on ongoing.  Since you’re in really early stages, this type of qualitative feedback, even if somewhat biased, will be valuable to you.

Here’s the advice I typically have given;

  • 6-20 early/likely adopters
  • 6-month commitment with a minimum number of interactions (6-12)
  • Incentivise with as little as you need to (nothing, beer/pizza, gift certificate, free subscription to your product)
  • Mix up the interaction types; group meetings, 1-2-1 office visits, surveys, phone calls, remote usability testing, etc.
  • As with any user research, BE CLEAR about what you are trying to learn before you engage in the test. Nothing more frustrating than a research project that gives you no clear guidance.

Credit where credit is due, read on to see what some of our startups have learned individually! Massive thanks to Vas, James, Richard, Charlotte, and all their teams, for sharing. Deeper thoughts on these topics can be garnered from Marty and Tomer . For more on Product, visit the index at http://seedcamp.com/eir-product-articles/

 

Splittable Housemate Council

Splittable is an app for tracking & managing shared expenses

How did you recruit them?

Initially, it was by sending out emails to users we felt met the criteria for having the right kind of engagement. Since we introduced in-app chat for customer support with Intercom, we have also been proactively reaching out to people through that mechanism, or following up with people who get in touch for other reasons and end up having a good interaction.

What commitment did you extract from them?

2-3 in person ‘council meetings’ over the course of 6 months, though we have also reached out to them in other ways beyond

What incentive did you offer?

We hosted the event with food and drinks, but no other financial incentive beyond that.

Can you describe how you have interacted with them so far?

We did a few phone interviews, had a couple of in-person group meetings and sent a handful of surveys.

What successes have you had from them?

A qualitative understanding of certain parts of their ‘customer journey’ and habits in the context of where we see ourselves fitting into their lives. This has been achieved through remote interviews, surveys and part of the in-person group sessions. We’ve done some user testing of tasks and flows of the app too in the in-person sessions, but we need to increase the cadence of doing those things with a purpose.

What recommendations do you have to other teams in considering/operating a customer council?

  • Put the time and effort into expanding the potential base from which to get participants and keep them engaged over time so that you’re not relying on the same group of people. Emails/phone calls/in-app chat as the bridge.
  • In person sessions are the most time intensive to organise and execute so don’t do them until you have a clear purpose for doing them.
  • Always review the process afterwards to understand how you can run the events smoothly next time.
  • Be aware of the biases of the group that you’re talking to – e.g. if you’re looking to build features that try to expand your demographic outside of the core super users that your council might be formed of, then they might not be the right people to understand the value of the new feature, but might be able to show you if it breaks anything for their existing usage.

Borrow My Doggy’s Canine Council

BMD is a marketplace for dog owners and borrowers to meet.

How did you recruit them?

We sent a survey to our members and asked local members whether they would like to join our canine council.

What commitment did you extract from them?

They were asked to attend quarterly events at which they would be able to meet other members and share their feedback with us.

What incentive did you offer?

There were some goodies at the event (dog treats etc.) but we made it clear there was no financial reward.

Can you describe how you have interacted with them so far?

We’ve had only one event so far. After some drinks and socialising, we had an open, interactive and facilitated session that lasted 25 mins with all 15 members talking about their experiences using BorrowMyDoggy. We tried to pull out problems and pain points, as well as allowing them to celebrate the good stuff too. We then had breakout sessions – with 3 or 4 members with 1 BMD staff talking about a specific aspect of the service (e.g. messaging) and digging deeper into what does and doesn’t work, and what other features would be useful.

What successes have you had from them?

  • We gained plenty of confirmation of prior assumptions and observations. That might sound superfluous, but it’s actually important to get verbal face-to-face qualitative confirmation of these assumptions…nearly everything else we use to make these observations and assumptions is quantitative data.
  • We also get a strong sense of where the real problems are, and where our real focus should be. The common pain points are really emphasised in a group setting.
  • Finally, we do get product feature ideas – we never take these as a literal backlog, as some of them are clearly crazy or impossible, but many echo our own ideas and some are genuinely interesting and inspiring.
  • Since the last canine council, I can think of about 2 small features that we have already released, and one larger one that is on a near-term roadmap which we should tackle in the next few weeks.

What recommendations do you have to other teams in considering/operating a customer council?

  • DO IT!
  • We ended up inviting most of those 500 to the first event to get an attendee list of 18. It might be more effective to call when inviting…the volunteers definitely like the feeling that they are “chosen”.
  • You don’t want to outnumber councillors with your own staff, but the more people from across all disciplines – particularly product, marketing, operations – that can witness the better.
  • Aside from learning loads about your customers, it’s a good way to bond different parts of the team together because everyone is (or should be) invested in customer experience, and this is something they can do together.
  • For an early phase company, getting to an understanding of what problem it is you are really solving is a pretty key one.
  • Do it after office hours and make it relaxed.
  • Record at least the audio if not video. Notes rarely capture everything.

 

Juro’s Customer Council

Juro provides a novel interface for creating legal contracts.

How did you recruit them?

We cherry picked from a list of contacts and people we thought would likely give great advice. We then emailed them individually and asked, and 100% of them said yes they’d be willing to do it.

What commitment did you extract from them?

A half-day total of time over a 90-day period.

What incentive did you offer?

Some were happy to do it for nothing, though free usage of our product was on offer if necessary.

Can you describe how you have interacted with them so far?

We run Slack comms for our customers, and in this case, we created an additional #Customer_Council channel. So far, we’ve done interviews and have actually run a product simulation with them.

What successes have you had from them?

The product (slack-bot) simulation was really helpful, for instance, 1`we found that certain terms we used were not commonly understood, and so not only did we need to offer clearer language, we also needed to give customers a way to dig deeper for education. In one case the engagement was really helpful to get them onboard as a partner.

What recommendations do you have in operating a customer council?

Doing this is a big time investment, so make sure to focus on the people that really are going to give you a lot of value.

 

Repositive’s Expert Council

Repositive has a genomics data search engine, marketplace, and community.

How did you recruit them?  

12 total. We tried multiple approaches, but generally asked users we’d interacted with or had been recommended by colleagues (50% conversion). In some cases, we sent out a screener (see Validating Product Ideas by Tomer Sharon) (10% conversion).

What commitment did you extract from them?

6 of 12 feedback sessions over 6 months. Permission to possibly post their use case or testimonial online.

What incentive did you offer?

Early access to new features, and ability to shape Repositive’s future. Opportunity to interact with the other members of the council. I will personally try to help them find the data they are looking for to power their research.

Can you describe how you have interacted w them so far?

Slack channel for ongoing 1:1 and 1:many communication, Surveys, and interviews (f2f or skype). At the end of each sprint (every 2 weeks) I send them and update. ← Good comms policy!

What successes have you had from them?

  • Some gems about people’s personal opinions of what blocks them/put them off using some websites. (logging in, not pretty UIs).
  • Hacks/cheats people use to get around the blockers in their workflows.
  • We discovered new use cases for our product.
  • Currently, we are focussing primarily on search. We found useful information about their searching habits and what tools they use to keep track of the search results. What information is very important to the user.

What recommendations do you have to other teams in considering/operating a customer council?

  • Start early – it takes a long time to get everyone on board and geared up, and it’s a lot of work.
  • Bear in mind it will be a lot of work – planning, sending a lot of emails individually, writing up the results. Share the burden!
  • Communicate your findings to the team
  • Use 2 people to do interviews (one to take notes) and de-brief straight afterwards, otherwise, you forget.
  • If possible do the interview in the place where the user would be using your product, you get more information and it’s more comfortable for both parties.
  • Make sure you tell them clearly in advance what the meeting is going to be about so you won’t end up about talking about other irrelevant information.   
  • Get people within your target audience, but also have a bit of breadth in their roles so you get a variety of use cases and a selection of viewpoints.

 

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