The Mom Test - How to talk to customers. A Summary
Have good customer conversations and validate your ideas.
13 min read
"The Mom Test, How to Talk to Customers & learn if your business is a good idea when everybody is lying to you" by Rob Fitzpatrick is a book with the aim of improving your customer conversations and getting real learnings out of them! The idea behind the title is that you shouldn't ask your mum if your idea is a good idea because she will lie to you. Like you will learn in this book most people will lie to you, not even with evil intent. Unfortunately, this will not help you with validating your idea.
The book tries to teach you how to get out of these lies and start a conversation where you actually learn something. The main takeaway is to validate the problem and not the idea. Start conversations that focus purely on the customer's life and the problem.
This is a summary of the book with some quotes and the most important learnings I could gain from it. I list the table of contents and go through each chapter. If you want to learn more about it give the book a deep dive.
- Don't talk about your idea
- Let the customer talk
- Talk about the problem
The Mom Test
In the chapter The Mom Test the interesting part begins. Rob shows you a really common scenario on how a bad validation conversation looks like. It starts with the so-called Mom Test. A son wants to test his idea on his mum and asks her a couple of questions. Since the mum doesn't want to hurt the feelings of the son she "validates" the idea for him and tells him that it is really awesome. It follows a second conversation that focuses purely on the problem the idea wants to solve (digital recipes). With that approach, the son has some success, by focusing on the mum, her iPad, and cooking skills instead of pitching his idea.
There are three main points to follow the mom test's approach:
Talk about their life instead of your idea
Ask about specifics in the past instead of generics or opinions about the future
Talk less and listen more
There are some examples of good and bad questions. Take them with a grain of salt, but the overall idea of the questions is the same. Focus on the customer's problem.
- Why do you bother?
- Talk me through your workflow
- What else have you tried?
- Do you think it's a good idea?
- How much would you pay for X?
- Would you buy a product which did X?
You see a common rule here. The good questions focus on the customer's life and problem and how he will deal with it. The bad questions focus purely on your idea.
One important question for me is always to ask What else have you tried?
If somebody is complaining about a huge problem that he is so annoyed by but never looked for a solution, the workaround is maybe not worth it to pay for another product. If you see this pattern in several customer conversations it will be hard to sell your product if nobody even is looking for a solution.
If they haven't looked for ways of solving it already, they're not going to look for (or buy) yours.
Avoiding Bad Data
The second chapter is Avoiding Bad Data. Bad data refers to everything where you think you are learning something but you don't. They are also called false positives.
There are three types of bad data:
A typical conversation with bad data looks like that:
You: (end of the pitch) .. and that is why you need my product.
Them: Sounds awesome!
You: Yes it is it will save your business.
Them: Really, really cool.
You go back to your team and say the meeting was awesome, they love it and it is definitely a proper validation. But really is it? They said they like it but it is nowhere a real validation if it will save any problem. Of course, compliments are good, everybody likes them. They prosper your motivation and it can be true of course that people like your idea. However, it is still not a validation. If you get compliments, Rob suggests doing the following:
... try to get specific. Why did that person like the idea? How much money would it save him? How would it fit into his life? What else has he tried.
This again goes back to the problem, his life, and his approach to solving it.
Even if you like compliments, they are just bad data and you have to avoid them. Often there is another way around, so that founders are fishing for compliments. Compliments are no learning. It is just unnecessary time wasted with a potential customer where you really could learn about solving his problem.
Fluff is a special one. It basically refers to useless information. Customers will tell you a lot if you ask the wrong questions. One example from the book is:
You: "Do you ever X"?
Them: "Oh yeah all the time."
That is not validation that the problem really exists. From here it is important to zoom in and get details. How does it happen? What is the workflow behind it? What else have you tried? I think you see the pattern...
The last type of bad data is ideas. And that is really interesting to see.
Entrepreneurs are always drowning in ideas. We have too many ideas, not too few. Still, folks adore giving us more.
The main issue here is that everybody has ideas and most of the people are so convinced that their idea is just the best one. So, it often happens that customers start pitching their ideas. In terms of a software business, these ideas are often feature requests for your own product. Now, that is an essential part. You have a customer who likes your product and wants to improve it for his workflow of working with it. You have to go into this feature request and analyze it. But you don't have to go to your computer and start implementing it! Validate the idea or feature as well by talking about it. Maybe you find an underlying issue. Maybe your product is already able to do it in a much nicer way but you failed in explaining. Understand the why. Understand why your customers want this feature and the root cause behind it.
Rob again gives us some awesome and really basic questions for that:
Why do you want that?
What would that let you do?
How are you coping without it?
How would that fit into your day?
At the end of the chapter, Rob gives you some general tips.
- Let the customer talk more than you do
- Don't mention your idea because then they start to protect your idea
- Don't fall into pitch mode
Asking important questions
You need to focus on asking important questions and not just random ones. Important questions vary from one idea and problem to another. But basically, you have to focus on two things.
Find the bad news
Ask all questions which can be bad news and showstopper and ask them. Not starting something because you know it won't work is great learning. If you build a stock analyzer app but nobody will enter his financials because of security reasons, this is a show stopper!
Don't focus on details too much
Don't focus on unimportant details of your problem. Focus first on the general problem and if it exists. If it does start digging deeper and zooming more into it. Start general and zoom in.
Prepare your list of 3
Rob also suggests creating a list of the 3 most important learning you need. They can (and often need to be) different for the different stakeholders. Keep them always ready that you can ask your potential customer at every given time.
Keeping it casual
Keep it casual and don't make it overly professional just because you're talking about business. The main thing you want is a casual talk with another person about some problem. The best case is if the person doesn't even know that this is a discussion about some business and especially a business you want to build something for. You don't have to set up official meetings, send out several reminders and show up in a suit. Try to be a normal human being and have a normal, but interesting conversation. These meetings often occur not even in a planned fashion. If you meet an industry expert at a party and you have your list of 3 questions ready you can just start right in and talk to him.
Commitment and advancement
Of course, at some point, you have to start talking about your solution and idea. This now brings us in danger that oftentimes the learning is over because we receive compliments, fluff, and just bad data in general. The great thing is if we know about that we can cut right through it and find the real meaning behind it. What you want to accomplish now are commitments and advancements of your customer. So after your pitch try to get a commitment or some advancement. Rob defines them as:
Commitment: They are showing they're serious by giving up something they value such as time, reputation, or money
Advancement - They are moving to the next step of your real-world funnel and getting closer purchasing
If you sell a SaaS product to a company and had the learnings and your pitch you now want to sell it. If you have meetings without any action points or commitments at the end you are often in the trap of an endless meeting circle. Try to get action points for the next meeting. If they don't want to settle on anything, use this as a learning and cancel this customer because he is often a dead end. But you also need to give them a concrete chance to buy or reject you. Don't hesitate to ask and give them different options for buying. If they won't commit to anything you can also get advancements such as introduction to other companies, teams, or industry experts. But if everything ends with fluff or compliments, really think about it if you should continue or not. Your time is not endless.
Rob gives some good examples for good or bad meetings:
"There are a couple people I can introduce you to ..."
"What are the next steps?"
"Can I buy the prototype?"
"That's so cool. I love it"
"Looks great. Let me know when it launches."
"I would definitely buy that."
Good endings are with immediate actions, bad ones are just compliments and fluff.
Now you know everything about talking to your customers. But how do you find them? There are several options to find them:
- Cold calls: Cold e-mail or call random people and ask if you can talk to them.
- Use random situations: You are at a party and hear that somebody is complaining about your problem? Talk to him and ask some questions.
- Use an excuse: Be a bit sneaky and don't talk about your goal instead find an excuse to talk about another issue and slight slowly into your conversation. Do you want to talk to an investor about your stock analyzer? Maybe ask about some stock tips.
- Go where your customers are. You want to build something for a specific group like crypto traders? Go to crypto meetups!
- Landing Pages: Launch a landing page and try to get as many conversations started as possible. If somebody is singing up talk to them!
You can do it also the other way around. Bring the customers to you:
- Organise meetups: Meetups are an easy way for finding customers & gaining instant credibility.
- Speak & Teach: If you're a good speaker you can find many customers as well.
- Industry blogging: If you blog in that certain industry you can find a relevant audience and talk to them.
Most of these customers will be cold-called above. They often don't know you (except for your online presence). Normally, you get way better results if you get a warm intro. Try to get introduced to many people by:
- Ask your friends. You need a certain contact, just ask if anybody knows anybody in this area.
- Industry advisors. If you have any former advisors or mentors ask them to help you.
- Universities. If you're still a student ask your professors. Professors have endless contacts to the industry
- Investors. You can ask VCs or smaller investors for some contacts in this area.
Framing the meeting
Now you have the skills to talk to the customer and found the customer. How do you want to frame the meeting now? We already saw that we should keep it casual. But we also want to have an efficient meeting and don't waste the time of the customer. The format Rob suggests looks like that:
Vision / Framing / Weakness / Pedestal / Ask
- You want to solve problem X with your vision Y
- You are currently in stage XYZ (prototype on an app)
- Show your weakness and why you need help
- Show why they can help (research them before)
- Ask for explicit help
If possible do your meeting in person.
Choosing your customers
You often find yourself having too many different options, ideas, and customers to focus on. You need to focus on specific ones. This is possible with different mechanisms:
- Customer segmentation: Segment your customers by finding consistent and common problems and goals they have.
- Customer slicing: Slice your segment into smaller groups. Look at the subsets and the commonalities and differences. If you find them put them into another sub-group.
Running the process
Now we have everything. We know how to talk to customers, we know how to find and group customers. Now we just have to execute it. The one really important part here is that just because you are the business guy or just because you read the book it is not a good idea to do the whole process by yourself. You should communicate with your team, ask them what learnings they need and focus on three main learnings for each group. If one person is just talking to the customer he has the ultimate product decisions because he can always vouch for the customer's perspective. That is why the whole learning should be shared in the most transparent way. The best one would be recordings but often that is not really suitable. The most suitable way is to take detailed notes and talk them through right after your talk.
So you need some pre-, and post-processing of your work. You need to start with your list of the big 3 learnings and end with the analysis of your notes. But if you don't know what you want to learn from the beginning, you should not have the conversation in general.
Rob also gives some suggestions on how to take notes, use smileys to make the process faster, and focus on also looking at the notes.
That's it! That is the whole Mom Test. It covers on the one-side really the basics of customer conversations and on the other side surprises with a lot of obvious things which tend to happen a lot (e.g. looking for compliments). The book contains several great examples which I did not cover here. If you want to dig deeper I really recommend reading the book. It is not super long (~140 pages) and is really worth it. Rob did an awesome job here!
In the conclusion, Rob also focuses on telling you that not everything will be perfect. You still will ask dumb questions, look for compliments and just talk about yourself. And that is okay. If you learn from that and try to do it better. To finish with his final quote:
It's going to be okay.
If you want to see The Mom Test in action and see how I use this book to build my Saas product, follow me on Twitter
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