The 3-Step Approach for Testing Out Your Business Idea

This story appears in the June 2017 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Let’s say you wake up one day and decide the world needs a better mop, and you’re just the person to make it. Before setting out, you interview prospective customers. “Are you looking for a better mop?” you ask someone. The person searches his memory for all the times he’s wrestled with a mop or hated the smell of it, and he ignores the fact that most days he doesn’t care about his mop and can’t even remember the last time he used it. The hits, not the misses, fill his mind. “Yes,” he tells you. “I am looking for a better mop.” You’re thrilled to hear that and go off to design it. Eight months later, with $ 20,000 of R&D money invested, you come back and ask him to buy it. “Nah,” he says. “I’ve already got a mop.”

Related: Forget Your Product: Start Selling ‘Solutions’ Instead

What happened there? First, something psychologists call “confirmation bias.” It’s the tendency to look for information that confirms your beliefs and ignore what doesn’t. And second, “positive test strategy,” when we consciously or unconsciously ask questions that generate answers supporting our beliefs. These phenomena working in tandem make us feel more reassured, self-confident and driven, but they also create traps for entrepreneurs and prevent us from getting good, honest feedback from our customers.

Fortunately, they can be overcome. Here’s a three-step approach.

1. Replace assumptions with hypotheses.

Make a list of all the assumptions you have about your customers — their price points, pain points and preferences. Now reframe them all as hypotheses. For instance, if your assumption is that customers want more options to customize your product, your hypothesis is that if you offer more customization, revenues will increase. If you think customers will buy more of your product at a lower price point, your hypothesis is that if you lower the price, customers will buy more product more frequently.

And if you think investing more in social media will improve customer loyalty, your hypothesis is that by spending a portion of every day responding to customer comments online, you will drive up your retention rate.

Related: Starting Up Wrong: 6 Product Testing Mistakes You Need to Avoid

2. Test the hypotheses.

This might be through interviews, surveys or A/B testing.

For that customization hypothesis, you could create an A/B test on your website: Some customers will see customization as an option, and some won’t. Do the customized offerings sell better? For the price hypothesis, set up exit interviews with 20 customers who didn’t buy your product. (Email programs can be set to ping people who go through a sales sequence without buying.) Was price their chief reason for bailing? And finally, for your social media hypothesis, track each customer who was engaged on social media to see if they buy more frequently than the average customer.

3. Ask better questions.

If you do surveys or interviews, be careful not to ask leading questions. If you ask a customer, “Was price a large part of your decision not to buy?” they are more likely to say yes. Price is always a factor, but it’s not always the factor. To get at the factor, let your customer fill in the blank. Ask, “What was the biggest factor in your decision not to buy?” Then she might answer, “The delivery window was too long.” Now you know where to put your effort.

Related: The 7 Steps of Effective Product Development

When you let your customers lead you to the truth, it will allow you to set aside your own flawed assumptions and answer their needs better. That way, they’re happier, and you’re not stuck with a warehouse full of unwanted mops.

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