Approaching Customer Discovery, Part 2
How Vistaly founder Matt O’Connell gets creative with discovery
First-time founder Matt O’Connell saw an opportunity in the customer insights and productivity sector to connect two sides of a company’s typical workflow:
Tools that help teams execute more effectively. Tools like Asana, Jira, ADO, Trello, Linear, etc., that live close to delivery teams and support the sequencing and tracking of work.
Strategic tools for improving alignment and creating focus. These tools typically take on things like OKRs, performance management software, and analytics.
The sides were there, but he wondered, what are teams doing to connect those two worlds? And how do we ensure the focus on the customer doesn’t get lost in the shuffle?
This is where O’Connell positioned his company Vistaly, described as “a single workspace for connecting strategy, discovery, and delivery.” O’Connell’s goal is to insert Vistaly into existing product development tool stacks to maintain the customer focus in everything the teams do.
How has he built that into Vistaly’s culture, and how can you?
Scheduling consistent calls with customers
In an average week, O’Connell has 15-20 customer conversations. Most of these are 1:1 or 2:1 calls with customers. They are often interviews and are designed to be informal to keep the interviewee comfortable and sharing freely. Before every conversation, O’Connell and the Vistaly team identify what they’d like to learn. This allows them to keep the conversations focused and no longer than they have to be, which is particularly helpful if a conversation starts to go off-track or stops yielding useful insights.
Time is precious. Cutting interviews short when they stop providing value is in everyone's best interest, and having a clear learning goal defined up front helps you know when to do that.
Finding creative ways to speak with people
Not all customers are willing to hop on calls right away, though. Since most of Vistaly’s prospective customers already use Slack, the team has begun reaching out to customers to have asynchronous conversations in Slack. This simple technique breaks the ice with the target user and makes it easier to get the conversation started on their terms. Once the team builds a rapport with the customer, they ask to schedule a live call with them. This dramatically increases the conversion rates for getting interviews scheduled. Several times, the team has seen a simple Slack outreach about a specific learning goal result in an immediate response from the customer: "Do you have 10 minutes to chat about this now? I just experienced that with my team."
O’Connell and the team also learn from their customers by observing where they are experiencing friction with the product. They will often reach out for help to resolve an issue, which is where customer support typically steps in. The Vistaly team likes to capitalize on these exchanges to learn more about the root cause of these issues. They don't always have success turning reactionary customer success calls into discovery calls (some people want a problem resolved and then move on), but when they are successful, the learning payoff is substantial.
The Vistaly team is small. Making the time for customer interviews isn’t easy and can often lead to other, suboptimal compromises. Their target audience are often busy professionals with jammed calendars. To find time with them requires flexibility and accommodation. As a result, O’Connell will often have interviews scattered throughout the day. This can be painful for someone with an engineering background.
As O’Connell said, “I've learned the value of ‘flow state’—being completely absorbed and focused on something, often to the point of losing track of time. Some of my best work happens in this state, but that's hard to get into when conversations break up your day, and you have to constantly be aware of the time.” One thing he’s found helpful is reserving a few large chunks dedicated to customer discovery work throughout the week. While this solves a problem for him, it doesn’t always align with his customers’ availability, which always comes first.
Celebrating course correction
All of the new insight you gain from speaking to people will inevitably conflict with plans you already have in place, and some of your earlier decisions will be wrong. This is cause for celebration rather than an error to be avoided. Every time you and the team learn something new from talking to your customers, share it broadly with the rest of the company. Be clear about the original plan, what you learned along the way and how you will be changing course. Publicly celebrate de-prioritization of ideas that don’t meet customer needs or conflict with the insight gained through customer conversation.
When your teams see that it’s OK to change course based on evidence, they’ll be more likely to do it. This will save significant resources chasing ideas that aren’t going to work just because someone decided to do it without any customer validation. Continuous improvement requires continuous learning. The agility of your organization depends on your teams’ comfort implementing the insights they’re learning from talking to their customers.
Democratizing the learning process
Finally, ensure everyone on your team, regardless of role or title, understands that talking to customers is part of their job. It is their responsibility to understand what customers want and what’s getting in their way. This article, as well as last edition’s piece on Steve Cohn of Winware, showcases founders doing the legwork. That’s a great start because it shows how important it is to the core team. As the team grows everyone else must build this into their weekly practice.
Customer discovery isn’t work for just researchers or designers or product managers, and it certainly should not be outsourced to an external agency. It is the key to learning whether or not you're solving a real problem for real customers in a meaningful way. Everyone must care about it and participate in the validation process.
What I've been up to
I have been on the road! Again! I hit 4 countries in 8 days (France! Netherlands! Ireland! Scotland!) and then went back to London a few days later just for fun. Why? I was giving internal keynotes for companies and events in each of these places. I was lucky enough to give one of the few external keynotes at Aviv Group’s product and tech summit in Paris. Later in London, I spoke at Workboard’s first European Accelerate event on the benefits of OKRs in the product planning process.
I also managed to have a bit of fun catching two shows from one of my favorite bands, The National, while in Dublin and again in Edinburgh. Dad rock FTW!
For the rest of the year I’ll be delivering work from home. We’re booking up into Q1 and Q2 of 2024 now. If you’d like to work with me on OKRs, Lean UX, Product Management training or a fun, inspirational in-house keynote get in touch now. We’ll lock in 2023 rates for delivery in 2024. Just hit reply to this email or send directly to [email protected].
Watch, Listen, Read
Watch: Ahsoka on Disney+ – The latest Star Wars spinoff is…well…just ok. I mean, look, it's sci-fi, so I’ll watch it. It starts slowly and eventually builds up to leave you on a cliffhanger that won’t get resolved for at least a year. Additionally, some of the acting is meh, at best, even though one of the actresses in the show is Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the legendary Ramona Flowers.
Listen: Frank Turner – Are there a million people out there with an acoustic guitar singing songs about their life? Yep. Frank Turner is my top guy in this genre. Saw him play this past week and had a blast. Has hints of punk rock, Irish traditional and just straight ahead rock n roll.
Read: The Service Organization by Kate Tarling – Not only is Kate brilliant and highly experienced, she’s generous with the case studies in this book. For me, I’m always interested in examples of organizations, especially public ones, managing to outcomes. There are several good case studies in this book.