How To Listen To Customers When Validating An Idea

By in Customer Development

“Interviewing Customers is a Special Kind of Torture”

That’s what Justin Wilcox from Customer Dev Labs said in his video “How I Interview Customers.” In that awesome and useful guide, Justin outlined questions you should and shouldn’t ask.

Interviewing customers is the key to customer development. It unlocks all the most important components of the business model canvas. It will not only tell you if you’re going in the right direction, it will give you a map if you’re not.

This is all true IF you know how to listen to your customers.

There’s a HUGE difference between hearing what your customers are saying to really listening to what they’re saying.

People have written guides on how to interview customers. Justin’s is one of the best I’ve seen. But, I haven’t seen a good guide on how to listen to customers.

The reason is that it’s implied that to be a great interviewer, you also have to be a great listener. The problem is that this isn’t always true.

The Discussion From Hell

Let me tell you about my chat from hell. As some of you might know, I help out entrepreneurs with lean startup, marketing and customer development at One of my calls was with a young business undergrad student who was an aspiring entrepreneur. Here’s how the conversation went:

Him: “I need to find a developer to code to build an MVP and test my startup idea.”

Me: “Well, you really don’t have to. You can test your startup idea without coding. Here’s a few ways you can…”

Him: [cuts me off] ”But that’s going to make it hard for me to find lots of customers.”

Me: “It’s really not about scaling right now, but validating your startup with a few customers. (I tell him a few ways to test his idea)”

Him: “Ok . I’ll go ahead a build my product.”

Me: “I just told you that you don’t have to.”

Him: “Oh ok, I understand.”

This conversation was so cringeworthy. Our 30-minute skype conversation turned into an hour because I had to keep repeating myself over and over again. At the end of the call, I felt like I didn’t get through to him. He already made up his mind to code his startup. He heard me but wasn’t listening to me.

How To Not Listen To Your Customers

A few ground rules I use that will help you listen to your customers when validating your idea.

1st rule of listening to your customer: Assume that you’re wrong when listening to your customers

Your brain is hard wired to nit-pick what your customers say to support what you believe even if they’re saying the opposite. You can’t help it. You don’t want to be wrong. It also doesn’t help that most entrepreneurs are way too optimistic for their own good.

That’s why I pull this jedi-mind trick to counteract this effect. I assume I’m wrong. I think in my head that my startup idea wouldn’t work.

This helps me clear my mind of any biases and dedicate my focus to taking in as much as I can of what is being said to me. It also helps clear my mind of any preconceived ideas or emotions.

2nd rule of listening to your customer: Do not interrupt them

You’re not listening if you’re talking. So allow your customer to communicate without any interruption, until he or she concludes.

One trick I do is allow a one or two second silence between questions. Sometimes, people just need a few seconds to gather their thoughts.

How To Listen To Your Customers When Validating An Idea

There are three techniques I use to actively listen to customers when validating an idea.

Listening tips:

1. Pay attention to your customers
2. Provide positive feedback when your customers are speaking.
3. Defer judgement

1. Pay attention to your customer

This sounds simple enough. But in our multi-tasking society, paying attention to one thing is tough. Here’s a few tips to really pay attention to your customer:

  • Look at the speaker directly.
  • Put aside distracting thoughts
  • “Listen” to the speaker’s body language.

2. Provide positive feedback when your customers are speaking

Our personal filters, assumptions, judgments, and beliefs can distort what we hear. As a listener, your role is to understand what is being said. This may require you to reflect what is being said and ask questions.

  • Reflect what has been said by paraphrasing. “What I’m hearing is,” and “Sounds like you are saying,” are great ways to reflect back.
  • Ask questions to clarify certain points. “What do you mean when you say.” “Is this what you mean?”
  • Summarize the speaker’s comments periodically.

3. Defer Judgement

Interrupting is a waste of time. It frustrates the speaker and limits full understanding of the message.

  • Allow the speaker to finish each point before asking questions.
  • Don’t interrupt with counter arguments.


Interviewing customers is only useful in the customer development process if you listen to what your customers have to say. There’s a big difference between just hearing your customers to really listening to their thoughts, opinions and concerns. Make sure to pay attention, provide positive feedback and defer judgement when interviewing customers. This will help you really validate or invalidate an idea.

Interested to read more about startups? Subscribe to my email list or follow me on Twitter (@RamliJohn).

Product Growth for SaaS | Founder and host of the Growth Marketing Today and co-host the Product-Led Podcast with Wes Bush, author of the Product-Led Growth.


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Just one more step to get my FREE growth cheat sheets with the proven step-by-step marketing strategies from today's smartest marketers such as Rand Fiskin, April Dunford, and Hiten Shah.