Q&A: Stu Heilsberg, biz development guru, on how to stop guessing what customers want

Developing business isn’t about sitting in your conference room hypothesizing all different reasons why people need your product or service, and how you might get business. As you know, there is a lot of guessing. To move beyond this, you need to get outside the building to interact and learn about your ecosystem of partners, providers and customers, not just your immediate prospects.

It takes a different mindset, says Stu Heilsberg. A “stop guessing” mindset.

A few weeks ago, I reviewed Stu Heilsberg’s book The Answers Are Outside The Building, where he lays out how to stop guessing. To get more insights, I did a quick interview with him.

Jorge: Why do you think people have a hard time getting out of the office?

Stu: My experience has been that folks have a harder time getting out of the office because they think that it’s a larger project or a larger task than it really is. They assume it’s a large research project and that the setups have to be very detailed and sales pitches need to be completed, and so they make it almost insurmountable. Much of this is actually in their minds. The opposite is really true. And the best way to do it is to make it simple. Get out and have 30-60 minute dialogues with some good people, make some good connections, and get some good feedback on your idea.

If it is complicated and it is large, it’s probably not the right way to do it.

Jorge: Interesting. And how does social media, as a customer development tool, play in?

Stu: Yeah, it’s interesting. I think getting out of the building is social media. I wrote my book to share my experience in being able to engage an ecosystem and learn a lot in terms of how to aim great ideas that I and my clients have. And a key part of that practice is to connect with like-minded and open people to get their feedback. I think that is what social media is all about – connecting with like-minded people.

This became clear to me when a number of folks suggested that I use social media to let people know a little bit about what I do and about my book. When I started to leverage Twitter and other mediums, it became clear to me that I was engaging an ecosystem to communicate and get feedback – it was a perfect parallel to the customer development work I do.

So in fact, social media is not even an ancillary or an add on. Social media is almost like perfect synergy with getting outside of the building.

Jorge: Great. Why do you think customer development isn’t practical the way you do it?

Stu: From what I’ve seen, what I’ve heard, and the feedback I get, I actually think people don’t know how to do it. They want to. What I see so often is that they want to talk to customers or prospects. They want to talk to potential partners. They want to get out and want to talk to the ecosystem, but they simply don’t know how to do it. It’s because they have been told now that a really good way to do it is without a business plan and without a sales pitch. Which I agree with wholeheartedly. But we’ve all been taught, and certainly I have throughout my life and my career, that you go out with a sales pitch. And you don’t go out until it’s ready. But the opposite is true.

You want to go out, have a healthy dialogue with a couple of the right people – if not dozens of the right people – and ask them about the idea. Ask them if it aligns with their business priorities. But many I’ve found have not been taught how to set up conversations like that and then conduct them that way. I think that’s the reason everyone kept suggesting I write my book. Because they saw not a detailed list of processes, or a detailed list of process steps, or even a detailed list of things to fill in. What they heard from me was how to go out and do it. How to go out and talk to people. How to do those engagements and have them be very open. And it’s this that I’ve been told is a really nice compliment to customer development and lean start-up.

Customer development and lean start-up lay out these very simple, very practical, incredibly effective ways to put together a business plan. And also how to execute on a new business. They lay out very clearly what you need. And what my prospects and clients are telling me is that my method, my book, my approach are how you get that information and guidance. And I think people are at a loss without having that guidance, and a lot of times they seem kind of paralyzed. They’re stumped.

Jorge: That’s good. And how did you get started with this? What was it that triggered it?

Stu: That’s not only a great question, that is THE question. About 10 years ago I wrapped up a start-up, and something changed in me. I just got tired of guessing. It was that simple. I got tired of guessing about content for a business plan. I got tired of guessing about slides I needed to put together for internal and external presentations and pitches. It wasn’t logical to me that I had an idea and I was supposed to then immediately decide and figure out with myself and other smart people I worked with inside the building that hey, okay, here’s what it is, here’s how everyone should use it, here’s why it’s valuable to them, here’s how much they should pay for it, here’s all the channel partners we should use, they’ll distribute it and here’s why.

It didn’t make any sense to me that I would have all those answers without having talked to any of members of the ecosystem in great detail. That wasn’t logical to me, so I decided to stop guessing and I said, You know what? I’m going to list my questions, and I’m not even going to try to answer them. I’m going to maybe have some hypotheses, but I’m going to immediately get out and go talk to all of those people in the eco system. And I’m going to find out what they think. Do they care? Does it align with their priorities? And if so, how would they aim it. Because although my idea might be really good, and it might be valuable, typically I’m not entirely on target with it. They need to take a hold of it. They need to aim it. They need to morph it so it works well for them.

But the simple answer is, I got tired of guessing. I kind of refuse to guess now. I want to get real information.

Jorge: Good. It’s kind of related to the past question but the difference in your approach to business development and new start-up is you take an ecosystem perspective, can you explain how you adopt this approach and what are the benefits?

Stu: Yeah, it actually evolved because my customers and prospects and partners were telling me to do it. I find that – and I think we all experience this but we don’t necessarily always hear it – that we are told to engage all parts of a value chain. I know I didn’t get this before 10 years ago. It’s where we’ll be talking to some potential customers or partners and they’ll say “You know, you ought to talk to so-and-so”. Or “You know what? You need to go talk to so-and-so because if they are on-board then I’m on board.”

And essentially what I was being told to do was to go talk to other parts of the ecosystem. A lot of times they were partners, suppliers, or like-minded people. Sometimes they were analogous scenarios with similar types of services, or that were complimentary to what I was thinking about offering. And I was being told to go learn from them.

So to be honest, it wasn’t my brilliance that came up with it, it was my ecosystems that were telling me to do it. And it’s become really a religion for me now.

What I get out of it, why it is so valuable, and why it has become absolutely mandatory for me is that I probably learn about 25% of what I need to directly from my customers and prospects, and I learn 75% of what I need from the people around them. From the other parts of the ecosystem. And I believe that’s for two reasons. One is the other people around the ecosystem are actually more objective than the target customers. It’s hard for me to answer questions about myself and my business objectively. I’m naturally going to have some subjectivity.

The other reason why it’s particularly valuable is all those other people in the ecosystem are actually studying the target customers also. It’s nice. They want to sell more to them. They want to support them. They want to serve them. And so they already have tons and tons of information about them that I get to leverage and get the benefit from.

So this is really, really good stuff. I strongly recommend it. I think it’s one of the other reasons why my approach works and also my clients are so happy. It is simply another really nice compliment to customer development and lean start-up.

Jorge: Awesome. Why do you think companies have a difficult time getting out of the building to learn about their ecosystem?

Stu: So, I think they – aside from what we spoke about earlier, which had to do with not knowing how to do it – feeling like it’s a bigger project than it really is. Because most of the time people look at going off and doing these engagements as a 3-6 month research project. And, in fact it, isn’t and shouldn’t be.

The other reason, from what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard, is that they’re actually afraid to have these open conversations with open agendas. They are afraid they won’t get it right or that it won’t work. I just heard this from a client this week and walked them through the process, so they’d be more comfortable. They don’t use those words, but they are afraid to go talk to somebody without a sales pitch. They are afraid that they won’t have things organized. They are afraid that the agenda won’t work because it’s sort of a fluid agenda. They are afraid that the people they are talking to won’t get something out of it.

And, in fact, all the opposites are true. Simply starting with a focus on whether or not the idea aligns with their priorities works well. A follow up can be how the ecosystem member might redefine the idea to better serve them – but only if it even aligns with their priorities to be begin with.

You know, having those two questions as the starting point and then having your questions and agenda fallout from the answers to those two questions, is an incredibly efficient and valuable agenda for both sides of the table. And people get plenty out of this. I have yet, in let’s say a thousand different dialogues and engagements like this, to have one person say this wasn’t valuable. Or this wasn’t a very good use of their time. Or even if they didn’t say it, for me to sort of read that from the conversation.

In fact, people actually like it when you ask them about their business. Because for me to show up with a sales pitch and an agenda that assumes that I know their business better than they do, quite frankly, is arrogant. But even if it’s not arrogant, it doesn’t serve them well. My job is to show up and learn.

Jorge: Great, great. I think the next question is related to that. As it relates to listening, so as someone who doesn’t like the word sell myself, I’m fascinated because you don’t use it. So can you talk about what makes a good listener.

Stu: What makes me a better listener is to assume that there are a whole bunch of things that I don’t know. I like to think I’m pretty logical. I like to think I can lay out A+B=C pretty well. But I’ve found what really makes me a great listener is to believe I’m probably really good at identifying the right questions. But the answers and what questions I may need to ask next? I need to do a lot of good listening to find out what they are. And the answers that I’m going to get to my questions may very well be counter-intuitive. There’s also probably a whole bunch of barriers to my idea being good, and I need to learn what they are. It doesn’t mean that they can’t be overcome, but just because I think it’s logical and I can tie it together, and I see an improvement in efficiency or tremendous value, doesn’t mean that the folks that I am targeting with my solution will see the same thing.

So at the end of the day, I like to assume there’s a whole bunch of things I don’t know, and it puts me in a really great mode to say “Okay, what can I learn right now? What are they really telling me? And from that, what can I ask next to learn the next piece of the puzzle that they just started for me?” So that helps me to be a very good listener.

Jorge: Great. In your book you talk about Intuit in high regard. What exactly did you learn at Intuit and how did that experience carry over to the rest of your work and your career?

Stu: Intuit is by far the most user-driven – whether it be consumer or business user – and focused company that I have worked for. And I appreciate that greatly. I do believe that the answers start with the users, and all the other pieces, whether they be technology or process, are really tactics to deliver on what the user needs. And I always appreciated that about Intuit. I think the big take-a-way with Intuit was they focused on solving THE big problem. And there’s two parts to that. One is it’s a big problem. It’s a real pain. It’s not a nice to have. It’s not an efficiency game. It’s pain, and it’s big. People will pay for that. People pay to solve pain. People don’t pay or businesses don’t pay to address a “nice to have” or a slight efficiency gain.

The second thing is that it’s a problem. It’s not problems. It’s not a bunch of stuff. It’s one big thing that addresses the needs of a lot of folks – or a lot of companies. And that’s about focus. So you put those two things together, and I’m able to execute better. Solve a big problem. Don’t be afraid to solve a simple problem. But as long as it’s a big one and you’re not trying to do too much at once, you’ve got a good chance at executing well.

Jorge: Awesome, awesome. So Stu, as you continue to do this work, what are your worries? What worries you? What keeps you up at night?

Stu: I’m not sure that I have a worry or that it keeps me up at night, but the challenge that I have – and it’s an exciting one to have, as my approach is resonating with a lot of people – his how to scale. I’m in the process of identifying how I can scale this to get both the message and the training and my services out to more people. Whether it be through partners or for me on a more scaled bases. Because I’m getting more and more demand for it, and it seems to apply in at least as many areas as I originally thought it did.

So for me it’s about scale right now. If you ask me, that’s an exciting challenge to have.

Jorge: So I guess that’s what next for you? Right? My next question was going to be about what’s next for you in your work so I guess you just answered it.

Stu: Yeah. I try to practice my own principles on myself and my business. And my ecosystem has been very consistently asking me to go beyond consulting services into speaking, and then also training and workshops. And so those two new areas are now ramping up.

Jorge: What are you most proud of about the book?

Stu: I don’t know if it’s proud, but I’m certainly excited and really pleased to get the feedback that my approach is unique, and it is a compliment to things like lean start-up and customer development. It is not redundant. It’s not me saying something just because it’s exciting to me. It in fact, it is helpful, and it’s valuable.

Sometimes we can have really great ideas ourselves, and they’re unique and exciting to us, but they can be a “me too”. That’s not what I get with this. I get very, very consistently that it’s unique. It’s a compliment. It is valuable, and clients want more and more. So to me that’s really, really exciting.

Jorge: Great, last question, Stu. What is one step my leaders can take today to get out of the building?

Stu: I would grab your ecosystem or your value chain, identify three to five groups that make up that value chain, and give yourself no more than 5-10 minutes to do that. Don’t worry about making it perfect. Just lay it out. Then pick two companies in each group, which should be in the neighborhood of 5-10 companies, and somehow have a 30-60 minute dialogue with all 10 of those in the next 10 days. So 10 companies in 10 days. Have the conversations, and go into them with a brief description verbally of your idea, and ask two questions. The first one is “Does this align with your business priorities?”, and the second question is, “If it does, how can it best serve you?” And see where it goes.

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