This article is part of The Survival Stage section of 📕 Zero to Sold: How to Start, Run, and Sell a Bootstrapped Business.
While most of your customers will likely enjoy your product, some won’t. Some customers will be complaining a lot, asking for features that you don’t intend to ever build, or are generally very hard to please. When you notice that something is wrong, you can usually trace it back to one or more of your assumptions not being aligned with your audience.
This kind of misalignment can be grouped into three types: conflicts arising from members of your audience not being aligned with which problem you solve, how you solve it, or how your product works.
The most fundamental misalignment you can experience is when you’re solving a problem that your prospective customers don’t have. It won’t matter if you built the world’s most amazing product if it provides no value to your customers. Only a solution to their critical problems can generate that value.
When your prospective customers don’t convert or even show interest in your product, look for these potential product-related reasons:
Maybe you are not looking at the critical problem at all. Have you adequately validated that the problem you’re solving is critical? Could you have asked different customers than the ones you’re targeting as prospects right now? Double down on your validation efforts. Ask more and different prospects and figure out why what you assumed to be critical is not perceived as such. Do you need to make your prospects aware that they even have a problem?
At FeedbackPanda, we often had to show our prospects that writing student feedback was actually a waste of time when done manually. They just didn’t know that it could work any other way. If you need to do customer education before you can show your value proposition, adjust your messaging and marketing efforts accordingly.
Maybe you are not looking at the critical problem anymore (or just yet). Between your problem validation and now, has something changed? Is your prospects’ workflow different from the one you assumed they had when you selected which problem to work on? If some of your customers fit that pattern, be extra diligent in figuring out if this is where your customer base is coming from or where they are going to. If their non-critical problem is turning critical, great. Sit it out. But if it’s a critical problem turning non-critical, you need to act immediately and figure out which problems you need to solve to retain your customers and keep helping them.
Maybe you are looking at a critical problem, but not theirs. Are you sure you’re talking to the right prospects? If you are absolutely sure you’re solving a critical problem, then there is someone somewhere who is willing to pay for it. Find those other audiences by looking into adjacent markets. Figure out what differentiates those good prospects from the ones that don’t care about the problem you’re solving and market exclusively to the ones where you stand a chance.
Sometimes, you’re working on the right problem, but solve it in a way that doesn’t resonate with your audience. This is often due to a lack of solution validation, particularly how well you’ve understood the jobs-to-be-done of your prospective customers and what they need to get them done.
Here are several solution-related reasons that might cause misalignment with your audience:
Maybe your solution doesn’t fit your prospect’s workflow. Sometimes, the institutional barriers in your prospect’s jobs may be too high for you to overcome. If the level of “we work like this here” is incompatible with a new or different solution, your way of solving the problem just won’t fit. A lot of restaurants could benefit from a computerized order system. Yet many prefer the time-honored technique of memorizing orders. It just wouldn’t fit to pull out a tablet and painstakingly enter every order where before, a mnemonically gifted waiter impressed diners.
Maybe your solution is incomplete. If you operated a fishing equipment store that only sold fishing rods but no fishing lines, would you expect customers to return once they figured out that they can’t buy everything they need to get fishing? The same is true for your solution. If you help your prospects with their problems insufficiently, then they will likely lose more time using your product than they would be doing it the old way. Find out what shape the input into your solutions will have and what your prospects expect as outputs, and provide means for your solution to work with them. If your customers have Excel files and expect the result of using your solution to be a fully-featured one-file PDF with reports and calculations, you shouldn’t ask them to supply you with CSV files and produce Word documents. Envision a solution that works with the inputs and outputs that your customers will realistically have.
Maybe your solution is too complicated. Often, this is related to the inputs and outputs and the necessary pre- and post-work that goes into making them compatible with the rest of the workflow your customers have. Other times, your solution involves steps that your customers can’t envision taking, either because they don’t have the knowledge or permission to do that. In your solution validation calls, make sure that your prospect can take every action they need to use your solution effectively.
Finally, if the problem and solution are aligned, it might come down to the product being at fault. Problem and solution are mostly abstract concepts. A product, however, is a real-world implementation of the solution, and it is exposed to the changing needs and preferences of your customers.
Take a look at your product to see if it may be misaligned in one of these ways:
Maybe your product operates in the wrong medium. Are you offering a web-based SaaS where your customers expect a native mobile application? Are you sending emails when your customers would prefer text messages or push notifications? Do your customers have to use your complicated interface on small screens?
This extends to your help-desk as well. Are you offering real-time help where your customers need a paper trail and prefer email? Are your tutorials videos when your customers would prefer reading technical documents?
Maybe your product or your messaging is too technical. If your customers are much less technically inclined than you are, your elaborate product might scare them away. Do your customers need an interface with twenty different buttons that allow for all eventualities? Or would a much simpler interface with a few configuration dialogs be a better choice? Can you expect your customers to have your level of technical affinity?
We ran into this issue with FeedbackPanda in the beginning. Some of our customers were very new to Online Teaching, and they were scared to make mistakes using their computers. It takes a lot of handholding and support to help these kinds of customers to use your product efficiently. And sometimes, it won’t work, they’ll give up or move to a more straightforward product. At that point, you should stay in close contact with them and see what they need and if they find something that helps them. Then, learn how you can enable your own product to do that.
It could be caused by something simple, like the wording of your messaging. For example, do your customers understand the phrase “heuristic-based statistical sentiment analysis,” or would a “find the tone of a message” be more clear? You don’t need to dumb it down, but you also shouldn’t overcomplicate it. As an engineer, I feel that I need to be as precise as possible. Customers don’t necessarily value this as much as you might think.
Maybe your product is confusing. Your customers don’t want to be confused. They don’t want to be surprised by your product, and they definitely don’t want to learn anything new to be able to solve a problem they already had to learn a product or even a manual solution for in the past. Your product should be simpler, easier, and faster than anything they have encountered in the past. If it’s not, getting to understand your product is a cognitive load that few are willing to take upon themselves.
That’s not to say that people won’t learn how to use your product ever. It just means that the simpler your product, the more prospects will play around with it to a point where they can see themselves using it in the future.
How to Deal with Audience Misalignment
Here’s the worst-case-scenario: your product might just not be for them. They might just not be your audience. Like a Death Metal band is not making their music for an audience of K-Pop fans, you don’t have to bend your product into a shape that works for a market that doesn’t value your vision. There will always be people who wish for things to be different and will be vocal about that. They need a different solution, but you are not the one that provides that, which is fine.
Of course, if all of your customers exhibit this behavior, you should stop and reflect if you are talking to the wrong audience altogether. Find the customers that don’t complain and see what makes them happy. Focus on finding more of those customers and replace the customers that don’t fit your audience anymore.
On the other hand, if you have found that you’re serving the right audience but are just a bit misaligned on your perception of the problem, solution, or product, you can fix it. Once again, reach out to your customers to validate your assumptions, and dive deeply into the points of friction you find in those conversations. Engage customers you have asked before as well as new prospects that you haven’t talked to in the past. Getting fresh and new unique opinions into your validation calls is very important at this point, as their absence may have lead you to the impasse you’re currently facing.
One of the great things about being a bootstrapper is how agile you are. You can react quickly to changes in the needs and wants of your customers. If you’re wrong with an assumption, you’ll quickly find a better perspective to take, and you can improve your product and your business immediately. There is no shame in being wrong about your assumptions. They are mostly guesses, after all. Make sure you admit mistakes quickly and focus on making your bootstrapped business better—one assumption at a time.