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I love talking to people. Not in a social, cocktail-party way, but in a really-understand-how-they-do their-job kind of way. When I look for new market or business opportunities, I love getting outside of a product’s existing customer base. Non-customers aren’t buried under the weight of current constraints. And it’s often easier to get a better sense of what’s possible.

However, for most intrapreneurs, access to non-customers doesn’t come easy. Sometimes it’s because you are bootstrapping a project. Other times the complexity of your solution makes it challenging to access new customers. And of course there’s the issue of keeping quiet so you don’t arouse suspicion from your competitors. What you’re left with is a charter to find new opportunities but using current customers to begin your research.

Lucky for you, I’m not just interested in understanding how people do their job, I’m also interested in helping people do their job.

Eventually you will have to get out and talk to new markets but there are a four questions you can ask existing customers that will help you get there. These questions will help you understand shifting trends and context around your current customer base so you know where to look next. Let’s take a look.

1. What’s true today that wasn’t a year ago?

Current customers can’t tell you what new opportunities to go after, nor should we expect them to. Your product is integrated into their everyday life. However, because they’re living and breathing in the world that you’re focusing on, they can be your canary in the coal mine.

Ask them questions about new problems or changes in their environment to help you spot emerging trends that would be great opportunities.

For example, imagine you were head of product for a successful HR software company. If you asked your current customers—HR recruiters—what they’d like in a product, they might be stumped. After all, if you are a successful product, their immediate needs are met. Instead, if you ask them what is true today that wasn’t yesterday, they might say that their candidates more frequently want to be contacted via SMS. All of a sudden you now have a nice piece of information to lead you to blue ocean.

Example questions:

  • How has what you do day to day changed in the past 6 months? Past year? Past 5 years?
  • What are some new problems you’re encountering? Why are they happening
  • What are things people are asking you for they weren’t a year ago?

2. What processes haven’t changed in a long time?

What’s the status quo that everyone takes for granted? Processes or practices that haven’t changed are ripe for disruption or new solutions. It takes one person questioning the everyday to see not just a problem, but an opportunity to leap from.

Understanding what processes or parts of the industry are done ‘the way things have always been done’ can be a great source of inspiration.

This is almost the inverse of the last question. Imagine you already have market information telling you that people want to communicate via text, so you seek to confirm how HR recruiters are addressing this trend. If you find out they haven’t changed anything, you have the opportunity to lead your customers into a new space.

Example Questions

  • What process hasn’t changed since you’ve been working here?
  • What are you doing now that could be considered outdated?

3. What are you preparing for?

I love asking, “What keeps people up at night?” It generally lends itself to customers telling you what they see coming next, what they’re afraid of, and what they find threatening. They also might answer in the positive by identifying trends they’re preparing to take advantage of.

This is particularly useful for industries that either change rapidly or face threats (and opportunities) from outsiders. These trends or threats could be technological in the form of AI and machine learning, robotics, or blockchain. They might be social or political in forms of changing government regulations, aging workforces, or globalization.

You can get a lot of this information from outside reports, but by bringing it up with customers, you get a much more specific picture of how the changes are affecting organizations. For example, imagine your product serves an aging industry. Your customers are preparing for an exodus of older employees over the next five years due to retirement. Your customers might tell you they are preparing for this by investing in training and apprentice programs. In this example, you’ve uncovered ample opportunity to build a product line targeted towards a completely new workforce.

Example Questions

  • Where have you increased spending in your budget?
  • What goals has senior leadership set for your business unit?
  • What new initiatives are you investing R&D dollars in?

4. What are your competitors doing?

You’ve heard information about the customer’s day-to-day, their process, and what they are preparing for. This last question is all about your customers’ competitors. Customers are always very aware of how their competition is growing and changing.

Your current customers might not be able to identify new markets, but they should easily be able to identify the disruptors and upstarts they are fending off.

Ask these questions and use innovators in your customers’ industry to your advantage. For example, if you sell marketing software to agencies, you might ask them what other agencies are doing. Or if you’ve lost deals, what were the reasons? Even if your customer doesn’t see them as genuine threats, it can help you identify new market opportunities.

Example Questions

  • What are your competitors doing that makes you nervous?
  • Where is the industry starting to focus its efforts?
  • What trends or ideas is everyone talking about?

For innovative corporations, the methods around lean startups and disruption are compelling but can be challenging to start, especially if you don’t have budget, team or vision set in stone. But utilizing current customers as an asset can bring great perspective before you commit to a research plan. Hopefully these simple questions help you leverage existing customer relationships to then bootstrap new, innovative strategies for your business.

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