Editor’s note: Joe Procopio is the Chief Product Officer at Get Spiffy and the founder of teachingstartup.com. Joe has a long entrepreneurial history in the Triangle that includes Automated Insights, ExitEvent, and Intrepid Media. He writes a weekly column for WRAL TechWire about the challenges and opportunities for startups. It is published on Tuesdays.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Customer indifference is the number one killer of new products and services. It can be a tricky problem to solve and even more difficult to detect, because it’s often mistaken for something else.

When customer indifference goes undetected, we wind up wasting a lot of time and money polishing and promoting a product that nobody is going to buy because nobody thinks they need it.

Joe Procopio (Photo courtesy of Joe Procopio)

In my startup career, one that has included creating and selling dozens of new products, customer indifference has almost always been my number one enemy. Here’s how I learned to find it and fight it.

Are Your Customers Indifferent?

Customer indifference usually reveals itself in a lack of momentum. It starts with a successful product, one that has withstood the rigors of testing, maybe gotten public attention or funding, and may even have a small and loyal customer following.

But that’s where it stops.

Repeated attempts at traction are met with silence, or close to it. Maybe sales are making incremental gains from push to push, but not enough to assure survival, let alone hit the next level of growth.

Admittedly, there are a lot of reasons why momentum can stall, especially with something new and unproven. Usually, the first suspect is awareness: Not enough people know about our product. So we compensate by using a bigger megaphone. More marketing, more sales efforts, more spending, all to no avail.

Or we’ll blame the product itself: It’s just not good enough for mass acceptance. So we build better and shinier versions that we release with a lot of fanfare but very little growth.

Before we do either of those things, we need to answer some questions in these three key areas:

Viability, Separation, and Messaging

Viability is the measure of whether our product deserves to exist in its market. Is the problem we’re solving big enough? Is our solution valid and cost-effective?

Separation is the reason customers choose our product over another product or another solution altogether.

Messaging is how we define and communicate the value of our product to the customer.

If any of these are off, nothing we can do will fix the momentum issue. To right them, here are some questions we need to ask. The answers will help us detect and fix customer indifference.

Are you targeting the right customer?

I’m not a huge believer in developing customer personas, because this can often be a self-fulfilling exercise. But we should probably draw some broad strokes around who our customer is and ask these questions about them.

Are they suffering? Just because we can make something doesn’t mean anyone needs it. Are we addressing a pain point or are we just a solution in search of a problem? Gut-check this question, dig a little deeper into the problem side, and we may find some flaws in our solution.

Are they broke? Markets that seem the easiest to crack are often the ones with the most solvable problems. But a market with a lot of solvable problems often points to one bigger overarching problem: A lack of spendable budget.

Are they invested? We need to make sure that the customer activity that includes the problem is important enough to the customer to fix that problem.

Example: I see this a lot with college entrepreneurs who build products for college students because they know the customer very well, the customer is close by, and there are a lot of them. The problem is that most college students aren’t suffering, they’re mostly broke, and they’re not highly invested in much outside of college life.

This is why college-student-aimed products can get to launch rather easily but rarely get to growth.

Does your product provide the right value?

Every product has a sweet spot, which usually boils down to a simple value equation: Provide the simplest fix for the biggest pain point. However, we usually find out pretty quickly that the bigger the pain point, the smaller the customer base feeling it.

So naturally, we entrepreneurs try to open our market by solving more customer problems at lower pain points. This introduces more complexity to the product, which drives the value equation out of balance until it eventually starts to unravel.

Is our product too broad? If we’re trying to solve too many problems at too many pain points for too many customers, then we’re probably trying to do too much, and we’re probably not very good at most of it.

Is our product too narrow? We might be getting the customer from point A to point B but not from point B to point C. Customers hate having to turn to multiple solutions to solve a problem, even if one of those solutions is really, really good.

Example: Let’s say your product is a robot lawnmower (yes, this is a thing). It’s great. Huge timesaver. But it doesn’t trim my hedges, because a flying robot lawnmower might kill people. Totally understandable, but no matter how good your robot lawnmower is, you won’t be able to sell it to me because I don’t want half my problem solved. I’ll just keep my lawn service.

That said, the lawn service is probably who you should be selling to.

Do you have a competitive advantage?

A competitive advantage is something you do that no one else can do that leads to customers that no one else can get. Too many entrepreneurs mis-define this, especially those facing customer indifference.

Being the lowest cost option isn’t an advantage unless our competition can’t match that cost and meet our margins. Unless our intellectual property or something about how we perform is something our competition can’t replicate, this isn’t an advantage, it’s just a promotion.

Being the better quality option isn’t an advantage unless, as described above, there is a rapidly growing wave of more invested customers than the market is addressing.

Example: Few customers cared about privacy as mobile phones became more widely accepted as personal proxies (i.e. everything about you all wrapped up in a connected device). Apple recently kicked off a campaign around privacy as a competitive advantage, a move that would have gotten them left behind in 2015 when convenience far outweighed privacy as a market driver.

What’s your product’s secret sauce in 20 words or less? If you can’t answer that, attack customer indifference here first.

Are you too early?

The products most primed for success are those that address a new and growing problem in a novel way. Being too early with a solution like this is a good problem to have.

In some sense, all products have to educate their customers. It’s that little slip with the picture instructions when you open the box or that 60-second tutorial when you sign up for the software-as-a-service. When the product is new, the onboarding is not only more complex, but we also have to inject some “why” into the “how.”

The more “why” we need to cover in the instructions, the earlier we are. If we’re spending too much of our early sales touch points explaining why our customers need our product, we need another way.

Example: At Automated Insights, we built an engine for computers to write content. Nobody knew why they needed this until we landed Yahoo Fantasy Football. That one, almost silly use case was super simple to understand — we could write content where humans couldn’t. Then we landed the Associated Press, which was a huge voucher. If the AP trusted our product, everyone else should too.

So instead of chasing millions of new customers, maybe we just need that one or two that can springboard us.

Is your message off?

If all of the answers to the viability and separation questions are to our liking, then we need to look at messaging.

I can’t tell you how many times founders have come to me with customer indifference symptoms, then I go look at their website and it takes me a couple of minutes to figure out what they do. Here are just a couple ways that plays out:

  • Are you getting to the point quickly? 15 words. 30 seconds. That’s how long it should take someone to understand what our product does and how long they should spend on our website before they make a buying decision.
  • Is your message too complex? All products sell one of a few broad things — time, convenience, security, sustenance, adventure, prestige, etc. Our customer needs to know that our product offers one, maybe two of those things. They don’t need to know how it offers those things unless they’re curious. That’s for later.
  • Are you selling the product or the company? New founders do this a lot. They sell the company or the brand and not the product. Remember, our customers don’t care how awesome our company is or how lofty our ideals and goals are or how everyone loves working here. They want their socks to fit.

In the best case scenario, our customer indifference issues are rooted in messaging, because those can be fixed quickly. Separation issues mean we need to step up our game and focus on what makes our product unique. Viability issues are obviously more damning, but they can still be addressed and repaired in some cases.

Once we identify them and address them, fixing our customer indifference issues aren’t a guarantee of success, but they do give our product its best chance to succeed.

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