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Last updated on 5/11/20

Identify the 4 signals of a potential customer

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Future and conditional statements

In the previous lesson, we learned that future or conditional commitments cannot be regarded as "strong signals" when interviewing customers. Statements like the following are not enough to conclude the interviewee is genuinely interested:

  • "I would definitely buy this."

  • "Let me know when this is available."

  • "I could definitely see this product saving us a lot of money."

The problem with a statement like "I would definitely buy this," is that it is a future or conditional statement. It is possible that the interviewee wants to be polite and mirror your enthusiasm by offering positive feedback, but it doesn't mean that they are ready to buy or use the product right now.

Compliments and feature suggestions

Before we discuss the four signals that you can actually take as a foolproof sign of genuine customer interest and willingness to buy, let's consider two other ways that an interviewer may be encouraged by an interview: compliments and feature suggestions.

Compliments in an interview should make you feel uncomfortable. Your goal is to understand the interviewees, their problems and the outcomes they care about (their "jobs-to-be-done" if you will).  Receiving compliments could mean you are pitching your solution more than investigating the problem. 

It seems counterintuitive to disregard a complimentary interview because the interviewee doesn't have a problem. And yet, that's exactly what you should do. Remember, you'll know if they have a concern by asking them about their perception of the problem, what they did last time it happened, and what solving the problem would enable them to do.

When you introduce a potential solution to customers suffering from a related problem, they will ask specific questions like "When will this be ready," "Will there be a JavaScript API," "Will our existing reports work with this new system," and "Will our data be secure?" "You have done a great job," is not nearly as encouraging.

Feature suggestions are similarly deceptive. It's common to hear from an interviewee something like "It would be great to be able to download this in Excel format!" or similar. A great question at this stage is to ask them what an Excel download would enable them to do. Digging deeper is appropriate here. 

However, whichever answers you get, consider them as brainstorming ideas. After all, you did ask to chat about a potential problem and how they feel about it. It's natural that they would discuss solutions and think of ideas. It is also probable that the interviewee would like to come across as being intelligent and someone who can be a creative problem solver. You shouldn't interpret feature suggestions to mean that the interviewee is interested or that you must build the suggested feature.

Our default position is that either through politeness or trying to brainstorm or appear intelligent, interviewees are often lying to us (for good reasons!). So let's have a look at four signals/currencies that you can trust when doing interviews.

The four signals (currencies) you can trust

Here are the four signals that you can trust as proof the interviewee is a genuine potential customer and one whose feedback is of vital importance.

  • Money 

  • Time 

  • Referrals 

  • Letters of intent

Your goal in interviewing customers is to find which ones have a problem they really care about and what a solution might look like. If you are interviewing people who have a problem, but it's not causing much pain (or they have a fix they are happy with), then those are not going to be the early adopters of your solution.

The customers who care about the problem you are investigating are the ones whose feedback must be strongly considered. These four signals offer a way to let the customer give you something (or pay) that you can treat as evidence they really care about the problem. Therefore, they are the key people to gain insight from.



Imagine you have a prototype and when showing it to a customer, he asks if he can buy it. He takes out his wallet. He starts trying to give you money. Is there any doubt this person really cares about the problem and values your intended solution? Obviously not!

One example of how you might elicit money is to say something like, "This service will be $20 a month, but for the first fifty clients, if they pay us $10 now, we'll give them a year of the service." If the interviewee says that they need to think about it, then maybe they're not as much of a fan as they say.



There is an old saying that "Time is money," and that is true. If people give you a lot of their time, then that is an obvious signal that they are genuinely interested. Imagine you are solving a problem and have a solution. You are asked to spend half a day talking to several people in the company to brainstorm how this might work for them.

The fact that they are giving you this much of their time means they really feel the problem/solution is worthwhile. Nobody willingly spends a half day or a day on something they know is worthless. You can interpret it as this team wanting to solve the problem.



One thing you should always do at the end of a customer interview is to ask if there are other people the interviewee knows that would also be interested in solving the problem/seeing this solution. It gives you more people to interview.

When the interviewee gives you referrals, they are effectively putting their reputation on the line by introducing you to someone else. An interviewee will not do this if he thinks that your approach is terrible or your product is poor.

When asking for referrals, first ask if the interviewee knows others who might also be a customer or have this problem. After hearing a few names, then ask if the interviewee will put you in touch. If so, this is a good sign.

Letters of intent

Letter of intent

A letter of intent is a non-legally-binding statement of intention to do business with another party. If your customer is another business, you can ask them to sign a letter of intent. There are no legal obligations on their side.

However, the fact that they will write a letter, date and sign it with this indication of future business is a tremendous sign. You can use it as a real justification that this party genuinely cares about solving the problem.

Let's recap!

There are four signals/currencies that you can accept as proof the interviewee is a genuine potential customer and one whose feedback is of vital importance.

  1. Money 

  2. Time 

  3. Referrals 

  4. Letters of intent 

In particular, watch out for and do not take as signals/currency:

  • Future statements

  • Conditional statements

  • Feature suggestions

  • Compliments

Example of certificate of achievement
Example of certificate of achievement