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Coaching for Customer Discovery in a Virtual World

At I-Corps South, we coach entrepreneurship teams as they do several customer discovery interviews each week. The coaching style we use with Lean Startup Methodology and for I-Corps programs is called “relentlessly direct.” This is feedback that is honest without being overly polite and will challenge a team’s way of thinking, because we care about their success. With weekly or biweekly sessions where each team presents, we only have 5-10 minutes to hear and provide feedback to each team and consequently we provide direct, constructive feedback to teams.

In the weekly presentation, teams share who they interviewed and what questions they asked. An example of the feedback styles is how a teaching team responds if a team has customer interviews where they are asking leading questions. Verbose feedback would be, “I don’t know if your questions are written as well as they could be, you have a nice attempt” whereas relentlessly direct feedback would look more like, “these questions are leading questions and you need to change them to improve the responses and impact of your interviews.”

However, we recognized that our coaching style would shift slightly with the move to virtual programs. During typical programs, we build a rapport with teams during breaks, at the coffee station, and throughout the day. Therefore, when our teaching team provides direct feedback, it is not seen as harsh. However, in the virtual setting it is harder to build that positive human connection, and some changes need to be made to create a balance.

One shift is to tone down the tone. It is more difficult in a virtual environment to shift from relentlessly direct to a conversational tone, and vice versa. What may be an acceptable level of ‘real talk’ during in-person programs, can come off as more intense in a virtual setting. Still be honest and direct with your teams however, keep in mind that you do not have the same relationship with them as you would with teams you’re spending more time with in person. Take the tone down a notch while still providing teams with the feedback to help them grow.

When doing this, remember: don’t lose the pressure, just create more balance. It is still vital to customer discovery that teams conduct the expected number of interviews and the teaching team needs to push them to get high-quality interviews. Continue to put the pressure on the teams, while also having compassion for the fact they may not have childcare, may be dealing with a sick relative or friend, and that it is an uncertain time for many people. Provide guidance on how to get the interviews that can make an impact and push their project forward.

Use co-coachers, providing feedback to a team that every team can hear and learn from and office hours to balance tone. Since there are fewer informal times to connect with teams, use other opportunities to educate the team, such as teaching the room and sharing advice with one team that is applicable to all teams. Also encourage teams to take advantage of office hours so that you can get to know the teams better and provide more tailored guidance.

The past year has been a learning experience for people across the globe, and at I-Corps South, we’ve been focusing on continuing to customize our coaching style to the unique virtual environment. It’s crucial to stay committed to pushing teams to do the work and analyze their customer discovery, while understanding that a relentlessly direct style does not always translate well to a virtual environment. Show compassion and find balance by toning down your tone, creating balance, and using all of the teaching resources available.

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