How to ask for introductions for customer interviews

I previously blogged about and summarized the Lean Startup methodology and its customer discovery phase. In this blog post I will go deeper into the step about talking to customers. When searching within one's network for customers to interview, how do you ask your network for introductions?

Background

The business idea that I'm exploring is about GDPR compliance, so it's potentially relevant to all businesses within the EU. The person I want to reach within an organization is the so-called Data Protection Officer. Not all companies have someone with a fancy title like that, so I tend to ask for "the person who is responsible for privacy and data protection".

If I know who that person is then I can reach out to that person directly. But my early attempts at trying to convince such people to join an interview were not successful.

And more often than not, I do not know who that person is, so I need to get introduced either via my network or via a front desk. My early attempts at getting introduced also weren't successful.

All this lead me to research whether there is a better way – a structural, repeatable way – to request interviews and to get introduced. I researched these sources:

The problem with introductions

Very early on I tried probing my network for introductions to the audience I want to reach. I talked to my contacts by chat, by phone or face-to-face, explaining them what I'm working on what who I want to reach. I explained that I'm not looking to sell something, but that I'm looking to interview someone in order to understand the problems that they have.

I did not get very far. So I spent some time thinking about why this may be so, as well as spending time researching various articles. I concluded that these are the biggest issues:

  • Most of my contacts work in medium- to large companies. Beyond their immediate peers and supervisors, most of them have no idea who else works in the organization, not to mention who's responsible for what. Even the act of finding out who's responsible may be challenging for my contact.
  • Even if they know someone, they may not have a close relationship with that person.
  • I'm not very close to some of my contacts, so they may be reluctant to help me.
  • The contact may be very busy.

Can these problems be overcome? The articles seem to indicate that I should be able to get a bit further if I change my approach a bit. Here's a summary of the advice that I've read.

HubSpot on asking for an introduction

HubSpot's article identifies a few common mistakes with introduction requests. Here is a typical introduction request email:

Hey Michael,

It was great meeting you last week at the conference. You mentioned you know Alexa from Example Ventures. Alexa seems like a fantastic person and I would love to connect with her. Can you introduce me?

Thanks, Matt

What are the problems with this email?

Problem 1

We're making ourselves the priority, while Michael may be busy.

Solution: Make it easy for Michael. Append a piece of text that Michael can forward via copy-paste.

Problem 2

Michael may not be close to Alexa. We're also not making our value/intention clear, so we could be asking Michael to put his reputation on the line.

Solution: Explain the reasoning behind the connection, in such a way that Alexa gets value. This way Michael's reputation will benefit too.

Problem 3

We're hogging the ownership or not being considerate enough to Michael.

Solution: Use more questions and fewer statements. Instead of, "I know you're extremely busy and would greatly appreciate …" you could say, "Would you be willing to introduce me? I understand, if you're too busy."

Suggested email structure

The HubSpot article recommends an email with the following structure:

[Greeting]

[Reiterate context, e.g. the one in which we met.]

[Reference the contact that we want to be introduced to. Add reason why we're asking for this.]

[Close with a question that clearly states what we're asking for. Explain that we've made it as easy as possible to make the introduction. Appeal to their ownership over saying yes or no.]

[Attach forwarding message]

For example:

Michael,

It was fantastic meeting you last week at the Orange Conference. I enjoyed our conversation about innovative software and building great things.

As we were discussing the software I'm working to build, you mentioned knowing Alexa over at Example Ventures and how she's an expert in this space. If you're willing, an introduction to Alexa would be greatly beneficial and she might be interested in learning more.

I understand you have a busy schedule, so I attached a short blurb below to make the introduction as easy as possible. Would you be able to take a moment to introduce me?

Thanks, Matt

Message: Matt is helping his company grow to make Cutting Edge Software as seamless as possible. His role involves getting feedback to help his team sell better. Cutting Edge Software is a solution that does some pretty great things, and he knows it can be way better. Matt would love to connect with you to hear what your thoughts are, so he can relay your expertise and thoughts to his team.

Life-Long Learner on asking for an introduction

Life-Long Learner's article contains many of the advice provided by HubSpot's article. But here are the differences:

  • Keep it short and to-the-point. Ask for the intro in the first two sentences.

    Hi X, I was looking to get introduced to Johnny Dealmaker from Project X and saw you were connected to him.

    I'm not sure I agree with this. Keeping it short is important, but I feel like there should be a little context before to make the message less blunt.

    This direct approach seems more appropriate if there is no context or if the context is weak.

  • Show consideration of the connecting parties' relationship.

    Not sure how well you’re connected to him, but if the relationship is strong, I’d really appreciate an intro to chat about ways to work with my Project Y.

    Brilliant.

  • Provide an email that the contact can directly forward to the one we want to reach.

    Hey X,

    Was hoping that you might be able to introduce me to Johnny Dealmaker at Project X?

    I wanted to connect with him because our email list targets a similar demographic with limited overlap. Seeing as our products are non-competitive, I wanted to touch base to see if he was up for brainstorming ways to leverage our existing user bases to grow both of our lists.

    We did this with Company R in the past, and both parties received a 15% lift in new subscribers.

    Any help is much appreciated.

    • Scott

    Whereas HubSpot's approach is to provide a blurb that can be copy-pasted by the contact, this email by Life-Long Learner makes it seem as if this is the first email to your contact. If your contact's relationship with the one we want to reach is not that strong, then this approach is better because it lowers reputation risk for the contact.

    The above example email shows a few key elements:

    • Explicit ask – so that the one we want to reach can see that we tried to approach him.
    • Compelling reason for requesting the introduction.
    • Strengthening example – provides credibility and avoids cyborg spam filters.
    • Show appreciation.

Cindy Alvarez on asking for a meeting

Cindy Alvarez's article begins with the premise that a lot of people are busy and multitasking. Think: having only a few seconds to read an email on a phone while doing something else. Thus, the core idea behind her article is to make things as easy as possible for the recipient ("don't let them think"). And to be transparent and considerate in the communication style.

1 Begin with who you are and why you're contacting the recipient

  • "My name is xxxx, and I'm the product manager for xxxx. Hiten Shah suggested I talk with you about xxxx."
  • "My name is xxxx, and I'm a designer who is interested in startups. I've been reading your blog and was hoping I could talk to you about xxxx."

2 State what you're hoping to accomplish with this communication

  • "I have been trying to do customer development and would like to hear more about how I should do xxxx and xxxx."
  • "I'd like to get some honest feedback on my xxxx document."

3 Suggest how and when to connect

Give 2-3 options that the recipient can pick from. Clearly define the meeting time, the time commitment and (if applicable) the location. Make it easy for the recipient to check against her calendar and to avoid appointment-making back-and-forth.

Your options should be based on research. Figure out where the recipient lives or works. If meeting physically, suggest a meeting that's close and easily reachable by public transport and car (so think about parking space).

I'd love to get a half-hour of your time to talk over coffee. Does one of these suggestions work for you?

9:30am on Tues, May 10 at Greenhouse Cafe in West Portal [yelp link] 3pm on Thurs, May 12 at Farley’s Coffeehouse in Potrero Hill [yelp link] 11:30am on Fri, May 13 at Starbucks near the Metreon [yelp link]

End with a statement that invites the recipient to suggest an alternative. State your limitation in order to minimize the risk of appointment-making back-and-forth.

Feel free to suggest another time — my limitation is that I don't have a car, but I can get anywhere within San Francisco between 9am-4pm.

After the meeting

Cindy suggests that after the meeting you should send an email thanking the recipient and summarizing what you've learned. This tells the recipient that you were listening, and that she could continue to help you in the future. Cindy states that someone who has helped you before is interested in continuing to do so.

Thank you for your time today! I was particularly grateful for the next steps you laid out in terms of how to interview additional customers and what survey questions we can ask to learn xxxx and xxxx. I’m going to share my notes with my team, and we plan to start on xxxx next week.

When we have a draft of xxxx ready, may I share it with you? I’d love to get your feedback and ensure that I’m applying what I learned from you correctly.

Customer Development Labs on sending cold interview request emails

Customer Development Labs' article says that a cold email must satisfy three requirements:

  1. Short – no more than 5 sentences.
  2. Personal – reference something relevant so that you don't get marked as spam.
  3. Valuable – what does the recipient get in return for the interview?

Example:

Subject: Remote coding

Hi Sam,

I read your article on volunteering your professional skills in Guatemala – it was really inspiring. I'm looking to travel more and you’ve got me thinking about incorporating volunteering when I do!

I have a software company trying to improve remote medical record coding.

I'm not looking to sell anything, but since you have so much expertise with remote coding, I'd love to get your advice on our product so we don't build the wrong thing.

If you're available, I’d love to chat for just 20 minutes – Thur or Fri morning?

Thanks for any help, Justin

As you can see, a lot of the basic advice provided by HubSpot, Life-Long Learner and Cindy Alvarez are embedded in this email, e.g. state what you're requesting, specify a limited time commitment, suggest appointment times.

But there's more:

  • State that you're not selling anything. People ignore you if they get the feeling they're being sold to.
  • Ask for advice. Many people like to help, plus you're implying that you think they're smart.
  • Be vague about your problem. You don't want to seed the customer with your problem hypothesis. Note that the email doesn't say anything about making remote coding faster, cheaper, etc.

Startup Owner's Manual on developing a reference story

The Startup Owner's Manual chapter 5 also contains a section on reaching out to customers for an interview. They call such a communication a "reference story", and it's very similar to the cold email templates I've shown you so far.

They provide two unique pieces of advice:

  • Flatter the person, e.g. by saying that you've heard that the person is the smartest person in a specific field.
  • Provide some value in return for committing to the interview.

Hi this is Bob at NewBankingProduct Inc. I was referred to you by (insert helpful reference name here), who said you were the smartest person in the (name your market/industry).

We’re starting a company to solve the long-teller-line problem, and we’re building our new Instanteller software, but I don’t want to sell you anything. I just want twenty minutes of your time to understand if you have the long-teller-line problem and learn how you and your company solve your own teller problem.

I thought you might give me some insight about this problem, and in exchange I'll be happy to tell you where the technology in this industry is going.

What if my contact doesn't know who to introduce to?

The advice from HubSpot and Life-Long Learner deal with most problems. But this still leaves a final problem: what if my contact has no idea who she should introduce me to? My experience so far is that most people are reluctant to spend the effort to dig through the organizational structure for me.

The best solution I've come up so far is to ask my contact to introduce me to someone who might know who to introduce me to.

What value can I provide in return?

Here are examples that I've encountered so far on what kind of value one can provide in return for an interview:

  1. Customer Development Labs and conversation with friends: hinting that we're going to solve the problem.
  2. Startup Owner's Manual: offering to share information about where the industry is going.
  3. Conversations with friends: offering share a summary of my findings from other interviews.

I'm not thrilled about bout options 1 and 3, and I hate to rely only on 3. So I came up with my own one as well: offering to give info or advice on any requested topic during the conversation.

Putting it all together

Asking for a known introduction

Email structure:

[Greeting]

[If appropriate, reiterate context, e.g. the one in which we met.]

[Reference the contact that we want to be introduced to. Recognize that the connection may not be strong.] [Add reason why we're asking for this. State that you're looking for advice. Offer value in return.]

[Close with a question that clearly states what we're asking for. Explain that we've made it as easy as possible to make the introduction. Appeal to their ownership over saying yes or no. State that it's okay to say no to make contact comfortable.]

— Attach forwarding message below: —

Hi [contact],

[Ask directly for an intro.]

[Add reason why we're asking for this. State that you're looking for advice. Offer value in return.]

[Ask for a meeting. Suggest channels, times and places. Be open for counter-suggestions.]

[Close by showing appreciation.]

Example:

Hi [contact],

I had a great time talking to you at [event]. I especially liked [detail to show that you're genuinely interested].

I have a company whose goal is to improve privacy/data protection and GDPR compliance.

Not sure how well you're connected to [one who I want to reach]. But if the relationship is strong, I'd really appreciate an intro.

I'm not looking to sell anything, but since she seems to be an expert in the area of privacy/data protection and GDPR, I'd love to get advice from her so that we don't build the wrong product. In return, I'd be happy share with her my findings from other interviews, or my expertise and experience.

I understand you have a busy schedule, so I attached a text below that you can forward. If you feel comfortable about it, would you be able to take a moment to introduce me? If not (and this is okay) please also let me know.

Thanks, [my name]


Hi [contact],

I was hoping that you might be able to introduce me to [one who I want to reach]?

I have a company whose goal is to improve privacy/data protection and GDPR compliance.

I'm not looking to sell anything, but since she seems to be an expert in the area of privacy/data protection and GDPR, I'd love to get advice from her so that we don't build the wrong product. In return, I'd be happy share with her my findings from other interviews, or my expertise and experience.

Would she be able to join me for a 15-minute video chat or phone session? We can use Skype, Google Meet, phone or whatever she prefers. Would one of the following suggestions work for her?

Monday July 1 at 9:00
Monday July 1 at 16:00
Tuesday July 2 at 10:00
I'm open for other time suggestions.

Any help is much appreciated.

Thanks,
[my name]

Asking for an unknown introduction

If I don't know who I need to be introduced to, then I'll try to get introduced to someone who may know. So in this situation I will need at least two emails. The first one is to get an introduction to someone who knows who that person is, and the second one to request an interview from the person I want to reach.

In the first email I do not suggest meeting times because I don't know whether I'll be introduced to the final person or to someone in between. I also leave out flattery because I don't know the person I want to reach.

Email structure:

[Greeting]

[If appropriate, reiterate context, e.g. the one in which we met.]

[Reference the type of person that we want to be introduced to. Ask to be introduced to someone who may know that person, if the contact does not know. Recognize that the connection may not be strong.]

[Add reason why we're asking for this. State that you're looking for advice. Offer value in return.]

[Close with a question that clearly states what we're asking for. Explain that we've made it as easy as possible to make the introduction. Appeal to their ownership over saying yes or no. State that it's okay to say no to make contact comfortable.]

— Attach forwarding message below: —

Hi [contact],

[Ask directly for an intro.]

[Add reason why we're asking for this. State that you're looking for advice. Offer value in return.]

[Close by showing appreciation.]

Example:

Hi [contact],

I had a great time talking to you at [event]. I especially liked [detail to show that you're genuinely interested].

I have a company whose goal is to improve privacy/data protection and GDPR compliance.

Do you know who in your organization is responsible for privacy/data protection and GDPR compliance? Not sure how well you're connected to that person. But if the relationship is strong I'd really appreciate an intro.

If you don't know who's responsible, could you intro me to someone who might know?

I'm not looking to sell anything, I would just love to get advice from that person so that we don't build the wrong product. In return, I'd be happy share with him/her my findings from other interviews, or my expertise and experience.

I understand you have a busy schedule, so I attached a text below that you can forward either to the responsible person, or to someone who may know who that person is.

Would you be able to take a moment to introduce me? If you don't feel comfortable about it (and this is okay) please also let me know.

Thanks,
[my name]


Hi [contact],

I was hoping that you might be able to introduce me to the person within your organization who's responsible for privacy/data protection and GDPR compliance, or to someone who might know who that person is.

I have a company whose goal is to improve privacy/data protection and GDPR compliance.

I'm not looking to sell anything. I just love to get advice from him/her so that we don't build the wrong product. In return, I'd be happy share with him/her my findings from other interviews, or my expertise and experience.

Any help is much appreciated.

Thanks,
[my name]

Cold emailing a direct contact

Email structure:

[Greeting]

[Mention something personal and relevant so you don't get flagged as spam.]

[Add reason why we're establishing contact. State that you're looking for advice. Offer value in return.]

[Ask for a meeting. Suggest channels, times and places. Be open for counter-suggestions.]

[Close by showing appreciation.]

Example:

Hi [contact],

I read your article on volunteering your professional skills in Guatemala – it was really inspiring. I'm looking to travel more and you’ve got me thinking about incorporating volunteering when I do!

I have a company whose goal is to improve privacy/data protection and GDPR compliance.

I'm not looking to sell anything, but since you seem to be an expert in the area of privacy/data protection and GDPR, I'd love to get advice from you so that we don't build the wrong product. In return, I'd be happy share with you my findings from other interviews, or my expertise and experience.

Would you be able to join me for a 15-minute video chat or phone session? We can use Skype, Google Meet, phone or whatever you prefer. Would one of the following suggestions work for you?

Monday July 1 at 9:00
Monday July 1 at 16:00
Tuesday July 2 at 10:00
I'm open for other time suggestions.

But if you can't, that's okay. Thanks for any help.
[my name]