Congratulations! You made it this far. You have interviewed hundreds of customers (not your family, relatives or friends) and know what they want/need/will pay for. You are sure (okay, you think you are sure) that you have a product-solution fit. You may have even found product-market fit. You and your team have invested time and money to bring your vision to life. You may have investors who believe in you so much that they are willing to finance your vision. This means you have a minimum viable product—and this MVP is a milestone of entrepreneurial achievement.
By the way, product and service are interchangeable terms here. It does not matter if you are creating a new therapeutic, cupcake, productivity app, pet watching service or battery management system – the process is all the same. Therefore, I will use the words product and service interchangeably.
Now comes the next big step. Getting someone to try your product or service. You manage to find a small group of guinea pigs, sorry, “early adopters” or pioneers. These are not your, “I’ll buy one of anything,” type people but real customers that could actually become dedicated users.
The big day comes—you give the customer your product to try out. They promise to diligently use it, give you feedback and change the way they do business to see if this innovation will benefit them. They are as excited as you are. You have done it! A customer is actually using your product and you are going to get valuable feedback and maybe even a check! (Yes, you can get paid for this part of the process.)
You head back to the office and celebrate with your team. Then you just wait for the positive feedback to roll in. What you get instead is… crickets. A deafening silence.
Then comes your outreach, calls and emails that include something like, “Did you have a chance to try it out?” or “What does your team think?” Then you get assurances that they are swamped but will be getting to it soon. Sometimes the story takes a different path – one that ends with “It’s nice, we liked it.” No closure, just an open-ended “It’s nice.”
“Must be an anomaly,” you think. So, you give it to someone else to “try out” or “play with.” Now you have dozens of these “pilots” under your belt. You are doing what you are supposed to do, getting people to pilot your innovation and gathering valuable feedback. Your “it’s nice” collection is growing by the week.
You wait for someone to say, “I will buy it.” But no one does. Everyone is positive but noncommittal. You have entered pilot purgatory. Lots of action but no progress.
Your experience is that of many (okay, most) entrepreneurs. Lots of tryers and few if any buyers.
Now here is the secret: It’s not your product or service that’s the problem. You do not know how to run a pilot.
The good news is that there is a methodology for that process.
It can be learned.
It has been around for quite some time and has been proven to be effective.
Few people are taught the “magic formula” because large companies are not training people to run pilots any longer—it’s too expensive.
You cannot be taught how to do is all via a post like this. But you can learn. You can get assistance from people who know how to do it and who can give you the basic framework to execute. You can get out of pilot purgatory.
Just to give you an idea of what you can accomplish, I would like to point some facts out to you for you to leverage in guiding people to purchase via a pilot. I will also point out that pilot management is part of a continuum that includes marketing, sales, customer success and customer service that will be necessary for you to master in order to have a scalable, profitable, repeatable business.
Here are the reasons your pilot testers are not effective at the task
- are the expert regarding your product or solution.
- know what a successful user looks like and experiences.
- know what performance your product/service can deliver.
- know the measurable performance your product can deliver.
- did not provide a road map on how your customer can and should evaluate your product.
- has never purchased what you are offering.
- does not know how to judge what you are selling.
- does not have a process to evaluate what you are offering.
- does not have a method to manage the team members that are involved in evaluating your product.
- does not know what success looks like.
- does not know how long the evaluation should take.
- does not know when they are done evaluating.
In summary, you have asked them to try out and judge something that they have no real knowledge of, do not know how to evaluate, do not know when to stop evaluating, do not know what success looks like and have no idea of what happens at the end. That is not pilot management. That is pilot purgatory. That is how you end up with, “it’s nice,” or “we liked it.”
The result: Conversion rate = 0
Here is the rainbow after the storm: You can fix this.
You can stop the cycle of “try this” and “it’s nice.” You do it via pilot management.
A brief overview of pilot management revolves around leveraging what you left to chance in the bullet list above. Since I cannot teach it all here, I will give you some bullet points on an effective process. You cannot afford to not know the process and you cannot afford to spend the time to learn it through trial and error. You need someone who can help guide you and build the plan.
Here is your mile-high tour of what a successful pilot management process entails
- Pilot management starts during the sale. You understand the needs, you understand the customer team involved, you have laid this all out during the sale. You introduce the concept of a paid pilot here, you are providing value after all.
- You provide a written pilot plan. You get the customer to agree to the steps. Make it very easy, I might add.
- The plan includes the parties who need to be involved from an evaluation, approval, user, payer and legal perspective. It also has an executive at the top.
- Each party has a set of tasks to accomplish.
- Each party has measurable criteria to judge their task by.
- Each party has dates set for when they need to have their task completed.
- There are regular, sometimes daily, status updates with everyone involved.
- There are milestones. This is key. The milestones are deliverables from the people involved, with dates attached.
- Milestones are decision points. At each point, the customer can decide if the task is done or if there is a need to reevaluate the way we are doing it. No matter the reason, the customer needs to make a decision to continue or stop.
- Milestones (outs) are key. You are not pushing customers to do anything. There are stops where pilot participants can get off the train. They are not trapped but if they choose to stay the course, it is their choice and they have opted to continue.
- Contract submission, preliminary pricing, preliminary proposal—all milestones for deciding to go forward or stop. You have gathered metrics that show you have provided value, more utility/returns/sales/outcomes/customers/revenue/savings (whatever), than was agreed to at the start for each milestone. You have shown them success, by their own criteria, that you now know you can demonstrate.
At the end, the decision is binary. You can say, “If we deliver what we said we would, and you have not jumped off the train, you buy our product.” It is a logical conclusion. You met every challenge, hit all the criteria and delivered. Price, terms, delivery, rollout—everything was agreed to during the pilot. Now the sale is just a foregone conclusion.
Or you can just keep giving your “stuff” to people and hope they eventually write you a check.