Willem Maas

Customer interview image
[Photo: Flickr user davefayram]

10 Tips For Customer Interviews That Yield Real Insight

Your first target customer interview is the moment you’ve been preparing for. You’ve researched the problem space, assessed competitors, and recruited customers for the interviews. Now, when you walk into that first target customer’s office, join the webinar, or make the call – how do you make the most of this precious time?

In this article, I share what I’ve learned and what’s worked for me, with ten tips for making the most of the product validation interview.

Facts first

You’ve recruited well. You’re meeting with people who have fresh experience with the problems your product solves, so make darn sure that’s what you talk about. With the jobs-to-be-done framework in mind, ask how the job is done now, what metrics are used to assess job performance, what goals have been set for those metrics, what’s most painful about the way it’s done now, and how they solve what’s not working now.

Show me

Asking an interview participant to “show me how you do it” can often reveal issues and deeper thoughts than relying on memory alone. You can also use the “show me” technique to have the target customer test target scenarios or flows with a prototype (or workflow, wireframe, comp) of your product.

Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How

Summoning your inner journalist, use the 5Ws and one H to get the details you want without bias. For example, asking “What do you like about this approach?” can provide a detailed answer without the built-in bias in the phrasing “Do you think this is a better approach?”

Get out of your own way

If you’re like me, your reflex will be to talk about your product concept, its features and its benefits. This tendency will likely be exacerbated by the inherent awkwardness of these interviews. Be aware of this, and focus instead on using the interview to deeply understand the participant’s experience and point of view.

Starbucks can wait

Consider where and when the interview participant does the job in question when you schedule your interview. Meet in the workplace rather than at a coffee shop to increase salience and ensure props for any show me exercises are in easy reach.

Remote interviews

You may encounter resistance to meeting in-person at the office. If the discussion topics and exercises allow, you can interview the target customer by telephone or webcam. When scheduling these remote interviews, I reiterate the importance of taking the call in a quiet venue, preferably where the job is done, rather than at a cafe or commuting.

Get it on tape

You do need detailed notes of your discussion with each target customer, but don’t attempt to do it yourself while leading an interview. At minimum, record the interview’s audio. Video gives you access to subtleties of tone, posture, and gesture so it’s becoming more common. For an on-site interview, you can buy a dedicated audio recorder, but a smartphone with the right app works fine in most circumstances. I’ve used the free RODE Rec LE app for years. And I just began using the Rev Voice Recorder, which has the advantage of in-app transcription ordering. For remote interviews, there are myriad recording options. On a Mac, Apple’s free QuickTime Player will audio record your Skype and Google Voice calls, and will screen capture webcam interviews.

Consult an attorney

You will likely want interview participants to keep confidential the product concept you discuss, and give you the right to use the participant’s responses and likeness. This is typically handled with a custom legal document called a “participant agreement” which is signed by the participant before the interview begins. The Qualitative Research Consultants Association has three examples on their website here.

Three’s a crowd

One or more of your colleagues may want to participate in the interviews, which can be helpful to a point, but know that multiple interviewers may make the participant less open. Over the years, a wide variety of people have joined me on customer interviews, ranging from the company’s founder, to an account executive, to a product designer. Safe to say, all had their own distinct motivations and interests. I’ve learned it’s important to set some ground rules, requiring everyone to participate, at minimum as an active listener, and establishing yourself as the lead interviewer, responsible for bringing others into the conversation.

More than one participant

My strong preference for enterprise research is to interview one target customer per meeting, to avoid the “noise” of interpersonal relationships and workplace authority. Having had experiences with multiple participants and a hijacked agenda, I contact the person making the introduction (eg, account executive) to review the interview’s purpose, the topics, and the screener. I’ve also found that when discussing new product concepts with a Customer Advisory Board it’s best to focus on a description of the validation process, some caveated early findings, and a high level screener with a request for introductions.


PS: Do you have your own tips? Tell me what’s worked for you with a response below.