How to Interview your customers

How to Interview your customers

You know you should be interviewing customers. But you just never seem to get around to it. Why not? Because you don’t have the time, your busy with the day-to-day running of your business; your calendar is full with meetings or if you’re a start-up your too busy on getting the product right and the excuses go on and on! But if we are to be honest, the real reason is that you are not comfortable asking hard questions of your customers or making cold contact with people we do not know. Often, we avoid the contact because we don’t want to hear the answer or appear incompetent. 

In this article, we detail how to interview your customers in a professional manner and to get their insight into solving the problem you have at hand. 

But first we must eliminate some of the don’ts: 

  1. Don’t think of these as cold calls. To build up some form of relationship, you could first e-mail them or connect to them on LinkedIn etc requesting an interview, arranging a time. This way people have time to respond and give you a date/time that is suitable to them. This does not mean that you should not follow up with phone calls. Often you have to call, then call back, call and call several more times to get a response. 
  2. Don’t ignore their expertise. This is important. No one is going to do an interview if they feel the scope of your research is outside their domain of expertise or that they do not have the knowledge to answer your questions. You must make sure that the topic is relevant and interesting to them. At the end of the day, most people are very helpful and are willing to impart their knowledge  
  3. Don’t focus on the quantity of interviews at the expense of quality. Conducting interviews is about getting a deep insight in to some problem that you may have. It is not about the number of interviews that you conduct. It is about the quality of the answers you get. It is critical that you explore and have conversations around answers and just get Yes and No responses without understanding the why. 
  4. Don’t throw the Kitchen sink at them. At most you should have 5-7 open ended questions/topics. If they are interested, they will talk for a lot longer. However, If you have a long list of questions, the likelihood is that you really do not know what information you want to get out of them. Of course, you probe with other questions under these topics. Remember, in this day and age, people are busy and selective with who they give their time to and if they feel that this is going to be a lengthy interview, more than likely they will not. 
  5. Don’t Talk Over Them. If you are the one doing most of the talking in the interview. Then why bother interview them in the first place. You are not learning anything new. The real challenge for any interviewer is to listen to what your customer has to say, whether you like it or not. undoubtedly when you interview people, they will challenge your assumptions, but you must listen and empathise with what they are saying. This is the key to successful interviewing and gaining deep insights. 
  6. Don’t Judge: Avoid any judgmental attitudes, shock or discomfort on your part. It will be immediately detected by the customer and will more than likely will stop the interview. This is easier said than done when the customer is complaining about a problem that was fixed months ago, you might be tempted to jump in and correct the customer. Don’t. It will ruin the interview. Why? Because your telling the customer that you are not comfortable with honesty and that their view on this is incorrect. 
  7. Don’t sell – this is a big NO-NO. Remember the purpose of the call is not to sell your product but to gather information and insight that is going to make your business better.  

Having done the DON’TS, lets look at how you should interview your customers 

  • Be clear about the purpose of the interview. 

Don’t do customer research for the sake of it. Research must be problem driven. Before engaging in customer interviews, you should have a clear purpose or objective of what you want to achieve. Do not move outside of the objective scope and ensure that your questions address this objective. Although easier said than done, try and avoid the temptation of adding in extra questions that are outside the scope – even if they are good questions.  It is a different research exercise. It is very important to keep the research focused. Remember the purpose of the interview is to ask a customer to give their view on a specific topic, you will confuse them if your questions are jumping from one topic to another. A good tip here is to write down the problem in the form of a statement – e.g. the purpose of this research is to understand customer satisfaction levels with their customer relationship agent? 

  • Decide on interview method (face-to-face, phone) – List the interview methods. 

In general, there are two types of interview approaches:  Structured and Un-structured. As the name implies, structured interviews follow a specific set of questions, with a limited number of response categories. Whereas in an un-structured interview, the researcher as an outline for the topics to be covered, but the interviewee’s responses determine the way, in which the interview is directed. As there are both pros and cons to structured and unstructured interviews, it is hard to say that one style is better than the other. It is really up to you to decide the type of information you are looking for and the interview style that can best achieve that information.

Having decided your interview approach, you must then choose which interview method is most suitable for your research objective. In general, there are three types of research methods, Telephone, Personal and on-line and each have their pros and cons.  

  • Prepare a list of questions. 

Start off by writing down the main purpose of the study in the form of a problem statement (see point 1 above). Now outline the broad knowledge areas that are relevant to answering the problem statement. Next, develop questions under each of the topic areas and continuously refine the questions. Remember eliminate questions that are outside the scope of the problem statement. When creating the questions, focus on ‘how’ and ‘Why’ questions rather than ‘What’.  

When you have a list of questions, it is now imperative that you think about the logical sequencing of the questions. There must be order to them, otherwise, the interview will come across as being disjointed. Think what topic and questions should come first? What topic logically flows next? Remember an interview is like a conversation. The respondent has to be able to follow your thinking and engage in a conversation with you. A good tip is to start the interview with a “warm-up” question that is easily answered. It gives the respondent confidence and it also builds a rapport between you and the respondent. Keep any sensitive or personal questions to the end of the interview.  

The last question should provide some closure for the interview, and leave the respondent feeling empowered, listened to, or otherwise glad that they talked to you 

  • Decide how many customers to interview. 

There really is no definitive answer to this. The rule of thumb is you interview until you are not unearthing anything new from the customer interviews. Generally, between 5-10 interviews you will start to hear customers repeating the same insight and eventually nothing new will come out of interviews, this is called the saturation point. Now you should stop interviewing and concentrate on analysing your findings. What is important to realise here is that if you have stayed within the research scope, a point of saturation will emerge, however, if you have moved outside of your scope, it will be far more difficult for you. 

  • Contact customers and arrange interviews. 

If you have existing customers, you could send them an email with a follow up phone call. The email should not be lengthy. Nobody likes to read an essay in an email. Appeal to their expertise and that the outcome of the research should result in a better service to our customers.  

On the other hand, if you are trying to find or make contact with individuals that you do not know. Do a bit of research. Go to where they hang out both online and offline. Ask people within your network and when you get an interview, ask them for a referral to another potential candidate.  

  • Conduct interviews 

There are several tips that you can use to improve your interviewing skill and technique: 

  • Empathy: The adage of ‘Walk a mile in my shoes’ is pertinent here as it highlights one of the most critical interviewing skills – Empathy. Being able to empathize means to be capable of identifying and understanding another person’s feelings, opinons without experiencing them for yourself at that particular moment. It is the ability to literally experience the world from another person’s perspective; to walk in their shoes, to view life from their living conditions and to feel what it feels like to be that person. 
  • Rapport: The key to a good interview is to view it as an interpersonal encounter. If you create a rapport with your interview, they are more than likely to trust you and share their thoughts with you. 
  • Listening: This is actually harder than most people think and requires discipline. You have two ears and one mouth and to actively use them in that proportion in the interview. You really have to strive to understand what the other person is saying without interjecting your account. If you focus on short probing words such as how, why etc it will prevent you from overly talking throughout the interview. Remember, the goal is to get the customer to talk and not you. Use every active listening technique at your disposal such as repeating back the last thing that they said and encouraging them to continue or ‘that is really interesting’ etc. 
  • Attentiveness: You must show a genuine interest in what the person is saying. They are taking time out of their busy schedule to do you a favour. Make them feel that their opinion is important and that you are appreciative of them sharing their thinking with you. So concentrate and pay attention to what they are saying.  

Wrap up 

Interviews are fantastic to get deep insights into your customers thinking and this is what makes them an invaluable tool.