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How To Conduct Great Customer Interviews

December 15, 2022   Posted By Joel Goldstein

Sometimes customers say the darndest things.

In our work with clients, we see companies struggle to include the customer’s voice in their messaging and even in their product development efforts. It’s quite a challenge, with many books and blogs written about how to embed “voice of the customer” processes in marketing and product definition.

From our side, we use customer interviews to uncover comparative positioning for companies. Too often, companies don’t go far enough in their message platforms, leaving out important “only” statements that differentiate the company and its products. We call those “only” statements, messages that “only” your company can provide.Smiling businessman and his colleague closing a deal with a partner in a meeting-1

Here’s a test for you: look at the “About Us” page on your website and replace your name with your competitor’s. If the text applies equally well to you both, then you would benefit from injecting more definitive competitive advantages in your overall company messaging.

We uncover those advantages through customer interviews. But not all interviews are the same, and not all are set up to best discover those insights that aren’t just important to you, but are REALLY important to customer decision-making.

There’s also an enormous amount to be said for actually reaching out to customers on a regular basis – although it’s a path very few tend to take. Despite the huge insights into your products and services, a number of companies never actually interview their own customers in any sort of depth. In fact, we encourage clients to conduct even a few customer interviews every year, as part of their regular routine. So, why should you interview customers?

It Forces Engagement. Long-term success as a business is all about getting up close and personal with the people who are paying you … and it helps you to keep them happy. There’s no better way of doing this than meeting them face to face and discussing their needs in depth.

Real-World Customer Behavior. No matter how often you use your own product or service, you’ll simply never uncover as many edge cases, creative implementations, or huge glaring bugs as your customers. By taking the time to actually sit down and talk to people in depth, you’ll get a treasure trove of actionable information about how they actually interact with your offerings.

Highly Effective Early Warning SystemCustomer interviews won’t just shine a light on where your current product could be improved, they’ll also give you instant insight into the wider market and potential competitive threats. By opening up an ongoing dialog with your users, you get a much clearer picture of both other specific solutions they’re considering, and which way the wind is blowing generally in the industry.

New Revenue Streams. In addition to detailed product and industry feedback, your customers are also an incredibly valuable source of new revenue opportunities. After all, who better to give you ideas for new products and services than somebody whose pain points you’ve already addressed?

The Right Questions
But how should you go about handling customer interviews? It starts with the questions you ask. A few well-phrased questions can yield fantastic customer insights. Here are some open-ended customer interview questions that work well. Asking a few of these questions can make a difference as you’re trying to gather information.

This is by far the most powerful question you can ask, so ask it often. You should rarely accept a customer’s initial response; promptly moving onto the next point without pressing further can cheat your own understanding. By asking “why” as a follow-up question you can often extract a more enlightening response and get to the crux of their issue.

“How do you do that today?”
This is a great question when a customer asks you for a specific feature. Rather than taking their feature request at face value, dig in to really understand how they are accomplishing the job today. If you can, have them show you their process or how they are using their current product.

“How do you know you’ve had a successful year/month/day?”
This is a valuable question for business products where you are trying to uncover metrics and customer goals. If your product can help your customers achieve their goals or help make them more successful, you are well on your way to a valuable product.

“What is the most frustrating thing about your current solution?”
This is a multi-purpose, open-ended question that you can use to open up the conversation flow and to discover pain points. If the solution you are validating doesn’t solve a real pain point, it might not be valuable enough for your target users.

“What do you wish you could do that you can’t do today?”
This is a variation on the “If you could wave a magic wand…” question asked by many engineersQuestions like these work well for very specific features or use cases. Be careful about asking this question in too general a fashion or too early, as it can lead to ambiguous results or a blank stare.

“Can you give me an example?”
This is another great general-purpose question that can give you a gold mine of supporting evidence for your new product or feature. In customer interviews, especially for early-stage validation, it can be easy for conversations to stay high level. Asking for specific examples lets your interviewee know that you are willing to dive into the details, which will provide you with much more information than a higher-level discussion.

Try a few of these questions with customers or prospects during your next interviews. Some are better suited for new product development, but most will work well for your ongoing feature validation and win-loss interviews.

Of course, great questions aren’t worth much unless you listen closely, read between the lines and then ask deeper follow-up questions. So, let’s talk about a few do’s and don’ts for maximizing your interview.

Focus on the problem. You are not there to sell anything. You’re trying to find out information.
Define customer personas. It’s crucial to understand to whom you need to talk. Take your time when you define the customer. Give them names. Understand their role.

Be prepared to listen and learn. It bears repeating: you’re not selling anything. Your goal is to gather as much valuable information as possible. It helps to record customer interviews – with permission – so you can stay fully engaged in the conversation while ensuring you capture all of the information during the interview.

Conduct in-person interviews, when possible. Phone calls and video chats are convenient, but nothing replaces face-to-face interviews. They allow you to make a connection and better read people’s facial expressions and body language when they’re sharing the information with you.  Finish each conversation with: “What did I not ask?” This allows you to capture what you missed.

Avoid talking about your technology and solution in the initial conversation. Remember, you’re trying to solve problems for your customers.
Never ask “Do you think our product is too expensive?” Focus on the customer’s costs, budget, operations, efficiency, etc.
Don’t start with “Would you be willing to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement)?” Big mistake for two reasons: 1) an NDA (or similar) will just predispose people to narrow the conversation rather than widening it, and 2) you should be focusing on the problem, not talking about the technology and/or solution.
Avoid asking closed-ended questions that lead people to predefined answers. Instead, encourage people to explain their pain points in greater detail.

At GGC, we follow a specific script and methodology for conducing customer messaging interviews. Contact us so we can share ideas on best practices to make these initiatives truly produce “undiscovered insights” in your own marketing efforts.


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