8 Keys To Conducting A Successful Customer Interview

by Sean Boyce
conducting successful customer interview

Customer interviews are critical to product success.  In fact, following the lean product development methodology (as outlined in Running Lean), there are several different types of customer interviews to be conducted during different phases of your project.  With so much potential value coming from one source, it’s important to optimize this process as much as possible.  I’ve created a list of the most helpful tips to successfully interview customers the first time, every time.

customer interviews

#1 – Do Your Homework Beforehand

Customer interviews can be tough.  You will probably be speaking with someone you haven’t met before.  This person is likely very busy.  Your amazing product might not be their cup of tea.  To prepare for a tough interview it helps to have done some research beforehand.  You should already know where they work and what they do – otherwise you’re interviewing the wrong customer!  However, do you know where they went to school and what their hobbies are?  Sites like LinkedIn and their own bio on their company’s website can provide a ton of helpful information.  Use it to your advantage during the call.  People love meeting others that are also interested in their passions.  Be ready to talk about these topics.

#2 – Remember You’re Interacting With A Person

Are you a big fan of random strangers coming up to you requesting lots of information or worse selling you all kinds of things?  Neither are your potential customers.  As many have previously stated – you can tell a lot about a company by the way they treat their customers.  Remember that the people you are interviewing are people too and would like to be treated as such.  It is easy for passionate business owners and professionals alike to dive into a ton of probing questions without exchanging some form of pleasantries first.  Start slow and talk about something light in the beginning of the call.  Get to know the person on the other end of the phone from you a little bit.  Find out what you have in common.  Not only will they appreciate it, but it will come in handy later during the call.

#3 – Remain Professional and Be Consistent

Remember that the person you are interviewing is likely busy and may not be a good fit for the product homework you are doing.  I’ve had plenty of customer interviews where I clearly wasn’t their favorite person in the world to talk to at that moment.  Remember you are representing your company and more importantly yourself.  You have nothing to gain from lacking composure during your interviews.  Generally speaking, people enjoy interacting with happy people.  You don’t have to be overly positive and optimistic, but don’t get discouraged and let that impact your mood or tone.  The more consistent and professional you are during a customer interview, the more valuable your results will be.

#4 – Value Opinions but Recognize Value

I used to work as a mechanic and one thing I learned working with those professionals is that when interacting with a customer you’re not interested in their diagnosis, instead, the value is in the symptoms they describe.  For example, customers would often come into our shop looking for an alignment because their steering wheel vibrates.  In actuality a vibrating steering wheel is almost exclusively associated with improperly balanced tires.  So while we listened carefully to everything the customer said, we as professionals know what specifically to pay attention to – the symptoms.  When conducting customer interviews for product research your ‘symptoms’ are the customer’s problems.  This is where you need confirmation that you are on the right track towards problem/solution fit.

#5 – Keep The Customer Engaged In The Conversation

I’ve coached many business leaders on conducting customer interviews and one of the most frequent mistakes I see is just how boring some of their calls are.  People don’t want to talk about things that don’t excite them.  While it is important for you to collect your research and test hypotheses you should also do your best to make it fun!  Remember all that homework you did and the lighthearted questions you asked earlier?  It’s time to take advantage of that information.  How can you correlate what you’re doing to what the customer is passionate about?  For example, if your customer happens to be a well organized individual who loves to save time through efficiency then talk about different aspects of how your product would save them time!  Connect with them on a level in which they are most comfortable.  You’ll be surprised how the conversation can really open up from there.

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#6 – The Power of Why

If you haven’t heard of the 5 Why’s read up on the Wiki entry.  Asking why is incredibly powerful during a customer interview.  It is easy for people to share their opinion, but why they have that specific opinion can be for a variety of different reasons.  Maybe they aren’t sure themselves – also good to know.  Keep it within reason and don’t pester the customer, but don’t be afraid to ask why to a few of their responses more than once.  Digging down far enough until you get to the root cause of a customer problem is what this interview is all about and asking why is your key to getting there.

#7 – Respect Their Time

For those of us who are tremendously passionate about our projects it’s easy to get lost in conversation about them.  I instruct my clients frequently about being cognizant of this.  It’s easy to accidentally take advantage of the time someone has given you because you’ve gotten lost in a world that is very appealing to you.  Remember that a prospective customer is doing you a favor and lending you their time.  Be respectful of this and don’t abuse it.  One tip is to ask the prospective customer at the beginning of the call how much time they have to give.  This shows respect and gives you the ability to organize the call around their availability.

#8 – Whenever You Can – Get An Introduction First

Everyone has a list of people they trust.  Trust doesn’t come easy.  People have earned each others trust over time by proving that they hold it in high regard.  Take advantage of this by getting an introduction to a prospective customer from someone they know and trust whenever possible.  If someone in my network introduces me to someone in their network they are indirectly telling that person that I won’t take access to them for granted.  Bonus tip: this is also a great way to start the conversation.  Since you already have something in common a great way to begin the conversation is by talking about how you know your mutual friend and your experiences with them (since they are most likely positive).

Customer interviews are critical to the success of your product.  Conducting them in an efficient and professional manner will help you get the results you need.  Use these tips to make sure you stay on track and can prevent the conversation from derailing you away from the overall objective.  

If you’d like to learn more about product management or talk more about the services I offer as a product management consultant please visit the services section of our website at NxtStep Services or reach out to me directly at sean@nxtstep.io.  Keep disrupting.

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