How to conduct customer interviews

Interviewing customers is a delicate skill. It’s a conversation first and an interview second. It’s the barrier between clean VoC and assumptions. Yes, it’s good to conduct customer interviews, but an interview is as good as the interviewee and the answers you’re able to draw from him or her. After conducting a bunch of interviews on behalf of clients, here are my ideas on how to conduct effective customer interviews.

1. Set goals for the interview

Start by defining what you’d like to learn about the user.

Are you looking to create better personas? Are you trying to gather VoC for testimonials, case studies, and copy? 

Here are some examples of interview goals.

  1. To understand the general attitudes of Fintech companies towards lead generation.
  2. To discover which apps sales teams use for lead generation
  3. To find out what features users desire in lead-gen apps.

2. Recruit the right participants

If the goal of your interview is to solicit wholistic feedback, interview a mix of happy and unhappy customers. Unhappy customers =  those who almost became customers or those who became customers and left.

If your goal is to collect VoC, testimonials, and case studies, then it makes sense to interview staying and ‘just-converted’ customers. They are the ones that have all the praise to give.

3. Test your assumptions

Sometimes, what companies think is important to their customers is not what customers really care about or what makes them purchase in the first place. Assumption testing helps you answer the questions, “What am I assuming about my customers?”, “What do I need more info on?” or “What do I need to verify?”

You want to break your assumptions into questions or tests you can validate.

4. Ask open-ended, non-leading questions

Ask open-ended, non-leading questions = Avoid leading or close-ended questions.

A leading question subtly suggests a response or puts words in the customer’s mouth. 

For example, “Why do you prefer to automate your LinkedIn lead-generation campaigns?” This question assumes three things. 1)They have a LinkedIn lead-gen campaign  2) They automate their LinkedIn lead-gen campaign 3) They chose LinkedIn as their lead-gen channel

Instead, you could ask, “Talk me through your process for getting leads on social media”.

Close-ended questions elicit a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. For example, do you eat rice?

I wouldn’t say don’t entirely use close-ended ‘statements’. Use them when you want to get a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer. 

I typically use them to summarise the customer’s points. For example, “If I get you correctly, you use cold emails more often.” 

Sometimes, I use close-ended questions to tease out implied answers. I use the ‘put-words-in-their-mouth’ close-ended question to get them to either confirm or reject the implication. 

For example, if a customer says, “This tool is really good. I was surprised by how helpful it was.”

If I’m interviewing for testimonials and need a soundbite, I’d ask, “Would you say this is the best lead gen tool you’ve ever used?”

Then it’s up to the customer to either confirm or reject the meaning behind the question.

In interviews where you’re trying to solicit feedback, it’s advisable to use close-ended questions sparingly. If you use close-ended questions, use them strategically. 

Start light. Don’t ask all the easy questions first. Save some to intersperse with the more difficult ones. 

5. Have follow-up questions ready

Follow-up questions prompt users to elaborate on an answer. For example,

 “Can you tell me more?”

“What does it mean?”

Customers sometimes don’t answer questions exactly the first time. You may have to ask the same question in different ways. 

So, when writing your questions, have different variations of the same idea or topic you’re trying to inquire about.

For example, if you want to ask customers about the problems they have with a tool, you can have different variations of the same question

  1. What problem do you face when generating leads
  2. Describe a time when you felt the pain of having poor-quality leads for your business. Why did you think think this would happen? Was there an unexpected benefit or hurdle? What were your expectations?
  3. Which part of your lead-gen system do you wish you could make changes to?

It’s helpful to note that some answers may not be forthcoming because the interviewee doesn’t feel comfortable sharing. You’d have to tease the answers out of them as much as you can.

To get that sensibility from your interviewee, get engaged in the story. Use listening cues and empathy to show that you’re actively involved.

If an interviewee is struggling to articulate their answer, help them out.

For example, “when that happened, what did you want to do next?” or 

“How did that make you feel?”, “I’m sorry your time was wasted like that”.

Repeat their words to show you’re listening. “I’m going to repeat back to you what I think this is, and correct me if I’m wrong”. This helps you fill in gaps in the story

Safety first, then trust. When you’ve built trust, everytime you ask a question, you’re going to get more trust. As you progress, you’ll get better answers than you did because the customer may trust you by that many minutes.

6. Prepare an opening statement 

Introduce yourself and the purpose of the interview. It helps to set the tone for the interview and makes interviewees feel at ease. 

Here’s what I use

Hi, {name of customer}, thank you so much for agreeing to this interview. 

My name is Esther, and I’m soliciting feedback on behalf of {client company or name}. We’re doing this to {purpose of interview}. Please feel free to express your opinions, as your name will not be attached to the opinions when I’m sharing them with {client company or name}. 

There’s no right or wrong answer, and I want you to know that your feedback is very valuable! Would you like me to clarify anything before we begin? Also, can I record this interview? 

If I’m soliciting feedback to inform the copy, then I add an extra layer of safety by telling the customer that it’s for internal use only.

Before I get on the call, I also discuss issues such as recording and public use of quotes before getting on the call. It helps me categorize each customer, especially when I have multiple goals for the interviews.

7. Give client’s customer anonymity

One thing I like to do is give anonymity to my client’s customers. I realize that it helps their customers’ loosen up a bit.

Yes, I’ll present the comments to the client, but I won’t attach their names to comments if they don’t want me to. Sometimes, customers don’t want to offend clients, so they end up saying, “Allll isss welllll” when it’s really not. 

False answers don’t help the company improve so I try to make it easy on them by introducing anonymity.

Interviewing is an art

Interviewing is the art of teasing out meaningful opinions from customers. Your VoC is as good as the answers you’re able to draw from customers. Meet customers halfway by knowing the essential skills to practice this art to the fullest. At the end of the day, interviews are conversations first and interviews second.