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Make smarter business decisions with this guide to plan and execute effective customer interviews. Turn feedback into business growth.
Awesome, let’s find out what customer interviews can do for you and your business. I’ll go through some common examples of how people use customer interviews to make an impact.
Ah, product/market fit, the marker many startups live and die by. Finding product-market fit can be tricky but it’s incredibly important if you want to build a successful product. The Lean Startup method calls the process around finding product-market fit customer development. It’s all about “questioning your core business assumptions” and validating your ideas through research.
Though conducting customer interviews before you even have a product may seem like a waste of time, it’s important! You’ll save money in the long run by validating your ideas from the start, instead of building something no one wants.
How do I know this? I work for a company that’s built out of the ashes of bad product/market fit. That’s right, User Interviews was born out of customer development. Way back in 2015, our founders, Bob, Dennis, and Basel were building a company called MobileSuites, which was an app built to help you manage hotel stays. It was great, but not enough people were downloading and using the app. They realized they had missed the mark on product/market fit, so it was back to the drawing board. They started talking to people about their next ideas for a startup, but in that process, realized that finding people to talk to about your product ideas was pretty difficult. Especially for a bootstrapped startup running out of cash.
They decided to talk to a lot of customers to see if other people had this problem. They set a success metric, if over 50% of the people they talked to brought up recruitment or scheduling as a problem they faced in their research, they would move forward with User Interviews. And guess what? 70% of the people they interviewed said they faced problems recruiting and scheduling. Just like that, User Interviews was born.
If you want to validate your product/market fit, you’ll need to talk to more customers than you normally would. Typically, between 10-20 is a good place to start, keeping in mind you may have to do customer validation interviews more than once, if your first idea’s a flop.
It’s important to set a success metric for your interviews at this stage. Decide what you need to see from your customer interviews to say, “ok, this is a viable product.” Keep your success metric simple, so it’s easy to know whether or not you’ve hit it. A percentage of users who express concern over the problem you’re trying to solve could be a good jumping off point, but your metric can change based on what you’re building.
Great! It’s always good to make sure your ideas are what the customer wants, not just what you and your team are excited to see. These kinds of studies are the most common for people doing customer interviews.
Intuit, the company behind products like TurboTax and Quickbooks, has a rigorous process of customer development research. They regularly conduct “follow-me-home” interviews with customers. The point of these interviews is to see customers in their own environments and to offer Intuit employees a look into their customers everyday lives. During these interviews, the Intuit team realized a lot of their customers were freelancers, or a part of the gig economy. The insights they gathered during their customer interviews played a big part in creating what is now Quickbooks Self-Employed. During another round of customer interviews, they realized a lot of customers had a difficult time separating work and personal expenses after the fact. To solve this, they implemented a simple swipe system that allows customers to mark expenses as they come in on their mobile phone.
Hugh Molotsi, who spent 22 years in product success at Intuit, explained to us how they use customer interviews to validate ideas.
They encouraged team members who were really excited about certain ideas to go out and find just one customer who said, “Yes, if you build that, or if that happens, I would want to try it.” They call it the “unit of one customer” and it basically serves as a sanity check to encourage team members to validate their ideas with customers before building.
If you want to test your designs or features with customer interviews, you’ll only need to talk to around 5 users. That’s because, after 5 users, patterns start to emerge. You can conduct your interviews remote or in-person, depending on your preference. All you’ll need is a minimum viable product and a customer to test it with.
Even if you don’t have anything specific to test, it’s important to conduct customer interviews. These can take the form of office hours, where you just have some blocked off time on your schedule every few weeks to chat with customers about their experiences. If you want to do this, you can reach out to customers via email or social media, and just set up a time to chat with them. You can also coordinate with your support/ops teams to send customers your way. These types of studies are best done on a rolling basis, where you leave the door open to talk to customers every month.
They can also be a more formalized study, in which you examine a certain portion of your customers, or maybe take a look at a new market. With these kinds of studies, you’ll again only need to talk to around 5-10 customers to get a good idea of what you need to know. You can use these kinds of studies to find out more about why people churn from your product, why people haven’t quite pulled the trigger on buying your product, or if your product is targeting the right people in the first place.
If you’re going to spend time conducting customer interviews, or doing anything else, you’ll want to get something useful out of it. That means setting a specific goal you’re working to achieve. Your goal could be as general as “I want to know more about how my customers view my product” or as specific as “I want to know how my customers feel about billing for large projects when paying in foreign currencies.”
The important thing is setting a clear intention. Know why you’re talking to these people in the first place. Everything else can build off of that idea.
Who needs to be present for your interviews? When you complete your research goal, who on your team will that result affect? Invite those people to participate in your research, if possible. Each research session should have a note-taker and a moderator. You can do interviews without a note-taker if you can’t find one, just make sure you record your sessions.
At conversational marketing platform Drift, they use a kickoff meeting called Story Time at the beginning of each new product effort. They assemble designers, product managers, engineers, and anyone else who may be working on the new product change. In the meeting, they set the goal for their effort, come up with a research plan to validate their hypothesis, and a roadmap for building the feature.
Don’t have a team to assemble? You can always do customer interviews on your own, all you need is a question and some customers to interview. If you’re a really small team, or can’t get stakeholders on board with interviews, going solo is always an option.
Writing the guide can seem like a daunting task, but we’re here to help. Here’s a quick form to help you create your interview guide. This form is part of our free interview Launch Kit:
We’ve included some more tips for doing the best customer interviews possible later in this article, so make sure to read all the way through before you actually start writing your guide. Remember that this is just a guide, not a script, so don’t sweat every word on the page. Let the conversation flow naturally.
When you’re creating your questions, leave them open-ended. This allows your customers to tell their stories. In order to get the most out of your interviews, you need your customers to be as specific as possible. The more details they can give you, the easier it is to build an action plan based on what you learned.
Think about it this way, you ask two different users what they think about your billing process.
Which one of those answers give you more insight to make changes from? The second one, because that customer gave you reasons they didn’t like the experience, offered you insight into why they’re having problems, and provided you with a jumping off point for making changes that would be meaningful to them.
If at first, your customer gives you a short or non-descript answer, you can always encourage them to provide more information by asking follow up questions. We’ll get into how to best encourage your customers to do more of the talking below.
So who can you talk to to get these valuable insights? Well, it depends on what you want to learn. If you want to investigate a specific part of your product or business, you’ll want to talk to users who use that specific thing.
Want to find out why people are leaving your product or site? Talk to people who have recently churned or are, by your metrics, at risk of churning from your product.
Want to know if people will even go for your product if you create it? If you don’t have actual customers yet, you can grab some from our panel. We’ll even give you three free recruit credits to get you going, startup to startup.
Whoever you decide to include in your customer interviews, you’ll need to invite them somehow. If you’re using your own customers, you can use an email client like Mailchimp or social media to send out a bat-signal. You could also use an all-in-one solution like Research Hub to manage your customer list, interview invitations, and incentives (wink wink 😉).
Regardless of how you get them to your study, you’ll need some compelling invitations to entice your customers to participate in your study. Make sure they’re aimed at the right people, send a strong and clear message, and keep it simple.
Check everything before you start talking to your customers. This means making sure your meeting space is set up (if you’re doing your study in-person), or your video conferencing software is working properly (if you’re doing it remotely). You should also have your interview guide prepared, either printed out or on your desktop. If you have someone tagging along to take notes, make sure they’re ready for the session. You should also be sure you have your incentive, if you offered one, prepared to distribute to your customer directly after the session.
Be sure that your customer is aware of the time you’ve scheduled for your interview, you can do this by sending them a reminder email the morning of the session.
Terry Gross, acclaimed journalist, conversationalist, and the light of my podcast life, starts conversations with “tell me about yourself. You could too.
It’s important to to start your customer interview by getting to know your customer a little bit. This helps you see their interaction with your product as a part of their bigger picture. Asking an open-ended question like “tell me about yourself” allows them to describe more than just their job title, what they do on the weekends, or how they use your product.
Of course, you’ll also need to learn a little more about how they fit into the grand scheme of things for your product. Questions like “what’s your job title?” and “how often do you do [X] activity?” are also asked in this part of the interview.
Before you dig in to the bigger questions, you’ll need to (very quickly) go over the framework for the interview. Remind the customer how long the interview will last, and let them know that you want their honest feedback.
Now it’s time to get into why we’re all here, to help you achieve the goal you set for your customer interviews. At this point, you can start relying on your script a little bit more to make sure you get to everything you want to ask.
Regardless of what you’re trying to achieve, you want to get your customer to tell you their stories. Stories are personal, real, and specific. At the end of the day, you’re conducting these customer interviews to gain actionable insight for your business. To do this, you’ll need to uncover the specifics behind why your customers do what they do.
There are tons of tips on how to get your customers to tell these specific stories, from expert interviewers like Michael Margolis of Google Ventures and Erika Hall of Mule Design. There are a few things that all of these lists advise, so I’ll give you a quick rundown.
Stay away from questions like “Would you like it if we added X feature?” While it’s tempting to ask how your customer would feel about adding certain feature or paying a certain price, it’s not constructive. They’ll most likely give you a yes or no answer, and you as the interviewer will never be able to determine how they genuinely felt about that thing.
Instead, ask broad questions that encourage your customer to talk about their experiences. If you want to know what features they would like, you can ask “Is there anything missing from the product right now?”.
If you slip up and ask a leading question, no need to panic, it happens to everyone. If you realize in the moment that you’ve led the customer, just throw a why on top of it. Which brings us to the next point...
The best way to get specific stories from your customer is to ask open-ended questions. Starting your questions with who, what, where, when, why, or how can create great questions, but be sure you’re asking open-ended ones. For example, “What did you make for dinner last night?” has a simple answer, whereas “How did you make dinner last night?” is more open-ended. You can also start your questions with “tell me about…”, which opens up the opportunity to tell a story.
If you’re not satisfied with a customer’s answer to a question, dig deeper. You can always follow up your question with a “why” or a “tell me about...”. Many interviewers use a framework called the 5 whys to uncover deeper meanings. Here’s how it works-
See? It would have been easy to say this customer only goes to the movies once a month, but by asking more in-depth “why” questions, we found out that they have a specific reason for not frequenting the movie theater. Their answer to the last question gives you as the interviewer specific insight into why they aren’t going to the movies and possibly gives you a chance to make a business change based on that.
If you’re talking more than your customer, that’s a problem. It can be tempting to cut in and help a struggling user, or correct them about an aspect of your product or business. Don’t do it. It is so much more helpful for you to use this time to listen to your customer than it is for you to cut in.
The goal of a research study is to observe and listen to users’ frank feedback — not to convince them your product is wonderful as is.
Instead of butting in, actively listen and ask open-ended questions that encourage them to keep talking.
When you want to do interviews and get emotion and stories out of your customers or potential customers, it’s very important to actually be quiet. If you ask a question, you should shut up and wait until they answer it. If they don’t answer it in an amount of time that you want to talk, ask the question in a different way; but don’t lead the witness. Don’t give them a specific answer. Don’t try to talk too much around telling them what to say or anything like that.
Hiten Shah, founder, CrazyEgg, KISSmetrics
When you’re satisfied with the answers you’ve gathered, or you’re running out of time, give the customer a chance to ask you questions. This allows them to get anything they’ve been thinking about off their chest. It also opens the door to questions or problems you didn’t even think about asking.
Thank your customer for their time from the bottom of your heart. Let them know you appreciate their feedback and time, and give them whatever incentive you offered. Easy peasy.
Ideally, you should block off 10-15 minutes between each interview. This not only gives you some buffer time if your customer is late or the interview goes over time, it gives you an opportunity to breathe and reflect between sessions.
Typically, if you’re conducting lots of interviews, they’ll all blend together a little bit. Taking a few minutes after the session to jot down your biggest takeaways from that interview specifically can help make synthesizing your thoughts easier at the end of the day.
Don’t know what to write after an interview? That’s ok, we’ve got you covered. Just fill out this form from our interview Launch Kit after your interviews.
All of this is for nothing if you don’t share what you’ve learned with your team and take action. When you’re sharing your insights, remember that you’re telling the story of your customer’s experience with your product. Bring as much of that story to the table with you as possible.
The best way to do this is to include video clips, photos, and direct quotes from your interviews. This helps your team members who weren’t present for the interview see and feel for the customer. It also helps remove any bias you may have towards seeing a certain result from your customer interviews. Consciously or unconsciously, we’re all prone to seeing what we want to see. Including videos and quotes removes that possibility.
Once you’ve shared your results with your team, it’s important to create a plan for your next steps. Take what you’ve learned and distill it down to 3-10 key insights. These insights should be actionable, meaning you can at some point do something about them. Even if the solution to the problem your customers are facing is far down the line, it’s important to note that it’s there. You can keep track of the insights you gain from your interviews in a feedback management tool like productboard or Dovetail, or you can create something simple like an Airtable or spreadsheet.
You can also combine the feedback you get in customer interviews with feedback from other sources, like your customer support or analytics platforms. This can help you see how much these issues affect your customers as a whole, and can help you make better decisions on how to fix your customer’s problems.
So, once you’ve found your key pieces of feedback, you’ll need a plan to take action. You can start by ranking the feedback by its importance to your customers. This ranking is to help you keep your customer’s feedback at the forefront of your process. You can then combine this ranking with your team’s ranking of importance. This can take into account how much effort the problem will take to fix, what lines up with your product roadmap, and what your team wants to tackle right now. Sometimes, you won’t be able to fix your customer’s biggest problem immediately, but it’s important to keep in mind which of your issues is the most important for them.
Once you’ve decided which pieces of feedback to act on, map out exactly what needs to happen to achieve your goal. Be sure to follow up with each of the teams working on your solution to make sure it gets from start to finish. Your execution plan should also involve another round of customer feedback at the end. Iteration is important, and each round of customer interviews will help you improve and iterate.
So that’s it! Go forth and make smart business decisions, rooted in feedback straight from your customers. Remember to get specific information and stories during your interviews, using repeatable forms. Once you’ve finished your interviews, reflect and create a plan to implement what you learned. Then, get ready to do it all over again to continue improving your business and create a more customer-centric way of doing things.
Carrie Boyd is a UXR content wiz, formerly at User Interviews. She loves writing, traveling, and learning new things. You can typically find her hunched over her computer with a cup of coffee the size of her face.