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How to do a customer interview

The ones who talk best about why they chose your product or service? The ones who took the plunge. You need customer interviews.

I can’t stress this enough, the only ones who have the answers to all your entrepreneurial questions are your customers, or future customers. Everything starts with their needs, or more precisely, their “job to be done”.

Don’t find customers for your product, find products for your customers

– Seth Godin

Table of content

You’ll find in this article :

  • Why you MUST talk to your clients (or future clients)
  • Steps to plan and execute a customer interview
    • Who to interview and how to find them
    • How to contact them
    • The main topics of the interview
    • Some tips for conducting the interview
  • Pitfalls to avoid

And if after reading, you want to talk about setting up customer interviews in your company and get an hour of coaching to ask all your questions, it’s easy!

The customer interview is foundational

Often, the entrepreneurs I coach have the feeling they are already talking to their clients, or their prospects, or their ideal clients. Or at least to know them through questionnaires and other market studies, facilitated by the plethora of questionnaire tools available.
Except that in fact, no. In fact, market research asks consumers or B2B buyers to project themselves into a hypothetical future, and even in the sincerity of the moment, their answers are often not indicative of what they will do when confronted with your hypotheses in the real world.
As for the customers or prospects you interact with in sales meetings or customer service calls, the posture is different and does not allow the discovery of the most key element for the growth of your company: the motivations (and potential barriers) to buy.

Mario + fleur = mario qui crache du feu

The discovery interview allows you to de-correlate the conversation from any business or service topic, and to have the customer or prospect talk not about a hypothetical future, but about what he or she has done – and especially felt – in the past. Most importantly, the customer interview helps to identify the “job-to-be-done” for which your customer bought the product/service or an alternative.

And since it’s better to say it, I’ll say it: just because your mother or your best friend thinks your idea is great doesn’t mean you’re going to become the head of a unicorn anytime soon.

4 steps of the customer interview

4 steps of the customer interview process

The client interview is prepared beforehand and used afterwards, so it is not one but 4 steps.

They are all important, and it is imperative to do them all – and in the right order of course.

  • Identification (of relevant people). They must be part of your Minimum Viable Audience and have already spent money / effort on your product or an alternative.
  • Invitation. How to present the request, and how to ensure a high acceptance rate.
  • Discussion. The interview itself, where a number of best practices exists.
  • Exploitation. You will have to analyze, synthesize, and exploit everything you have learned, and believe me, it can be very rich… but it takes time.

Step 1 of customer interview : identification

The first question to ask is who to interview. In my article on branding, I talked about the Minimum Viable Audience as defined by Seth Godin. Of course, the interviewees must be part of it.
But that’s not the only criteria. In order for them to remember the past, and not project themselves into a hypothetical future, they must have already taken an engaging step (most often, that means having already paid) to find a solution – yours, a competitor’s, or an alternative (another concept I talked about in the same article on branding).
How do you find them if they are not your customers? References and reviews for example on the websites of competitors and alternatives are one way. You can also ask who has already bought X or Y in Quora, Reddit, Facebook, LinkedIn…
You don’t need many: ideally, 10 to 15, at least half of which are your customers if your product is already in use. You also need to interview prospective buyers who did not convert and users of competitors or alternatives.

Step 2 of customer interview : invitation

Once you’ve identified your clients (or others’ customers), you’ll need to ask them to dedicate you some time. Usually 30 minutes – more like 20 for people who don’t know you at all, and you can go up to 45 for your clients.
Your invitation can be on paper – that’s actually one way to stand out -, by email, or even by phone if it’s a regular communication channel.

Key elements of the invitation:

  • You need to understand and want to ask them questions about their experience buying your product/the competitor/the alternative in an effort to improve.
  • This is a discovery interview, not a sales pitch (for your non-customers).
  • It’s a deep dive into the past, not a satisfaction survey (for your customers).
  • The expected duration
  • A simple link to book (I recommend using Hera rather than Calendly, it allows you to propose single-use links and limit the number of slots, which seems like a more personal touch than opening your entire calendar)

The little trick that can increase the acceptance rate? Use the reciprocity bias. Offer a gift. Either before you contact them – if they are your clients it’s easier, but you can also use specialized services if you only have email addresses. Either in your interview request. By being very clear that the gift is theirs, whether they accept the request or not.
So you’ll understand that asking for client interviews right after sending out the year-end gifts, for example, is very effective!

Step 3 of customer interview : discussion

Finally, we arrive at the step no one skips when talking about a client interview… when you actually talk to the client.
Some words of caution: the customer must only talk about him or herself. Not about your product or service.
Ideally, the interviews should be recorded (audio or even video if possible for non-verbal reactions), with participants’ agreement of course. 
Prerequisite: you must have an idea of the pain you are removing, of the problem you are solving (or want to solve). If you only have a list of features, it won’t work.

I provide the leaders I coach with all the tools to conduct these interviews, but basically it comes down to a few key questions.

  1. What happened the day you realized you needed a solution to your problem?
  2. Once you decided to find a solution, how did you research what was out there?
  3. What solutions did you identify / dig into?
  4. Now that you are using the product/service, what is the one thing you have that you didn’t before?
  5. What was the #1 reason you chose this over another?
  6. Before buying, what were your apprehensions / fears?
  7. About the problem solved, what are the elements that still worry you?

I could specify a few more, such as opening up on the channels of influence for example to identify the right ways to approach future prospects. And above all, don’t stop at the first answer: dig, bounce, ask for details…

Setep 4 of customer interview: exploitation

The most common mistake I see is to believe that the job is over once the interviews are done. In fact, that’s when it all begins!

Some practical tips:

  • Transcribe or have transcribed the recorded interviews
  • Analyze the verbatims according to the topics: triggers, possible solutions, discovery / purchase journey, desired transformation objective, fears, USP of the solution, opportunities, influence channels…
  • Identify the commonalities, the words that resonate, the way your customers express themselves, the alternative solutions you are often compared to…
  • … and use them! Your Hero copy, your FAQ, your competitive intelligence, your content topics, the choice of channels to publish on…

Pitfalls to avoid

I’ve already mentioned a few points to watch out for, but I’ll summarize for you the most common objections I hear from the leaders I coach – and my answers!

I already talk to my clients all the time
Maybe, but not about these topics. A sales negotiation, a satisfaction call, the handling of a complaint, even a business review, does not cover these topics.

I’m starting out and I don’t know where to find these people
If you start out, and you have no idea where your Minimum Viable Audience is, how are you going to communicate with them when you launch?

I’ve done plenty of quantitative market research
The problem with market studies is, first of all, that they don’t allow for bounce-back or verbatims. That they prevent you from discovering what you don’t know yet. And above all, if they are written in a hypothetical future, that they are absolutely not reliable…

Can I add some questions to enlighten my product roadmap?

To wrap it up

The customer interview, which will allow you to understand the Job-to-Be-Done, is sometimes a long exercise and it definitely requires a significant investment of time, and sometimes money. But it is always so valuable for the lessons learned that you should not hesitate to do it again from time to time, especially in case of a pivot, development of new features, or opening to another target…

Photo credits :
Title : Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash
Mario : found on Google
Steps : personal creation

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