Customer Interviews: Introduction
The great entrepreneur and author of Lean Startup, Eric Reis said: “People are metrics too”. He is not even the first one to do so, Steve Blank in his “Customer Development” framework that came before the Lean Startup movement, is based on “Get out of the building” motto in discovering who your customers and what their needs are. The common theme is that customer interviews play a pivotal point in your product development.
Here’s a nice story from Steve Blank:
Picture the scene: the entire company (all 15 of us) are present. For this startup we had assembled some of the best and brightest hardware and software engineers in the computer industry. My boss, the CEO, had just come from a string of successes at Convergent Technologies, Intel and Digital Equipment, names that at that time carried a lot of weight. Some of us had worked together in previous companies; some of us had just started working together for the first time.
I thought I was bright, aggressive and could do no wrong as a marketer. I loved my job and I was convinced I was god’s gift to marketing.
Now in a voice so quiet it could be barely heard across the conference table our CEO turns to me and says, “That’s what I thought you said. I just wanted to make sure I heard it correctly.” It was the last sentence I heard before my career trajectory as a marketer was permanently changed.
Get Out of My Company
At the top of his lungs he screamed, “You don’t know a damn thing about what these customers need! You’ve never talked to anyone in this market, you don’t know who they are, you don’t know what they need, and you have no right to speak in any of these planning meetings.” I was mortified with the dressing down in front of my friends as well as new employees I barely knew.
Later my friends told me my face went pale. He continued yelling, “We have a technical team assembled in this room that has more knowledge of scientific customers and scientific computers than any other startup has ever had. They’ve been talking to these customers since before you were born, and they have a right to have an opinion. You are a disgrace to the marketing profession and have made a fool of yourself and will continue to do so every time you open your mouth. Get out of this conference room, get out of this building and get out of my company; you are wasting all of our time.”
I was stunned by the verbal onslaught. At that moment I felt so small I could have walked out of a room underneath the crack in a closed door.
Facts Not Opinions
The shock quickly wore off as I processed the gist of what he told me. He was right. I personally didn’t have any facts, and if we were counting opinions, there were a bunch more educated opinions in that room than I had. All I had been doing was filling the air with marketing noises.
I was convinced that I had just been humiliatingly fired – 90 days into our new company.
Get Out of the Building
As I got up to leave the room, the CEO said, “I want you out of the building talking to customers; find out who they are, how they work, and what we need to do to sell them lots of these new computers.” Motioning to our VP of Sales, he ordered: “Go with him and get him in front of customers, and both of you don’t come back until you can tell us something we don’t know.”
And he was smiling.
My career as marketer had just begun.Steve Blank – https://steveblank.com/tag/customer-development/
Nice story isn’t it? Now imagine yourself in Steve’s shoes for added motivation to hold some customer interviews.
Besides these authors, several movements of placing the customer at the pinnacle of any product development have arisen: “Design Thinking” and “User-Centric design” all place a high priority in talking to your customer and holding customer interviews. I recommend you study these further, links at the bottom of the post.
Given that customer interviews are a sure bet, then why do we not do them more often? Some reasons come to my mind:
- Because customer interviews are hard: you cannot just ask the customers what they want, you have to dig a little deeper and this takes skill, skill which comes with practice;
- Because vanity metrics gathered from analytics are easier, short/sweet not actionable but ego-inflating, this can tend to shadow the previous point and more often than not, these are correlated with “in-house” marketing studies.
When are customer interviews useful?
Customer interviews are useful no matter the stage of the product ( read more about product lifecycle phases here ) you’re finding yourself at :
- If you’re at the beginning problem/solution stage of the product, customers are more called prospects;
- If you’re at the market/fit stage of the product or beyond, these might be called user interviews, because the customers actually use or have purchased your product and you want to validate or find out new personas, journey maps or feature ideas.
Right now this post is going to focus on customer/prospects interview process.
More on customer interviews
Customer interviews are one-to-one sessions between you and a potential customer.
The potential customer is chosen based on the problem you want to tackle. For example, you want to validate a hypothesis that for a given problem, this customer segment with general demographics attributes like: age, gender, occupation, etc. and behavior attributes ( we’re going to deep dive on gathering behavior attributes and techniques in another post ) has a need for a solution.
After you have an initial hypothesis and customer segment sketched out as demographics and behaviors, you will search for prospects, but should be prepared in advance with a script for holding the customer interviews ( more on this below ).
The prospects are found by using the communication channels that are valid for your product/service.
For example, your initial hypothesis is that your product/service will be targeted towards professionals on social networks, so in order to also validate the channel hypothesis you start cold-messaging ( a technique of messaging people not in your near social group ) on LinkedIn and asking them if they are willing to help you out with validating your idea by having a short 30 minute discussion.
The channel can vary as well and it depends on your targeted customer segment and your initial hypothesis.
It can be anywhere from already established social groups and having an on-the-spot conversation, to phone, Instant Messaging or video-conferencing customer interviews.
The common theme for all customer interviews: is to be prepared, be authentically curious yet professional and be respectful of the customers time.
- Be prepared: You’ll never know when a customer interview opportunity arises, be prepared with an elevator pitch to elicit curiosity and a customer interview structure ( detailed below with examples );
- Be authentically curious: Don’t directly ask the customer for what they want, because of the Heisenberg and Hawthorne bias the mere act of asking is going to elicit answers that are not valid for you ( like them recommending features they are not actually going to use ). Instead, focus on what the customers problems are on a day-to-day basis relevant to your product. Open ended questions, broken questions and other techniques that are not leading are the key here;
- Be professional: The customer interview has a scope, talk formally and stick to your objective.
- Be respectful of the customers time: The customer interview should at most take the time that you’ve allocated for the interview, no more, no less. This should be communicated clearly towards your prospect/customer in the elevator pitch or in the initiating communication and agreed in advance.
Remember: This prospect and/or customer will recommend or help you with feedback later ( or even better, become a user ) based on this initial customer interview.
Before diving into the process with real life examples I’ve used for customer interviews, let’s put in place some tips&tricks to get the momentum going.
- Start with whom you know: Starting with whom you know will provide early feedback on your pitch, on your customer interview script and will help you with how you time-box and document the results. Let’s not talk about getting the emotions out of the way, by talking with someone familiar rather than a complete stranger.
Remember, your emotions will likely translate in what the other person feels as well when face-to-face. If you feel comfortable, it will help the other person to feel comfortable as well, so it’s best you have many 1on1s with whom you know before actually talking to strangers;
- Prefer face-to-face, but don’t be rigid: I started having a strict policy for face-to-face and was very rigid on it. After losing some prospects, I’ve started doing customer interviews via chat, via video-conferencing, via phone and so on. Even thou it is not ideal and each medium has it’s own techniques ( like in chat delaying the question or using … suspense … or being more vague ), it can prove to offer meaningful answers which otherwise you might not get, so be flexible and ask for medium that customer is comfortable with if he/she is reluctant for a face-to-face interview;
- If the interviewee agrees to meet with you for a coffee: choose a neutral location or let the interviewee choose one. A public yet quiet place, so you can hear each other, is perfect. Think a familiar table coffee shop;
- Dress appropriately, have an even warm tone, smile and be friendly ( even on the phone, a genuine smile can change the tone of voice );
- Give something back ( no, I’m not talking about paying for the coffee ), have the interview appear on your blog post, your video or just mention you’re going to give some premium once the service is launched;
- Always thank the interviewee for his/her time at the end.
The customer interview script
You either meet someone who might be interested or you’re going to cold approach someone.
Both situations need you to have a customer interview script that is refined and prepared ahead of time with someone you know or by practicing on your own.
The elevator pitch format is a must for both cold-approaching online or offline, but for offline it is mandatory to keep it under 45 seconds, because it takes even less to make a good first impression and to capture someones attention.
Here’s the format that I use for most of my customer interviews:
Introduction: Greetings and who you are
Who: What you do and who your customers might be
Problem: What problem you’re trying to solve
UVP: What sets you apart
Call to action: Prompt for setting the interview
Here’s an example pitch I’ve used that has got a decent response rate:
My name is Gabriel Rondelli [and I have noticed your passion for sustainable fashion.]
I’m researching a product idea that looks into [how sustainable fashion can be made more popular] by [using network effect of mobile apps].
Currently I’m trying to figure out if this idea is worth pursuing and would love to get 20 minutes of your time to help me understand what your flow is [when shopping online for sustainable clothing].
I’m not selling anything, just looking for advice.
Gabriel RondelliActual pitch example
After you go through several iterations of this elevator pitch, you will spot one with a higher success response rate. It helps to keep all other versions to have a history of improvements and track a pattern.
Next comes the Interview Script, this follows these lines:
- Collect attributes ( demographics );
- Tell your products main story;
- Rank problems;
- Open discussion on customer journey;
- Thanking the customer and asking for future feedback sessions and referrals;
- Document the results.
Hello Helen, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. As I’ve mentioned I’m working on a product that will build a mass-following around sustainable fashion through the use of a mobile app.
I’ve got the idea after talking to many friends who have a lot of clothes they don’t need or want any more and don’t know what to do with them. But before we get ahead of ourselves I wanted to make sure if other people share the same problem.
The interview will work like this: I’m going to ask a few general questions about yourself and then discuss some problems we’ve identified and see if you resonate with those. I’d like to stress that I don’t have a finished product yet, my objective is to learn from you not to sell or pitch anything to you. Does that sound ok with you?Actual interview with names replaced
Before we go into the problems, I would like you to answer a few questions about yourself:
How old are you?
From a scale from 1 to 5 how much does the opinion of others matter to you when choosing clothing?
Have you ever copied a fashion style from others?
How important is the brand for you?
Have you ever borrowed or given clothes to your friends?
How important are recommendations in terms of clothing style?
What online products do you currently use for fashion advice? What about shopping?
Did you ever make your own clothing?Actual interview
Tell the products main story:
Okay, sounds good. Thank you, now let me deep dive into the problems I want to tackle.
In my own experience, I and my friends work a lot and don’t really have time to go shopping for new clothing. Also, my daily commute makes it difficult to pass by any clothing stores that I like.
For those that are in my way, most of them are brand clothing. Having worked in the clothing industry, I know that major retailers charge too much for the fabric the clothes are made of.
There is also the issue that having a lot of clothing occupies space and some of them are brand new, but just don’t like them anymore. With those types I really don’t know what to do with them. Do you identify with some of these problems? If yes, how did you tackle them?Actual interview
(During this time you notice on how the interviewee reacts and note down some reactions, mentally if not in writing. You will see that maybe he/she will already answer on how they treat those specific problems) Great, now from your point of view how would you rank from 1 to 3 the problems I have just stated. 1 being the most painful and 3 not so much (if necessary, re-iterate the problems).Actual interview
Open discussion on customer journey:
(This is where he/she will do most of the talking)
Thank you, now please tell me what your process for choosing the clothing you want?
How do you shop today?
Etc. ( Questions are based on his/her answers and reactions, open-ended, to find out more or anything new you haven’t thought about )
(Tricky part follows) If you’ve had a magical wand that would change any aspect of … (pattern you have noticed) what would you change?Actual interview
Thanking the customer and asking for future feedback sessions and referrals:
Thank you, your feedback will prove to be very valuable in treating these problems. As mentioned previously, we are working on a product to treat these specific issues. The best way to describe the concept is “Match making for clothing”.
Would you be interested in seeing the product once we have everything ready? ( Wait for a yes )
Cool, thank you, would you like to help me get in touch with other people like yourself to interview?
Thank you for your time, it was a pleasure. Have a nice day!Actual interview
The outcome of this interview should be:
- Validating the top 3 problems you’re trying to solve / Invalidate them;
- Find out other problems your customer have that might prove valuable for you to pivot on;
- Validate the channel, e.g.: Do you get a good response rate from approaching on this social network?;
- Validate customer segment and type.
This were the broad strokes of most of my customer interviews for an idea that I’ve had. I would recommend to also bring someone else with you who will generally take notes as you go, if not possible ( because 20 interviews of 30 minutes, not everyone can book the time ), follow the next tips.
TIP: I recommend taking notes only upon finishing the interview. After going through 10-15 customer interviews, I’ve found out that writing is slow for me and lost a few ideas along the way, so what I suggest is taking voice memos ( there are even some apps that have speech to text capabilities, so look into those ).
At the end, it is very important for you and your team, to have these documented somewhere else, preferably in a secured online location that also offers collaboration features.
I recommend Google Docs, a shareable Google Spreadsheet with standard columns and rows ( problems, demographics and behaviors specific to your customer segment and a row for personal insights ). I have shared the same column and row format between spreadsheet and kept each customer on separate sheets.
One final note: Keep the customer interviews to a 5 minimum at first. Once you spot a pattern, re-adapt the interview process and start anew. Don’t stick to the same interview process for the whole 20 interviewees. Change your customer interviews according to the feedback that you receive in small bulks of 5.
Validating your product’s problem hypothesis is very valuable early on. Be it a new product or an existing one. If you apply design thinking or run this experiment in a Design Sprint, the same theme applies: testing as soon as possible with your customer.
The script I mentioned above can be followed at any stage of the product, be it customer interviews to test a problem hypothesis or a solution. Your major breakthrough will be by carefully observing the customers reactions and answers. Their input can provide unique insight for future development or for pivoting in another direction.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this read, please find below some of the links and books that inspired me in my journey for holding great customer interviews.