Bootstrapped startups and the shit I learn in therapy

Customer interviews are a type of customer research, and they’re especially useful when you want to gather rich, detailed insights from a small group of customers.

That makes them a great option for when you’re looking to:

  • Gather qualitative data around a specific question or problem
  • Layer qualitative data on top of more quantitative measures, such as surveys

For example, we’ve started partnering with clients to do 1:1 customer interviews during Roadmapping Sessions before we do any design or development work. These interviews help us answer specific questions around what problems clients’ customers face and what we should prioritize in an app build/update (i.e. what matters most to customers and what they’re trying to achieve).

Real-life example: Andrew Morris narrowed the scope of the GreyNoise build based on the 5 use cases he identified from users and community members.

Here’s how you can prepare for and run your customer interviews.

How to prep for customer interviews

A great interview depends on great prep work. Before you sit down with a customer you want to do three things:

  1. Set goals
  2. Qualify participants
  3. Come up with questions

Here’s how to do each one.

Determine your goals

Your goals direct your research (aka your interviews), so make sure they’re clear and specific.

For example, let’s say you provide a subscription service or software. You’re not happy with your churn rates — the rate at which customers stop doing business with you — and you want to understand what’s happening there.

  • “Why are customers churning?” is headed in the right direction, but it’s a bit too vague to help you.
  • Something like, “What factors influenced customer churn in the last two months?” is better. Not only is it a more specific question, but it also narrows down exactly who should talk with — customers who churned in the last 60 days.

Here’s how Consumer Psychologist Hannah Shamji explains it:

You may have one goal or several. Either is fine. The important thing is you determine what the end goal of interviewing is — why does it matter and/or what are you trying to solve?

Qualify your participants

Not every human out there will help you reach your interview goals.

Take the example goal above: “what factors influenced customer churn in the last two months?” Who’s more likely to provide meaningful insights here: a customer who churned last week or someone you run into at Starbucks?

Yupp, the customer who churned last week.

The folks you interview should be the ones best qualified to help you collect insights around your goals. Interviewing too broadly (even within your customer base) will only dilute your research and leave you scratching your head over conflicting responses.

Come up with questions

Think of your interview questions as the bumper guards in a bowling alley. You want to come up with a list of good, non-leading (more on that later) questions that keep you in your lane and rolling toward your goal.

Tips for formulating questions

The exact questions you ask depend on what the goals of your interview are. But generally speaking, you’ll want to dive into:

  • Customer’s context: What does their day-to-day look like? What is their role, and how do they define success in that role? How did they decide to use this product? What else did they consider? Remember, products don’t exist in a vacuum and we don’t make decisions in a vacuum either. So, gather that context!
  • Customer’s experience: What has it been like for them to use a product or take a certain action? What emotions have they felt along the way? How does their experience compare with their expectations?
  • Stories and emotion: Some of the most useful information you can draw from interviews are the customer’s stories. Their highs, lows, and emotional journey. These reveal context and experience and are rich with other takeaways, too. Draw out stories wherever you can.

Again, the questions you craft beforehand are less like a strict formula and more like guard rails. You’ll go off-script from your question list in the interview, and experienced interviewers highly encourage that.

A word of caution on leading questions

One type of question you want to avoid in interviews is leading questions.

Leading questions force the interviewee toward a specific outcome or include an assumption. They’re questions where you lead the other person toward an answer instead of letting them lead you to their experience.

That sounds simple enough, but the tough thing about leading questions is we don’t always realize we’re asking them.

Either/or questions are, for example, a type of leading question. They assume only one of two outcomes are possible, and that is rarely the case.

Another type of leading question I once asked was, “what did you find enjoyable about this product?” The woman on the line paused and said, “well...I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it.” Oops. My question was leading because it assumed the customer enjoyed the product. A much better interview question would have been something like, “What’s it been like to use this product so far?”

How to run the interviews

Once you’ve set goals, qualified participants, and formulated questions, you’re ready to run the interview. Here are a few things you’ll want to do and a few things you’ll want to avoid.

Things you DO want to do

  • Put them at ease: This isn’t an interrogation; it’s a conversation. So, introduce yourself, why you’re doing the interview, and reassure them how their feedback will be used. Also, remind them you’re here to learn about their experience and there are no right or wrong answers.
  • Break the ice: Ask an easy, approachable question about the interviewee. For example, what is their role?
  • Record*: Ask permission to record and, if the other person grants that permission, DO NOT FORGET to mash the record button. There are few things more discouraging than wrapping up an insightful interview...only to realize you didn’t record.
  • Take minimal notes: Jot down words or phrases you want to follow up on, but don’t get caught up in extensive note-taking. The whole point of recording is to take that burden off your shoulders. Besides, if you’re focused on taking notes, you’re not focused on listening and asking good follow-up questions. Here’s how Bob Moesta, one of the co-inventors of a popular Jobs-To-Be-Done research framework, takes his notes. He only writes down words he wants to ask more about.         
  • Get specific: Get specific in the questions you ask and the information you follow up on. For example, let’s say you ask, “What does your day-to-day role look like?” and they vaguely respond, “Oh, you know, various marketing activities and meetings.” A good way to get specific here is to ask, “What marketing activities did you do today/this week?” That answer should be far more useful than the first.
  • Ask good follow-up questions: When you hear opinions, ideas, and emotions, those are all opportunities to dig deeper. A good way to do that is follow-up questions. Try these out: “Why is that?”; “And why do you care about/need/want that?”; “What else was going on?”; “Can you tell me more about that?” Here’s one example of how this can look, via User Interviews.               

  • Listen more than you talk: Adrienne Barnes, founder of Better Buyer Persona, keeps “Record! Listen! Shut up! Why?” taped to her desktop screen. She says, “I know if I get those things right the interview won't bomb.” After countless interviews, Adrienne knows the primary role of the interviewer is to ask good questions and then get out of the way for the other person to respond. You should never talk more than you listen in an interview.
  • Ask if you can reach back out: If the interview was particularly helpful, you may want to ask permission to follow-up with the person if you have any additional questions.

*Recording is ideal, but some folks just aren’t going to be down for this. When you can’t record, you have two options: (1) have someone else on the call who can take notes for you, so you don’t have to. Or, (2) do your best to record key quotes verbatim — getting the customer’s words down helps combat biases that creep in when you only write down your interpretation of their words.

Things you DON’T want to do

You’ll also want to keep in mind a few things you don’t want to do in customer interviews. For example, try not to:

  • Talk about your idea(s): Again, the point of the interview isn’t for you to pitch something — it’s for you to learn about the other person’s experience. You won’t do that if you’re talking about an idea, feature, or improvement you have in mind.
  • Gather opinions about the future: Humans are terrible at predicting what they’ll do in the future. You, me, them...we’re all bad at it. This means data you gather around future behavior is shaky at best (and garbage on an average day). So, stick to the realm of what they have done and are doing. Stay out of the realm of what they might do.
  • Ask leading questions: This one bears repeating. Steer clear of questions that limit the interviewee’s response options or assume any specific outcome. Keep the doors wide open for them to share their experience, whatever that experience may be.
  • Ask yes/no questions: You want to gather the customer’s story, and a yes/no response won’t tell you much about their experience.

Will you avoid all of these every time you interview? Of course not. Interviewing is a learned skill and that means you’ll make mistakes along the way. That’s normal. Do your best to avoid these, learn from them when they happen, and don’t let a slip-up stop you from doing another interview.

What to do right after the interview

Whew. You’ve done it — you’ve interviewed a customer. Now what? The steps you take immediately after an interview are largely admin.

Is that exciting? No.

Is it a tremendously helpful practice? Absolutely.

While your exact steps will depend on how you organize your research and what you do with it, you’ll probably want to at least:

  • Send off the recording for transcribing: otterRev (check out the rough draft option for 25 cents/minute), and similar tools are great options for generating transcriptions.
  • Upload notes/records to a shared file: Keep a shared folder of interview notes/transcriptions somewhere accessible — Drive, Dropbox, Airtable, Notion, whatever you regularly use.
  • Share key learnings with your team: All customer research, including interviews, is most powerful when it’s shared. So, share your findings in a meeting, a designated Slack channel, or however else makes sense for your team.
  • Update your beliefs or plans: Sometimes an interview will shatter a belief you held or plans you’ve made (that’s a good thing! Better to know now vs. later). If this happens, go ahead and update where you’re headed.

What comes after that?

Schedule your interviews and follow the tips above.

Then, read up on what you can do with the data you collect and how to get past common roadblocks — we’ve put together some actionable tips on this in the second half of this blog post.

In that same post, we also mention additional resources for customer interviews if you want to dive deeper. Here they are again:

Free resources

Paid (but worth it) resources

  • The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick (book)
  • Clarity Call Cheatsheets by Customer Camp (templates that take you from choosing who to interview to making sense of the interviews; I own these and they’re excellent)
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