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10 tips for effective customer interviews

I’d like to share a few tips for making customer interviews effective. Why is this important? Because delivering a great customer experience starts with insightful understanding of customer needs and the customer’s point of view.

We call it listening for the Voice of the Customer (VoC) which is the process of understanding the customer’s expectations and validating the outcomes of your product through customer feedback. Instead of looking at customers through a lens that too often relies only upon analytics, business metrics, and secondary research, listening to the voice of the customer allows you to interact with customers directly, observe their interactions, and collect feedback. By connecting directly with your customers, you can better understand how they view and value your products, discover deeper motivations and expectations for customer behavior, and finally validate if you are delivering on your promise.

Empathy interviews with customers

I’m not advocating for a dismissal of analytics and secondary research. These tools offer important insights and allow for quantitative analysis of the performance of the product in the marketplace. What these tools often fail to provide is a qualitative look into the needs and motivations of users. They can track and visualize WHAT a user is doing with your product but offer little insight into the WHY. Understanding why users behave a certain way and make certain product decisions is important to design a product or service that satisfies their needs and aspirations.
You can listen to the Voice of the Customer through a variety of activities including direct observations and interviews, and indirect feedback such as comments in social networks and ratings of products that customers provide at their own leisure.

Empathy interviews

I find empathy interviews one of the most effective ways to connect with end-users and customers and understand their needs and problems-to-solve. Great empathy interviews help you understand the WHY of your customers.

Here are my top 10 tips on how to conduct empathy interviews:

1. Don’t lead with your solution or idea

Many things can go wrong in an interview. One of the biggest problems I often see is asking for feedback on your idea or solution too early. This is no longer an empathy interview as it shifts the focus away from your customer’s needs and instead focuses on validation of your idea. Who says that your idea is the right one?

Instead, focus your interview on the WHY: what needs and problems are they experiencing, and why are these needs and problems important for them. Learn as much as possible about these, without the interference of your idea or possible solution. This will open up opportunities to learn more and possibly come up with a new idea – maybe one that is better than the initial one you had in mind.

If you really want to get feedback on a specific idea or solution, then I suggest the following: split the interview in two parts. The first part is entirely focused on the needs and problems (the why). In the second half of the interview, you can introduce your idea and ask for feedback. For example, you could say “To address some of the problems you mentioned earlier, I was thinking that a possible solution could be XYZ. What are your thoughts on this?”

2. Conduct interviews in person

With today’s technology, we can perform remote interviews using Zoom, Whatsapp, and other applications. While this is possible, completing them in person is always the preferred format. Not only do you get a better sense of your interviewee’s body language and other visual cues, but you may also be able to observe the customer in their context. If you are doing interviews remotely, make sure you can do these with video, so at least you can see the other person and react to any expressions that you may notice.

3. Pair up with an observer/note-taker

Conducting the interview, coming up with questions, keeping focus on the interviewee, and trying to remember everything that was said are arduous tasks, and almost impossible for mere mortals to perform effectively.

It’s best to pair up with an observer and note-taker. This person’s responsibility is not to ask questions, but rather to observe the body language and other visual clues of the interviewee, and jot down everything that is said, observed, perceived.

Having this helper with you allows you to dedicate your energy to the interview itself and avoid the challenge of taking notes while speaking or remembering everything that was said.

4. Ask powerful questions

Powerful questions open the space for discovery and for learning from your customers. A great way to frame powerful questions is to ask ”What?” or “How?” questions. These are probably the most important questions you should ask because they elicit stories from your interviewees and allow them to expand on their answers, rather than give you a straight “yes/no” answer.

For example: “You mentioned XYZ. What makes it significant for you?”

Sometimes asking a “Why?” question may help too. However, “Why?” questions may be perceived as judgmental by the other person, and they may cause the interviewee to react and become closed-off, rather than share more. So, asking a “Why?” question may be fine, but make sure you do it without sounding as if you are questioning the customer’s judgment. However, “What?” and “How?” questions avoid the judgment pitfalls, so they are typically safer questions to ask.

Often, it’s not what a customer says, does, or feels that matters, but why they do what they do that is important. Asking powerful questions that let the customer open up and share stories, my lead to real insights.

Here are some sample questions you may incorporate into your interview prep: “You mentioned XYZ, what makes it important for you?”, “When this happens, how do you feel?”, “Why solving that problem would be important for you?”, or “Tell me about a time when you experienced this problem and what made it significant for you.”

5. Ask open-ended questions

Always use open-ended questions. The goal is to learn about your customer and explore as much as possible. You don’t want to restrain your learning opportunities by asking narrow questions.
Instead of asking “Would you prefer it in blue or red?”, ask instead “What color would you prefer?”

Open-ended questions lead to a broader variety of answers.

6. Silence is powerful

Use silence to your advantage. When the interviewee has completed their answer and you feel you’d like to learn more, wait a few seconds. Often, they’ll feel the pressure to fill the silence and will tell you more.

7. Ask your interviewee to sketch a solution

At times it may be useful to tap into your interviewee’s creative juices and visualize what they are thinking. You can ask your customers to take a blank piece of paper and draw their ideal solution. This often leads to interesting insights as they may not be able to express in words what they can draw.

When doing this, set some safe space. You are not looking for the perfect solution, but just for some rough idea of how your customer sees it. Not everyone is a gifted artist, but they don’t need to be. You are not looking for the next Picasso, but rather for a sketch that triggers ideas.

8. Bring a prototype

If you are at a stage where you have a rough idea of your solution, show a prototype and ask for feedback. The prototype can be anything from a sketch on a napkin to a hi-res app running on your phone. The goal is to validate with your customer whether you are on the right track, and learn if there are any changes you need to make.

Remember what we discussed earlier: if you decide to show a prototype, it’s better to wait until the second half of the interview to do so because a prototype can focus the interview too narrowly on your idea, rather than encouraging open exploration.

9. Take a photo

With their permission, take a photo of the interviewee. Save this photo along with the notes you have taken. This will help you remember the person behind those notes which reminds you of the human needs that are driving your product. Depending on the situation (or your Legal department’s advice) you may need to obtain a signed release for photos/video recordings.

10. Bring your development team along

Development teams build the products but rarely interact with the end users. Empathy interviews and observations are great opportunities to provide your development team direct exposure to the customers and their context.

Bring your developers with you when doing customer interviews. This is a powerful experience for your team members because they can more deeply understand the human needs they are working to solve, and it creates a deeper bond within the team. In addition, by having a deeper understanding of the problems you are trying to solve, the development team can offer new ideas and improvements that would not otherwise be available.

You don’t have to bring everyone on your team at once. Bring one or two team members with you and then rotate. Over time, everyone will have an opportunity to interact with your customers and get deeper insights on their needs. And, they can be excellent observers/note-takers too 🙂

Worksheets for customer interviews

We have prepared a set of worksheets to help you with customer interviews. These include:

Empathy interviews / Voice of the Customer

User Persona

These worksheets are available for download. Print and carry them along at your next interview session.