How to conduct effective customer interviews

How to Conduct Effective Customer Interviews

“Talk to your customers!”

You hear and see this advice from every B2B marketing influencer out there.

This is great advice–we firmly agree with it. But the question is, how?

  • How do you convince your customers to spend this time with you?
  • How do you get the right type of information out of them?
  • How do you make sure that what they’re telling you is the truth?

The answers to these questions will differ based on whether you’re a marketer working at a new startup without confirmed product-market fit, or a marketer at a more established company (or later stage startup).

Some things will apply across the board, but in this article we’ll focus on the latter: the more established company or later-stage startup.

How do you convince customers to spend their precious time with you?

Talking to your customers is important both at the beginning of a strategy project (e.g. when you are building your content strategy) and on a continuous basis, to keep your finger on the pulse.

But their time is limited and valuable. Plus they are already paying you!

So how do you convince them to spend some of their most precious asset—their time—with you?

First things first: A lesson I learned from our sales coach, Mickeli Bedore, your request is likely the least important thing on their to-do list. This is just as true for a customer interview request as it is for a sales meeting request. Having this frame of mind is helpful when doing your outreach.

So with that, here are some tips to getting your customers to talk to you:

1.) Start with some “friendlies”

Who are your most vocal advocates? Who are the customers that always attend your summits? Who are the customers that are most engaged with your social media content?

These people are most likely to be willing to give you their opinions and spend 30 minutes with you.

PRO TIP: you may not be the best person to do the outreach for this. Oftentimes your customer success team or sales team will have the best relationship with these customers. Use that to your advantage. Have the right person do the outreach, but make it easy for them – they have other things to do.

Identify the exact people you want to reach out to (along with their contact info) and write the outreach email as well. This way all this person needs to do is copy/paste, tweak a bit of the language to personalize it, and hit send.

2.) Use your internal “power brokers”

Continuing the thread of the pro tip above, for some customers, the request will hold more weight if it comes from someone on your executive leadership team. It’s one thing if the Director of Demand Generation – who they likely have never met and never heard of – reaches out, and a completely other thing if the CEO, CRO, or VP of Customer Success reaches out.

Again, these people are busy, so the pro tip above very much applies here. On a recent podcast we recorded with Andrei Zinkevich, he made a great recommendation to actually have someone on the executive leadership team actually record a personalized (for each individual) video.

PRO TIP: Unless the “power broker” you are using is the CMO, you will likely want to clearly explain to them why you are coming to them with this request and why they should dedicate their time to it. Focus on what impact this information will have on marketing performance.

3.) Add value first, before you ask

Sure your product/service provides value to them already, but they are paying for that. If you have a podcast, maybe invite them on, to share their expertise and give them exposure. Consider whether you can create some co-marketing content, or maybe offer a guest blog post.

If none of those make sense or are an option, then consider engaging with them on LinkedIn or the social platform of their choice. Find posts to add valuable comments to. Re-share positions they are hiring for, etc.

Make your ask after you have added some value to them directly.

4.) Show what’s in it for them

This might sound obvious, but I will say it anyway for the people in the back, talk about them, not you. Rather than saying “hey, could we connect for 30 minutes so that I can understand how and why you came to the decision to buy our product?” consider reframing it like “We are embarking on improving our product and customer experience further, and your opinion is extremely important. We want to understand how we can help make your experience with us better.”

5.) Sweeten the deal with incentives

Incentives make the world go around. While there are both negative and positive incentives, in this case you should probably focus on the positive ones. This can be something as simple as offering to buy them lunch or an Amazon gift card. Or you can get a little more creative by offering to donate to the charity of their choice. We are actually about to start using this awesome new platform, GoGive, to incentivize our clients to respond to our quarterly satisfaction surveys.

How do you get your customers to tell you the truth?

So you have your customer interviews scheduled. Good work!

Now for the hard part – getting valuable information from them. This might sound easy. Just ask them why they chose your product and what they like about working with you. But the reality is that people are notoriously bad at telling you what they actually think, feel, or need. You need to lead them to those insights by asking the right questions.

The main thing to remember is that rather than asking customers what they think, feel or want, you should ask questions that get them to show you the proof of feeling or action. If this sounds familiar, it is because that is the main concept that Rob Fitzpatrick describes in his book, The Mom Test.

For example, rather than asking a question like “how big of a problem was XYZ for you before you started using our platform?” reframe the question to “what other solutions to XYZ problem did you try or research before using our platform?” If they didn’t spend any time researching the problem and/or if they haven’t tried any other solutions prior, then your product likely isn’t going to be sticky, no matter what they would have answered to the initial version of this question.

That said, you also need to have some good follow-up questions to really get to the root cause. For example, if we take the example above, and they tell you that they haven’t researched or tried other solutions, you could ask one or all of the following questions:

  • Was someone else on your team responsible for doing the research?
  • Did someone on the leadership team flag XYZ as an issue?

There is a chance you are talking to the wrong person!

While there is no finite list of questions, here are some of the questions we have used to glean the most valuable information from customer interviews:

  • Have you researched this problem before? How?
  • Have you tried other solutions before? What did you like about them? Why did they ultimately not solve the problem?
  • If your budget got cut and you could no longer afford this, what would you do instead?
  • What does your ideal work day look like? Has this ever happened? When? How?
  • What does your worst case scenario work day look like? Has this ever happened? When? How?
  • Who else was involved in making this decision? What did they bring to the table? Was it helpful?
  • What keeps you up at night. Why? What do you do about this problem?

PRO TIP: Make sure you transcribe your interviews, as this makes them much easier for your copywriters and content developers to reference, and much easier to pull quotes from. We transcribe all our customer interviews with Descript, and then export the transcript with timestamps.

Now go talk to some customers already!