There’s a limit to the kinds of information you can obtain from market research and customer surveys. While those strategies can help you gain valuable insights to use in your marketing, sales and service efforts, they can’t help you learn things that you didn’t already know you needed.
Additionally, even the most open-ended survey question won’t provide you with as in-depth of a response as a conversation would — which is why customer interviews are beneficial.
“The most important reason to interview your customers is because you need a more holistic picture of who your targets are, not on a demographic level, not in terms of data, but information relating to their sentiment and approach to buying, their relationship to your company — that’s stuff you might not be able to learn about your prospects in a market research process that doesn’t include that effort,” says Senior Growth Strategist Karin Krisher.
Customer interviews help you flesh out your buyer personas with the kind of details you can only get by talking to people. When conducting them, you shouldn’t be asking about the kind of information that you can find in a database.
“The main goal is to gain clarity on the emotional experience your users have as they engage with your brand through the purchasing process and with your product long-term,” Karin says.
Customer interviews can help you understand the emotional impetus for purchasing and learn about the emotional experience your users have as they engage with your product. You can also conduct customer interviews for more specific purposes like testing product messaging and making improvements to your product or servicing system.
Tips for Conducting Customer Interviews
Have context about the engagement
Just as a sales rep needs lead intelligence in order to have a productive call with a prospect, you need information about a customer’s experience before you can interview them.
“You need to be aware of any past information they provided you with,” Karin says. “If you’re not and you start to talk to them about the wrong thing, that’s incredibly alienating. It feels like they’re not known. It feels like you haven’t been listening to them.”
Look at a customer’s usage patterns, any feedback they’ve previously submitted and background information about their role and company so you can tailor your conversation around their experience.
Study the customer interviews your company has done previously
“Take a look at anything that has been done in the past. What has been successful and unsuccessful? What was done with that information? Were there any contentious interviews or things that negatively impacted customer experience in an unexpected way?” Karin says.
You don’t want to repeat past mistakes. Additionally, by studying what worked well before, you can increase your likelihood of getting everything you need from your customer interviews.
Have a set goal, but don’t let it be restrictive
You need to have a clear reason for interviewing customers and a plan for what to do with the information you gain — otherwise, you shouldn’t be taking up your customers’ time. However, you also don’t know what you don’t know and need to account for that.
“Going into the interview, you should have a good sense of the goal of the interview, but don’t allow that to limit the conversation. The point is that you’re going to learn what you can’t see,” Karin says. “Make sure your question structure is productive in that it both tracks toward your goal for the effort and leaves plenty of space.”
Sometimes the more open-ended questions that allow your customers to freely speak about their experiences and perspectives are what will provide you the most valuable feedback, even if that information isn’t what you set out to learn.
Match your communication style to your customer’s
The best interview style will depend on the individual customer and interviewer and how the two communicate.
“Sometimes you might get somebody who when you ask them one question they talk for 20 minutes. Or, sometimes you might get somebody who has a straightforward answer and needs you to have the next question on deck,” Karin says.
So, it’s important to be flexible. Be prepared with a set of questions so that you can run a structured Q&A if needed. But, also be prepared to let your customer take the reins and just guide the topics they speak on.
Conduct interviews in cohorts
While you don’t necessarily need to interview multiple customers together at the same time, you should speak to a variety of clients over the course of your interview process to ensure you get multiple perspectives.
“Each person who you interview might fit in with another or not depending on the segments that you use within your business. Starting from there and organizing in a cohort type of fashion will help you operationalize the information you gain,” Karin says.
Selecting interviewees should ultimately come down to who has the information you need. But grouping by persona or job function to help you organize your learnings and speaking to multiple customers with similar backgrounds and experiences will prevent you from overly generalizing based on a minority opinion.
Provide some preparation resources
When it’s time for you to interview your customer, you don’t want their responses to be overly practiced, but you do want them to be able to communicate clearly in a way that they’re comfortable with.
“My recommended best practice is to provide guiding questions that allow them to understand the purpose and what the conversation might revolve around, but keep some open-endedness,” Karin says.
So, in advance send them some sample questions and a list of topics you plan to discuss, but make it clear that you plan to have a conversation and things may change as you respond to their answers.
Record the interview
When you’re so caught up taking notes that you can’t engage with a customer as they’re speaking to you, it creates a poor experience for you both. This can lead to them providing less elaborate feedback.
To prevent that from happening, record your interview so that you can focus your attention on your customer and what they’re telling you.
Make sure to inform them that they’re being recorded at the start of the interview, but then try to place your microphone or camera in an unobtrusive place so it doesn’t become a distraction.
Show your appreciation for your customers’ participation
Your customers are doing you a favor by taking the time to speak with you and provide feedback; make sure you acknowledge that.
At the very least, you need to follow up with a thank you message, but if possible, you should send a gift to show you appreciate their assistance.
“I think that [interviewing customers] is especially important at certain phases of your company’s and product’s growth,” Karin says. “Once you reach a certain level of product-market fit and recurring demand, I think you can be more comfortable with broader survey types. If you are launching a new product, entering a new market or if something major changes about the way you deliver, you may want to dig deeper with something like a customer interview.”
In short, customer interviews are especially valuable at any phase where you’re trying to gain footing and don’t have an understanding of how people feel about your company and/or solution based on their implicit behaviors.
Interviews enable you to gain a qualitative and emotion-informed perspective of your customers’ experience, which enables you to better serve their needs.
To make the most of your customer interviews, make sure you have a clear goal and that you stay flexible enough to pivot when customers provide you with insights you didn’t think to ask for. Additionally, make sure you have a plan to take action based on what you’ve learned. That’s you’ll see the true benefits of conducting customer interviews.
Quinn is a writer and copyeditor whose work ranges from journalism to travel writing to inbound marketing content.