Follow These 16 Customer Interview Best Practices to Get the Answers You Need
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Conducting customer interviews is one of the best ways to do market research for improving your business. Just think of all the things your company can strategically do with rich data and insights that come from your customers themselves.
You can write better copy that is informed by real pain points your buyers themselves mention.
You can brainstorm and launch products that cater to their very specific problems and be the best solution for them.
Or you might take your existing product and make important improvements that make casual users into loyal fans for life — all because you took the time out to understand their needs through in-depth interviews.
However, conducting customer interviews is easier said than done. While the benefits of this tactic for growing a business that customers love cannot be overstated, there are some problems that may come along the way.
For instance, if a customer interview is structured poorly, you may end up with answers that fluff up your company ego — “feel-good” answers you wanted to hear instead of what you needed to hear.
Another issue that may arise is customers don’t feel comfortable answering some questions. They may dodge questions or waffle in an attempt to seem less confrontational. They may even tell a white lie if they think that that’s what the interviewer wants to hear.
So how do you navigate the customer interview process in a way that gets you the best answers that benefit your customer and, in turn, your business?
We’ve got you covered. Read on for our 16 best practices for preparing and conducting great customer interviews every time.
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Customer Interview Best Practices to Get the Answers You Need
1. Be Clear on Your Customer Interview Goal
First thing’s first: why are you conducting customer interviews in the first place? Your goal for your customer interview will dictate the rest of your planning process, as you’ll see in the next few sections.
Is your goal to interview customers that have a success story because of your product? Or are you trying to collect feedback about a beta version of your offer?
It may seem tempting to want to try to hit two or more birds with one stone with every customer interview, but we’d caution you against it. When you attempt to hit more than one clear goal while conducting your customer interviews, it can quickly become confusing not only for your customer but also for your marketing team.
2. Choose Your Interviewees Very Carefully
Once you’ve determined your goal for the customer interviews, it’ll be easier to identify which customers you ought to be spending time with.
For instance, if your goal was to write a case study about a happy customer who successfully leveraged your product, you’d then only focus on real success stories for your brand. You’ll want to know exactly what the minimum is to qualify as a success story. For example, business size and annual revenue, and actual measurable results that came from using your product.
The same goes for an interview with the goal of gathering data about what casual users of your product might need from you before they become lifetime fans. Instead of looking at a pool of already-fans of your product, you’d want to set some parameters. Perhaps you only interview people who’ve used your product an average of twice a week for the last three months.
Here are a few guide questions to help you pick out the best interviewees. Choose the ones that fit your goals as a basis to get started:
3. Be Willing to Offer a Juicy Incentive
After you’ve narrowed down the exact customers you want to speak to for your interviews, it’s now a matter of getting them on the phone.
This is where incentives come in. Many people might not want to carve out between 20-60 minutes in their day just to participate in an interview, so you need to give them a compelling reason to participate.
Your incentive should be something that consumers find valuable, such as gift cards or discounts to brands they like. You might even consider giving them incentives from your own brand, such as a free product or a lifetime membership.
Make sure your incentive matches the effort customers will be making for your interviews. You might be able to get away with smaller tokens of appreciation for, say, surveys, but interviews are more time-intensive for the average customer. So think of a really good reward for those who decide to participate.
4. Be Transparent on the Reason for the Interview — Not Just for Customers but Also Your Marketing Team
Data privacy and protection are big concerns — made even bigger because of the internet and cybercrimes.
When conducting customer interviews, you want to be transparent with participants about how you intend to use the data you gather from their interviews and even go the extra step and inform them about how you’re protecting their data.
Align with your team to make sure everyone knows how to handle the data you gather about customers as well as what they need to know to keep this data safe.
5. Choose Your Interview Format
When you think about conducting your customer interviews, often the first thing that comes to mind is doing one on one interviews. You can definitely glean a lot of detailed information and insights when you get to sit down with a customer one on one, and you’re able to dig deeper and ask more follow up questions.
But conducting one on one customer interviews can be time-consuming and sometimes even expensive. Depending on your resources, you might only get to interview a few customers, which might not make for the most representative pool of people you’re serving.
An alternative to only doing one on one interviews is, of course, group interviews. It answers some of the shortcomings you might have with solo interviews, like being able to interview more people in less time. But it’s not without its own challenges.
“Running a group interview or FGD requires a skilled moderator,” advises Jamie Sheldon, owner of MyUKMailbox. “You wouldn’t approach a group interview the same way you’d approach a one on one interview. Customers may be less primed to share openly when around other people, so it takes a lot of skill and effort to get the most information from each participant.”
You may choose to combine one on one interviews with group interviews or stick to one type. Either way, weigh the pros and cons of each format so you can make the best decision for your business.
6. Write Up Open Ended Questions
To prepare for your customer interviews, check to make sure all the questions you ask are open ended in nature. Beware any leading questions, and take it easy on “either-or” or multiple choice type of questions.
The reason you’ll want to double down on open ended questions is to get the most out of your interviewees. With these types of questions, you’ll hear from interviewees in their own words. They’re more likely to reveal their top of mind thoughts and answers, and they’re able to explain and justify without any outside influence.
Here are some examples of open ended questions you might ask in a customer interview:
On the other hand, avoid leading questions or using too many close ended questions, like the following:
- Why is [your product] your favorite product? This question assumes your product is your customers’ preferred or favorite. Unless you have hard proof or have heard them say this, avoid assumptions like this right off the bat.
- Was our product easy to use? Questions like this might unwittingly close an opportunity to learn about any pain points your customers have. Instead of asking if your product is easy to use, instead refer to the open-ended version: “How was your experience using our product?”
- Would you consider using our product again? A better question might be, “What would make you consider using our product again?”
- Did you like our product? This might leave too little room for gathering detailed information that will help your team in the long run. Instead, a better way to ask might be: “What are our product’s most important features for you?”
Take note that close ended questions can be helpful for things like demographic information, but use them sparingly and focus on gathering insights and thoughts with open ended questions instead.
7. Avoid Using Any Industry Jargon
During your interview, speak as your customer would. That means avoiding heavy jargon, especially if you know your customer might not understand.
As marketers, we sometimes fall into the Ivory Tower trap — you’re up there in your ivory tower that you’ve forgotten what it’s like down on the ground. Or in other words: you forget that others, especially your customers, don’t know everything you know.
Consider, for example, a marketer who might ask this question during a customer interview: “Have you been exposed to any above-the-line marketing of our brand?”
This well-meaning marketer likely wanted to gather information about how well their above-the-line marketing strategies were working. However, unless you’re speaking to fellow advertisers and marketers, your customer might not know what you mean.
A way to better phrase the question that doesn’t use heavy industry jargon might be, “Have you seen any advertisements about our brand in the last month? If yes, where?”
Using jargon might only become a point of disconnect between you and your interviewees, so double check those questions to be safe. If you can, test your questions on different employees within your company that aren’t from your marketing or sales teams to see if there’s anything that’s unclear to them.
8. Make It Easy for Them to Schedule Their Interviews
One way to make sure customers will actually want to do their interviews with you, aside from providing a sweet incentive, is making it easy for them to pick out an interview schedule.
Fortunately, in the age of online marketing, you can do all of this with the right tools. Appointment scheduling apps like Calendly or Acuity Scheduling let customers book their own interview slots that already correspond to your marketing teams’ available times.
If needed, make it just as easy to reschedule their interviews.
9. Plan Ahead for Cancellations & No Shows
Nielsen Norman Group estimates that there’s almost an 11% no show rate for interviews. The truth is, despite your best efforts, there’s no telling what will come up when dealing with customers.
To be sure you aren’t losing too much time and resources over these no shows, always schedule more people than your minimum threshold. For example, if you need 10 people for your interview, get about 12-15 on your schedule.
At best, everyone shows up, but consider that a bonus to more information and insights. At worst, a few people can’t make it, and that’s all right.
10. Follow the “3 Second” Rule
Sometimes the pause is helpful not only to avoid interruptions, but also to glean even more information. Some people take pauses as a sign to keep going, so you’ll want to cultivate that environment for open communication.
And don’t sweat it if you accidentally cut off an interviewee who had more to add. Simply apologize and ask them to keep going.
11. Practice Your Poker Face
Interviews can be nerve-racking for some people, especially if they’re being asked about their perhaps not-so positive opinions and experiences about a brand. You want to make sure that interviewees feel safe enough to say whatever’s on their minds.
To do this, how you carry yourself or react to interviewees’ answers can have a significant effect on how the rest of your interview will go.
As interviewers, we shouldn’t show that we are offended or taken aback by some of the answers that our customers give. Especially if we’re here to discover oversights and pain points people may have about our business, it’s important to keep a fair, unbiased ear. Otherwise, it can cause your interviewees to become less open in answering your questions.
12. Record Your Interview Sessions
To make sure all your attention will be on your customer during your interview, commit to recording your sessions for future review. This way, you’ll be able to listen attentively, spot any opportune moments to ask follow up questions, and you have all the assurance that you can go back to a recorded version of your interview later.
These recordings can go a long way for your marketing team to discuss and dissect as a whole. To make the inter-team processing even faster, you might want to have the interviews transcribed into text — but be sure to have these transcriptions note important body language from customers, as we’ll see in the next section.
13. Pay Attention to Their Body Language
Sometimes customers may say one thing but mean another; it’s only human nature. To really make sure you understand customers, pay attention to what they aren’t saying.
People’s gestures, posture, and eye movement may hint at things, provide additional context, or simply affirm or even negate the words they’re using.
For example, rubbing one’s neck is often considered a sign of nervousness, or sometimes even lying. A customer may say they love this or that, but the manner in which they say it might signal less enthusiasm than their words convey.
Always take body language cues in its entire context. People always have their quirks and tics, and every customer you interview will be different. Especially if you’re doing remote interviews, you may need to give some leeway for body language cues, as not everyone might be comfortable being on a recorded video.
14. Practice the Reflection Method
The reflection method for interviewers is a process of making sure you have understood all your customer’s answers. During the interview, paraphrase back their answers or repeat what they’ve said in the way you understood them.
Helpful phrases like, “So what I’m hearing you say is…” or “So am I right in understanding that…” can go a long way to clarify what customers mean. If your customer agrees with your reflection, that means you’ve understood them clearly. If not, the benefit of the reflection method is that they have the opportunity to clarify themselves or even add more contextual information.
15. Don’t Forget to Say “Thank You”
At the end of your interview, thank your customers for taking the time out of their day to sit down and speak with you. It’s at this time you might give them more information about how to claim their incentive or what to expect next.
Aside from thanking them on the interview itself, go the extra mile and send a written note expressing that thanks and any other information they need to know.
Shoot out a quick note like this:
“Hi, [name], thank you again for participating in our interview! Your participation will help our company in improving our services and serving you better. We hope you have a pleasant day ahead. Sincerely, [your name]. P.S. As promised, here is how to claim [your incentive for interviewees].”
16. Document the Entire Process
Finally, we recommend documenting your entire customer interview process. This likely won’t be the last time you need to conduct interviews for market research purposes, so it’s handy to document what went well and how things could have gone more smoothly.
Conducting customer interviews is one of the most versatile and helpful ways to help you build case studies, improve products and services, or craft better marketing campaigns. It can be a lot to navigate, but we’ve compiled this handy guide to help you get started. Be sure to keep these best practices in mind, and soon you’ll be conducting user interviews that can help you improve your business practices.
July 5, 2021