Improve your Customer Interview Technique

Ask better questions… and get better answers

Customer Interview is a super powerful practice to reveal innovation opportunities but it can easily become misleading when not properly practiced. Best case, a wrong question is a waste of time. Worse case, it will drive to making wrong decisions.

Helping Product Owners, Business Developers and Marketers to develop their interview skills, I found some useful tips that will help non expert practitioners to frame their interview and avoid majors traps.

Forget numbers and seek anecdotes

We don’t believe enough in the value of anecdotes and we find comfort in general rules with a sense of statistical relevance.

“Managers feel an understandable sense of reassurance when they shift their attention from the hazy contours of a story of struggle to the crisp precision of a spreadsheet.” C. M. Christensen, Competing Against Luck

The problem is, by asking general questions you get vague answers and eventually miss the right problem to be solved.

TIPDon’t ask your customer what they “usually do” but what they “actually did” in a specific context. You often find the following pattern:

  • Customer: “Usually, I do…”
  • Interviewer: “Ok, let’s talk about last time, what have you done?”
  • Customer: “Well no, last time it was different because…”

There is so much more to learn from a single truth than a general approximation. Seek anecdotes, details and surprises. This is where the disruptive ideas will emerge from.

Target a story and deep dive in

The causality is as much important as the occurence itself, including its emotional and social layers. So it is critical to learn about both what people did and the reason why they did it.

To reveal the connections between occurrences and its causalities, start with targeting a story the customer recently experienced (no more than 3 months ago). “Tell me about the last time you…” can be a good targeting question. Once you’ve localised an interesting story, patiently unfold it, piecing together clues and observations, detail by detail, event by event. It has to feel like a strange and uncommon type of discussion. The difference will come from your capacity to uncover insights and needs your customer cannot naturally express. For those interested in more details and examples, the “Jobs to Be Done” framework is a infinite source of inspiration.

TIP: To keep the conversation focused, draw a time line on a piece of paper and use it as a visual reference for the conversation“Ok, you did this action here on the line, now what happened here, right after?” This will help visualising the story and maintain the discussion around it.

Qualitative insights are about facts, not imagination, synthesis, or generalities. So by all means, get your interview focused on real events connected within a recent story. Then meticulously unfold occurrences and causalities by digging, digging and digging — this has to feel weird.

A fine grained understanding of your customer reality is the key to reveal unmet needs and inspire new services. And remember the magic is in the details.

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