How to interview customers

How to Interview Customer — field guide

To build a business, you need to clearly understand who you can create value for -your customers- and what job are these customers trying to get done.

One way to answer these seminal questions is to actually interview potential customers and enquire about the problems they have. It seems easy to do, but it is difficult to do well.

A map to structure what you are learning

When interviewing customers, my main objective is to explore their own specific behaviors and resolution mechanisms. How do they solve problems on their own? On this exploration, I have a map: the customer interview sheet. It helps structure the feedback and ensures that I am covering the key areas to research so I don’t walk out of an interview with unanswered questions.

This customer interview sheet is structured in 3 parts: questions you ask yourself before the interview, questions you ask during the interview to guide the conversation towards specific learning points and the conclusions you need to draw after the interview.

Before the interview

Before running the interview you need to have clarity on what you want to learn. This makes the interview process easier, allowing you to refocus the interview when it goes off-topic.

  • Target Customer

Who is my target customer?

Define the type of customer you want to talk to. It is a reminder of the criteria you are looking for in your target customers. If the person you’re meeting does not match your specifications, you should move on. Where to find them? Think about their habits and their daily journey, and identify where are you more likely to find them.

  • Problem/Need

Which of their problems/needs am I setting out to solve?

You are assuming that your customers are encountering problems that are irritating enough for them to seek solutions (ideally your solution). List those problems here.

During the interview

In each interview, I keep an eye on the sheet thread to make sure I steer the conversation towards my learning goals. Below, for each frame of the sheet, I added the questions I usually use to get valuable customer insights.

  • Customer info

Who is this person I am talking to? What are some of the facts that define her/him?

Try to gather as much relevant data as you can. Sometimes, you won’t have all the details but you will be able to estimate an approximate age for example. Bit by bit, you will collect valuable information and write them down in this frame.

  • Customer stories

What problems do you encounter regarding this situation? When was the last time you had this problem? Can you tell me how it happened?

The best way to understand customer behavior is to ask for stories. Stories force the customer to recall their precise actions around the event. By drilling down with questions, you can understand their motivation and why they make the choices they make.

From their stories, you can decipher their perspective on the problem and assess the energy and efforts that the customer is putting into solving that problem.

Stories will reveal bigger and unsuspected problems encountered by your customers.

  • Existing solutions

How are you solving this problem? Is it effective?

This question allows you to understand who you are competing against. You will be surprised. If your customer is not using a solution to solve that problem, then maybe the problem you are after is not that important to them. Once you know what solution is being implemented, you can start improving on it.

You can also learn how your customers are looking for solutions, this will provide insights on their journey and inform you about potential marketing channels.

  • Pains with existing solutions

How is this solution working out for you?

Ask for the story to learn about the things that seem complicated, frustrating, or unpleasant. Again, assess how much of a problem this is for your customer. Is this something they are actively trying to solve? Or are they happy to live with those frictions?

After the interview

  • Key Takeaways

What were the most important things you learned?

Share your learnings with your team, and reflect on the 3 most important learnings. Is there a bigger problem the customer is trying to solve? What don’t they like about the solutions they are using?

  • Problem Importance

How important is this problem for this customer?

You need to understand if this is worth solving. Again you assess this based on the story they told you and their perspective on the problem. Is this person aware of having the problem? Is he/she paying for a solution?

  • Problem Frequency

How often does the customer have this problem or need?

This quantifies how often your solution could bring value. If the problem is not happening very often, then your solution might not be used a lot.

  • Early Adopter

Now here comes the hard question. Is this customer an early adopter?

Is this person actively looking for a solution? If not, this customer is unlikely to be the first person to jump on your solution.

So what?

Listen actively, read between the lines and try to dig deeper. Get into the mind of your customers, understand them as much as possible. If you feel stuck at some point, it’s ok. Regroup your thoughts, broaden your perspective, look at your sheet and see what information you are missing.

Get the Customer Interview Sheet

If you want to learn more about how to think and move like a startup, contact me on Tango.