By this point, most PMs know that the key to growth is a deep understanding of your target customers. Simply relying on internal ideas is not enough, nor is it enough to just look at google analytics and product usage data. You actually have to talk to the market.
But even if you are convinced to regularly interview customers to get the voice of the market, of the big blockers I have seen is simply HOW to go about it. How do you land customer interviews? What do you say during the customer interview?
CUSTOMER INTERVIEWS: A CRITICAL BUT RARE SKILL
Talking to customers to uncover unmet needs is one of the most exciting parts about the PM job. It's being a detective! Identifying your target audience, hunting them down for a meeting, and, once there, asking them the right questions to get to the root of what they really care about.
Ironically, a lot of PMs I know are bad at needs discovery. They either find it too uncomfortable to hunt down prospects to have a meeting, or once they're on the call they are too rigid in following a script, defensive about their product, or just order-taking what the customer tells them instead of truly understanding the need.
There are also lots of PMs that simply aren't motivated to do customer interviews. These are the "tech guru" type of PM who would rather spend time working with developers and evangelizing the product.
This article is a step-by-step guide to landing, planning and executing voice-of-the-customer interviews in a way that directly connects with product-market fit and growth, and hopefully takes the stress out of it and makes it fun!
DON'T JUST TALK TO EXISTING CUSTOMERS. THERE'S A WHOLE WORLD OUT THERE.
To get a real view of the market and how to shape your product and marketing strategy, just talking to existing customers is not enough. Pragmatic Marketing urges you to schedule interviews with 3 different types of people:
Companies that undertake customer interviews usually only talk to current customers, have sales-only conversations with active prospects, and often miss the "people who have never heard of you" group altogether. But what a narrow perspective you would be getting if you only talked to current customers! Companies need regular insights from all these sources to get a complete picture of product/market fit.
HOW DO YOU LAND CUSTOMER MEETINGS?
First, recognize that talking to customers comes in many shapes and forms. A dedicated 30-60min meeting is best, where you sit down (without sales in the room) and talk about problems, needs, and the market. But talking at a trade show booth, having a short phone call, even getting reactions to the literal "elevator pitch" in an elevator can count.
To land proper "customer interviews", it depends on who you are talking to. Existing paying customers you will typically have to get sales or executive approval to schedule a meeting, and explain the purpose and value of the meeting. The key is to schedule a real 1-on-1 interview, not a demo or a sales pitch.
To land interviews with the other important groups, prospects and people who have never heard of you, you could:
To PMs, cold calling and networking is not always natural or comfortable. But simply waiting for sales and marketing to schedule meetings for you is not going to be enough. Sales and marketing are busy with their own incredibly challenging work, and taking time away from that to find you prospects to interview is not going to be a priority. So, while it can feel uncomfortable, my experience is that product leaders need to do their own personal networking, cold calling and going to conferences to get the intel they need.
EXAMPLE COLD OUTREACH E-MAIL EXCHANGE:
If you are doing cold outreach to build your network and land meetings, the key is to be genuine human being. Don't use business jargon, don't try to promote a new product. I cringe when I see SDRs spy on a person's social profile and then tailor a message to their personal interests. "Hi John! I saw from digging into your old Facebook photos that you really like Star Wars. Buy my product and may the force be with you!" Ugh. People are willing to help when they realize you are a real person just looking for help.
It also helps when you're specific about what you want to talk about so in this case I wrote down a few things about the product concept we had in mind, although in the actual meeting we spoke much less about my product and much more about general problems, needs, the market, etc. Also indicate why you are contacting this person, what it is about their role or expertise that makes them a unique fit.
Here's a real-world example of a cold outreach I made over LinkedIn to someone local to me that I had never met:
Hi John, my name is Didier Thizy, I lead Stellex Group, a consultancy that helps companies run new business initiatives, lately in government, banks and other large enterprise. I'm writing you to see if you'd be open to an informal introduction, perhaps via phone or over coffee. I did a scan of Chief Data Officers local to me and saw that you are one of only a few.
Response from John the next day:
Hi Didier, thanks for reaching out. I’m open to talk.
Finally, it's good to approach networking not as a way of getting a one-off meeting, but that you are actually building a network of people that you will stay in touch with over time. There is a lot of value in networking and being connected over the long-term, for you and the other party.
Even following these common sense best practices, expect to only get 5-10% responding to you. People are busy, not everyone is interested to talk to you, that's just life. So, if you want 10 good meetings with strangers you haven't met before, expect that you'll have to reach out to at least 100 and be ok with the majority not responding. Contacting people who are local to you, or getting referred by a friend or colleague, of course increases the chances that the person will agree to meet you.
YOU'VE LANDED SOME INTERVIEWS, NOW LET'S MAKE THEM A SUCCESS!
But wait! Your executives might stop you and say:
Why bother to do interviews? If we ask customers what they want, they will tell us that they want a faster horse.
This is a common excuse for not doing customer interviews. And they're right, sort of.
You shouldn't be asking customers what they want, you should be surfacing what problems they have.
The goal of doing customer interviews is not to "get feedback". This is too vague, and also sets you up for faster horse syndrome. Instead, you are looking for patterns of problems that are:
It amazes me how sometimes businesses lose sight of being problem solvers and start to get lost in a "if you build it, customers will come" mentality. But when is the last time you personally paid money for something that didn't actually solve your problem or provide you a high degree of value? The customer has a problem, and then your team of experts defines and develops the solution. Marketers have known this for decades, but silicon valley CEOs continually rediscover this insight again and again. Check out How to Find Product-Market Fit by the CEO of Weebly who sold for $350M+. His core insight? Identify very precise customers problems and solve them better than anyone else. And PM evangelist Steve Johnson has popularized the idea of product leaders as Problem Managers.
Businesses in particular won't pay for something unless it the problem is urgent and they can get sign-off to buy in their fiscal year. Of course, the problem you identify has to be pervasive across a big enough group of customers so that you can build a repeatable business. But most of all, the problem has to be important enough that the person would actually invest their time and money to solve it. People don't easily part with their money, or their time. They won't even waste their time browsing your website unless your tagline indicates clear potential of solving a specific problem. They won't spend time convincing their organization and their CFO to invest unless they are truly motivated to solve something big
1. GET READY IN ADVANCE WITH AN INTERVIEW PROTOCOL
A customer interview is ideally 1-on-1 but can be 3-4 participants if you have silent observers sitting in. The "format" of a 30-minute customer meeting can be simple:
2. MAKE IT INFORMAL
I have never had success with overly formal voice of the customer interviews. Instead, as you can see from my proposed agenda, I emphasize informal introductions and a very brief overview of your product or business idea, leaving the bulk of the meeting for actual conversation.
If you are launching into a detailed powerpoint or product demo you are doing it wrong imo. It should feel like you are meeting someone for coffee (which is often the setting, actually!) Take 2 or 3 minutes to explain your idea verbally in simple terms. No jargon or buzzwords, just simple human language. Use an illustration if it helps. The point is to be really clear and really human.
3. PREPARE WELL BEFOREHAND
Of course, informal does not mean disorganized. You should come prepared with a list of prepared questions that get you towards your goal of identifying urgent, pervasive problems. You could also come prepared with stimulus material (screenshots, demo, powerpoint) that you can refer to throughout the Q&A if helpful. You should also have personally researched the customer's market and their own general business in some depth.
Also remember that your interviewee accepted the meeting, and so they most likely WANT to talk and be helpful. So give them the floor.
4. AVOID BIAS WITH OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS
For the questions you prepare in advance, try open-ended questions rather than leading questions, to avoid introducing bias.
In 8 Open-Ended Questions to Ask In Customer Interviews, the author gives some examples such as "If you had this product, what is the #1 thing that you'd be able to do that you couldn't before?" and "What other solutions have you considered?".
5. SCAN FOR URGENCY, PERVASIVENESS, AND WILLINGNESS TO PAY
In the Harvard-published whitepaper Starter Questions for User Research, Sarah Doody provides a large inventory of open-ended questions for inspiration. Of course, this is just an inventory of questions to draw from. At most you will have time to ask 5-10 questions in a 30min interview, so choose only what is most important to you!
Product Opportunity Questions
Product Reaction Questions
6. BE HUMBLE AND THANKFUL
Remember that this person is doing you a favour so thank them profusely. Be humble about your idea in order to set the tone for feedback of any kind. Definitely it should not have any air of a sales presentation where from the start you set the tone that you have a great idea and you’re trying to sell them on the idea. Rather the message is something like "we have some concepts or some hypotheses and it's very meaningful that we get your expert opinion on them." Humility invites good feedback. Expertise and reminding the person why they were chosen gives them permission to give you their opinion and comment.
A lot of executives, sales people, and most people I know have a hard time following this. They are proud and don't like being vulnerable and starting from a position of "we have this idea and we want your feedback". Especially with a customer or potential prospect! But that’s the whole point, we are not selling, we are in the process of exploring and shaping our idea.
7. STAY IN THE "PROBLEM SPACE"
Keep the conversation in the "problem space". Don't jump into discussing solutions. Remember you want to hear about problems and pain points, not what a solution looks like. Have you seen the episode of the Simpsons where Homer’s long-lost brother, who owns a car company, instructs his engineers to design a car that average people want by getting input from Homer — the typical middle American customer? Homer demands extra large cup-holders, tail fins, a bubble dome, and horns that play La Cucaracha. The car is an expensive flop, and his brother’s company goes bankrupt. In the end, customers aren’t product designers. They will happily give you ideas for your product, but they love to jump straight to the solution as they see it without understanding interactions or the context in which people use the software.
In How to Find Product-Market Fit, the Weebly CEO simply says:
When we talked to customers, we noted all the problems they cited and we completely ignored the solutions they offered.
If the customer starts solutioning, bring them back to the problem space. Ask "Why would that be a good solution? What problem does that solve for you?"
8. KEEP ASKING "WHY?"
The question you should find yourself asking most often throughout the meeting is "Why?" Customers come up with a wish list of features or changes such as, “This button should be blue” and “I want to print with one click.” But that doesn’t give you insight into why they need that feature, or why it might (or might not) help other customers. Keep asking why till you understand the underlying problem that they are trying to solve.
9. TAKE DETAILED NOTES
Whatever the person is saying is like gold in that moment and you should take detailed notes. You won’t remember everything. You might not fully grasp what they are saying in the moment either, but you always want to go back and analyze it and have verbatim quotes rather than your own inferences.
10. DON'T ASSUME
If you're not sure about something and it feels interesting or important, ask for confirmation. Assumptions are the enemy. Again, as an interviewer, it may feel uncomfortable to ask too many questions, especially clarifying questions that might reveal that you don't understand or aren't follow, but it's worth the risk to make sure you get to the bottom of what the interviewee is saying.
BONUS 11. FOLLOW THE INTERVIEWEE'S PASSION
Questions are prepared in advance to ensure you always have your next question ready, and to ensure some consistency from one interview to the next. But you shouldn’t rigidly follow the questionnaire. If the customer seems disinterested in a topic and you understand why, move on. If the customer shows passion about something and it feels related to an urgent, pervasive problem, drill down further, even if it's not on your questionnaire. Passion can mean excitement or it can mean frustration and anger. We're looking for problems, after all. Passion might not show up in their words but rather in their tone of voice or body language, so pay attention to all the cues of where their passion lies.
There was a fantastic Netflix show called Mindhunter about a team of investigators who started interviewing serial killers for science back in the 60s. They realized that running through a dull questionnaire was not getting them the answers they needed, and their "ah-ha" moment was when they decided to deviate from the script and follow what their interviewees were interested in (your customers are, of course, not serial killers, but watch the show and you'll see how the analogy fits!)
To sum it up, here are the do's and don't of voice of the customer interviews that drive product-market fit:
VOC CUSTOMER INTERVIEW DO'S
VOC CUSTOMER INTERVIEW DON'TS
WHAT TO DO WITH THE INFO YOU'VE COLLECTED?
1. CLEAN UP THE DETAILED NOTES OF EACH INTERVIEW AND SEND THEM TO YOUR STAKEHOLDERS
Take the time to clean up the meeting notes, in detail, and then e-mail them to the stakeholders that find this most relevant (possibly: the product team, marketing team, certain execs). It takes time to clean up the notes but it is worth it to help you think through what you just learned, what was most important, as well as helping others get detailed insight so that they are seeing the same thing you are. It also serves as a great reference for later, even years later, when you can go back to the details of a specific interview. It also shows great initiative and marks you as a leader.
2. MAINTAIN A PROBLEM DATABASE
Remember you are surfacing problems, especially problems that are urgent, pervasive and that people would pay for. You or your whole team should be maintaining a database of these problems, which could simply be a spreadsheet in a google doc. It's not 1 entry per meeting, it's 1 entry per problem identified. Try to rank by urgency, pervasiveness, and willingness to pay, and more characteristics as well if relevant to your business, so that the top problems bubble up easily.
3. PRESENT FINDINGS TO LEADERSHIP IN A WAY THAT ENGAGES HEAD AND HEART
After a solid round of customer interviews, you should feel kind of exhilarated. You learned so many new things, you see patterns and path forward. But your leadership hasn't seen any of this yet. They weren't there. Moreover, if you just repeat to them the facts, it may not be enough. They didn't "feel" what it was like when 5 out of 10 customers each had a passionate moment where they explained how important this one particular problem was to them. They weren't there.
I can't overstate how important it is to present findings to leadership in a way that helps them empathize with what you just learned. It truly has to be a summary that speaks to the head (intelligent, well summarized, supported by facts) and the heart (with customer quotes, photos, etc. whatever helps them feel the same customer pain points and same passion that you felt when you were live in the moment).
4. GET IN THE HABIT OF QUOTING YOUR INTERVIEWS
Of course you can give a presentation and e-mail your findings, but you can't set it and forget it. You have to get into the habit of continually referencing the interviews you've done and the data you've brought back to the company. In a debate over a roadmap, cite that customer quote again to remind people why you've prioritized your roadmap a certain way. When evaluating marketing messaging, remind everyone that "the message is only going to stick if we say X, Y and Z, since 80% of users interviewed told us that was the most important thing!". Support everything you say with facts learned from the interviews.
5. SHAPE STRATEGY BASED ON YOUR FINDINGS
At the end of the day, there are lots of ways of encapsulating user feedback into your plan. Personas "humanize" the voice of the customer. A roadmap communicates priorities that should be inline with what problems were most critical. A go-to-market plan should touch each key point surfaced from your learnings.
If you truly learned from customers, prospects and others in your target markets, via well-prepared and well-executed interviews, and shaped your strategy to the problems surfaced, you are on your way to executing with results.