Talking to customers to uncover unmet needs is one of the most exciting parts of product management. It's being a detective! Hunting down members of your target audience for meetings, and, once there, asking them the right questions to get to the root of what they really care about.
But most PMs find it difficult to book customer interviews on a regular basis. And even when you do land a customer interview - how do you carry it out? What questions do you ask?
This article is a step-by-step guide to landing and executing customer interviews - taking the stress out of it and making it fun!
WHY DO CUSTOMER INTERVIEWS?
Customer interviews allow you to have an in-depth conversation with the buyers and users of your potential product, where you can ask specific questions about the user's problems, motivations, constraints, experience and interactions with existing products, as well as aspirations for new solutions. You can also study their behaviour to understand what their true needs actually are.
While many product management teams still don't do regular customer interviews and prefer to develop products based on in-house thinking, it's increasingly an industry standard to talk to customers to inform your product concept, roadmap, user experience, market positioning and sales pitch.
The tricky part is doing customer interviews right, in an unbiased, repeatable way, where the results are actually informing the product strategy.
WHO DO YOU NEED TO INTERVIEW?
A lot of the time, teams think of customer interviews as being formal sit-downs with current customers. What a narrow view! To get full breadth of insight, consider interviewing:
HOW OFTEN DO YOU NEED TO INTERVIEW CUSTOMERS?
Don't worry about the total number of interviews. Instead strive for doing some number of interviews regularly. As with fitness, it's not really whether you exercise for 20 minutes a day or 40 minutes a day, so long as you just do some sort of exercise every day. Over time, as your team gets more consistent, it gets easier to build up to a more customer interviews.
HOW DO YOU GET CUSTOMERS TO AGREE TO AN INTERVIEW?
Depending on the type of customer (current customer, potential customer, etc.), the process of landing an interview can vary.
Scheduling a customer interview with a current customer will typically require the approval of the sales account manager. Sales' willingness to give you direct access to a customer can vary depending on the organization's culture, maturity, and the relationship between the sales department and product management. Pragmatic Marketing has written extensively on how product managers can work with sales to organize customer interviews.
Resist compromises with the sales team where you agree to a "customer interview" in name, but in practice most of the meeting is a demo or a sales pitch and the customer just gives a bit of feedback at the end. You need a true sit-down interview - the PM is asking questions and the customer is answering them.
Prospective Customers, Past Customers, Other Non-Current Customers
To land interviews with these other important groups:
To PMs, cold calling and networking is not always natural or comfortable, but it's usually the most effective. Sales and marketing are busy with their own 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 PMs need to do their own personal networking, cold calling and going to conferences to get the intel they need.
EXAMPLE COLD OUTREACH TO SCHEDULE A CUSTOMER INTERVIEW
If you are doing cold outreach to a prospective customer to ask for a customer interview, 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 sales reps 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. Indicate why you are contacting this person, what it is about their role or expertise that you feel it would be worth talking, and a preview of what you will ask them about.
Here's a real-world example of a cold outreach I made over LinkedIn to someone 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.
Even following these common sense 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, 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.
DURING A CUSTOMER INTERVIEW, YOU ARE LOOKING TO UNDERSTAND THE CUSTOMER'S PROBLEMS
Maybe you've heard this objection before: "if we ask customers what they want, they're just going to tell us that they want a faster horse". To this, you need to reply: "I'm not going to ask customers what they want, I'm going to surface what problems they have."
The goal of doing customer interviews is not to ask "what do you want in a product?" It's not to "get feedback". This is too vague, and indeed sets the customer up to tell you that they just want a faster horse.
Instead of asking a customer what they want, you are looking for customers to express problems. Problems that are urgent, pervasive, and customers will invest their time and money to solve.
Now, let's start preparing for a meeting that surfaces these types of customer problems.
PREPARE A BRIEF AGENDA, SEED QUESTIONS, AND STIMULUS MATERIAL
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:
Notice that I'm advocating for a very brief overview of your product concept or business idea, 3 minutes max, so that most of the time is spent on actual Q&A. If you are launching into a detailed powerpoint or product demo you are doing it wrong. People's attention spans are short. Explain your basic idea in simple terms, in a few minutes. The customer can always ask for more information during the rest of the interview if they want it.
One way to achieve this is to pick an area of focus for the conversation. For example, "solving workflow issues" or "solving system integration issues" could be the specific area of focus, rather than talking about the entire product concept and everything it could possibly do.
Come prepared with a list of questions that get you towards your goal of identifying urgent, pervasive customer problems. You could also come prepared with stimulus material (e.g. screenshots) that you can refer to throughout the Q&A if helpful.
You should also have personally researched the customer's market and their business in some depth, enough to be able to follow the conversation with ease.
STARTER QUESTIONS TO LEARN ABOUT THE CUSTOMER
For the questions you prepare in advance, try open-ended questions rather than leading questions, to avoid introducing bias. I like the following starter questions to understand them and their situation:
Often the customer you are interviewing is new, or relatively new to the role they are in. It can be useful to ask them to put their role in context with previous roles they've held, to open up the conversation and get them thinking about what's different, challenging or interesting:
Depending on what the customer responds, you should ask follow-up questions to dig in deeper.
QUESTIONS TO LEARN MORE ABOUT A USE CASE
If the customer shows interest or frustration related to a specific problem or specific task in their job, particularly one that might be involving your product, or another product like yours, or could be solved by your product, it can be good to drill down on the specific use case:
QUESTIONS TO GET FEEDBACK ON A PRODUCT
If your focus is to get feedback on a product, feature, or new product concept, here are open-end questions to ask to elicit constructive ideas:
DURING THE INTERVIEW: GET TO THE INCENTIVES OF THE CUSTOMER
Even if a customer has positive feedback about a product, that is far from enough evidence that they would be motivated to buy. Similarly, just because something is a pain point, doesn't mean they would put down money. It is critical to understand the customer's incentives to understand if they will truly be motivated and truly able to act.
What motivates this person? What is going to make the buying decision or using decision easy for them.?What is going to make it harder for them?
For example, for B2B products, products that prevent the decision-maker from getting fired will get adopted quickly! Products that will get the buyer promoted will also be adopted quickly, though not as quickly.
Also in B2B, a customer may have a major pain point but if it's not a big enough problem company-wide, it may not be significant enough to get decision makers to justify a budget. Asking "Do others at the company have this problem? Who and why?" and "Is there a budget for this sort of product this year? Has anyone tried to justify budget for something like that before? What happened?" will provide clues.
Another clue in B2B is what the person's boss thinks. "What does your CEO/boss care most about? When you meet one-on-one, what are the sorts of agenda items that come up?"
DURING THE INTERVIEW: UNDERSTAND THE TRIGGER POINT
Sometimes you uncover a real problem, but it won't be a top-ranked problem that a customer would be able to justify budget for until they hit a certain trigger point. For example, an encryption product might be a nice-to-have for companies until new security regulation comes into force that compels them to use encryption. An new accounting product might be a nice-to-have for small finance teams until the point where they are about to scale (e.g. go from outsourced accounting firm to in-house accounting team, or just about to hire a full-time CFO, or when CFO changes hands and has to show results early on).
Understanding the trigger is key to understanding the urgency of the pain point, the willingness to pay, and learning more about the target persona. For example, maybe you thought your target persona was CFOs, but more specifically it's new CFOs who have taken the job within the last 6 months and are looking to prove themselves.
DURING THE INTERVIEW: 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?"
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.
Don't assume! Ifyou'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.
TAKE DETAILED NOTES
Whatever the person is saying is like gold in that moment. You won’t remember everything, so take detailed notes. 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.
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!)
AVOID SHUTTING DOWN THE CONVERSATION
Avoid these common pitfalls that will shut down the conversation:
10 Rules For Gathering Real Insight from a Customer Interview
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.
CLEAN UP THE INTERVIEW NOTES AND SEND THEM TO YOUR TEAM
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.
Make sure to clearly summarize the takeaways. From each meeting: what is the most surprising thing you heard? What is the most valuable thing you heard? What are the main takeaways? Write it down immediately while fresh in your mind. Summarizing the takeaways is useful when you will recount the conversation to colleagues, but getting into the habit will also help you recognize patterns of insight from interview to interview.
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.
GET IN THE HABIT OF QUOTING CUSTOMER 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.
PRESENT KEY FINDINGS TO LEADERSHIP
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).
Finally, make recommendations on the next steps. Update the roadmap with what you've learned, or revise the go-to-market approach. Connect the value of customer interviews directly to the actions and results that they yield.
AUTOMATE REGULAR CUSTOMER INTERVIEWS
Once you have done a few solid rounds of interviews, this is definitely something to "automate" for yourself and your organization. Customer interviews never stop, they should be done weekly and the intelligence gathered is regularly fed back into the team, the problem database, the roadmap, and back into leadership.