How to Run Effective Customer Interviews

Running customer interviews can be a scary thing. 

On the one hand, you might feel nobody’s willing to actually sit down with you and chat about your business. On the other hand, the customer interview itself can feel downright terrifying, especially if you don’t have much experience in doing this. 

Truth be told, though, running customer interviews is one of the best ways to learn more about what your customers like, don’t like, and what they really want - in short, a qualitative measurement of customer feedback.

As we were mentioning in a previous piece about running surveys, you don’t have a crystal ball and it’s highly unlikely that you possess any kind of telekinetic abilities, so the best way to find out what goes through your customers’ minds is, well, ask.

Quantitative research (such as surveys and questionnaires) can definitely help. But often, it is precisely the qualitative research that helps you dot the i’s and cross the t’s in terms of “mind-reading” your customers. 

How do you run effective customer interviews, though? We’ve rounded up experts with first-hand experience in asking customers the right questions — so read on if you want to find out more. 

Have a Goal in Mind 

Don’t set out to schedule customer interviews if you don’t have a clear goal in mind, that’s pretty much a shot in the dark. Define your goals and what you really want to learn from your customers and then start scheduling meetings. 

“Whenever I conduct a customer interview my objective is for them to tell me two things: what they love about using our services and what makes them consider looking elsewhere. I would suggest to anyone new to customer interviews to incentivize participation with some kind of reward or discount. This is especially the case if you are B2B, because your customers are just as busy as you are and will be reluctant to do anything for free.” 

— Sebastian Schaeffer, CTO/Co-founder, dofollow.io 

Make It a Nice Experience

It is quite likely that you and your interviewee are not fully accustomed yet, so try to make the customer interview a nice experience from the get-go. Start the conversation naturally, as if you’d just want to know more about the person in front of you. Be personable, try to make them smile, and make them feel comfortable with you. 

“You don't need to jump right into the interview. A one-on-one conversation, virtual or in-person, works best, and you want to treat the customer like a person, not just a buyer. Get to know them and their hobbies, interests, family life, etc. before you start with your questions.” 

Reuben Yonatan, Founder & CEO, GetVoIP

Offer an Incentive 

Sooner or later in your customer interview process, you will find that it can be quite difficult to get customers on hold for 30 to 45 minutes. They’re busy people, just like you, and it’s understandable that some might not have the time to sit down and talk to you (even if they really want it). 

Offering incentives can help with this. It doesn’t have to be something tangible, it can be a discount on your product, an Amazon gift card, or, really, anything else you can think of and would be of value to your customers. 

“Customers are busy people. So why would they spend part of their day talking about their experiences with a product or service for the company's benefit? That's a valid question and that is why marketers looking for input from customers must do one important thing - provide an incentive. 

This is especially valuable in B2B space as customers are business people, too. What can marketers offer to the customers (besides tangible things such as discounts or other freebies)? Publicity.” 

-Natalya Bucuy, Content Marketing Writer at LiveHelpNow 

Formulate Your Questions Wisely 

Don’t go into an interview thinking it will just flow naturally, ‘cause it’s very likely that it won’t. Prepare in advance, know your customer, who they are, the company they work for, the story behind them choosing your products or services (if you have access to it). 

And, very importantly, prepare your questions. You don’t have to take your list as a script that cannot be altered in any way but do prepare as many questions as you can and select those that fit into the conversation naturally. 

As a general rule, open-ended questions tend to be better when you want your customer to really open up in front of you. You could include closed-ended questions as well, but those are probably best to be left for surveys and questionnaires. 

“Don’t ask leading questions. Merriam-Webster defines a leading question as ‘a question asked in a way that is intended to produce the desired answer.’ Using questions such as

‘Don’t you think this company should get a new logo?’ prompts the interviewee to agree or view the logo negatively when, in fact, the opposite may be true. 

Instead, ask ‘What is your impression of the logo?’ and let them describe their thoughts. Don’t push for answers, avoid personal opinions, and do not attempt to confirm any of your own assumptions. You cannot expect relevant/usable information from someone who is being led or pushed in a certain direction.” 

Daniel Foley, CMO at Scooter Guide

Prepare to Hear Things You Don’t Want to Hear 

It would be great to only hear nice things from your customers and for them to always validate your hypotheses, but the truth is that you should definitely prepare to hear things you don’t quite want to hear too. 

When jumping in a customer interview, we frequently want to validate our preconceptions and hypotheses before we’ve spent millions on them.  

“As a result, you should be prepared to be proved wrong, and we view this as an opportunity to learn about the issues that really concern customers, as well as the demographics of our target market. Indeed, as a general rule, we should always ask at least one question that has the potential to kill the company as we currently imagine it.”

Tanya Zhang, Co-founder, Nimble Made

Ask for Absolute Honesty 

You want your customers to feel at ease with you and to be really honest. Yes, they might be blunt and yes, it might hurt. But the whole point of interviewing customers is to learn what they really think and what they really want. Otherwise, it’s not worth investing the time and effort customer interviews require (and mind you, running them won’t be easy). 

“Avoid trying to sell people on your business and seek brutal honesty. I like to make my desire for frankness and unvarnished truth crystal clear upfront so that people don't avoid telling me things I would benefit from hearing.” 

Bryce Welker, CEO, CPA Exam Guy

Conduct as Many interviews as You Can 

While it might not always be possible, conducting as many interviews as you possibly can is definitely helpful because it will provide you with a much more accurate overview of what a large chunk of your customers believe about you and your product. 

“Before writing a single line of code, we conducted 30 interviews with product managers when we first started Freedom Mobiles. I'm not saying that number is ideal. But it was necessary to conduct that many interviews to fully comprehend the issue we were attempting to solve. This means we had to ensure that we met with enough product managers from various market sectors, company sizes, and stages of the product manager career route.” 

Stewart McGrenary, Director, Freedom Mobiles

LISTEN

Running customer interviews is all about listening (not to yourself asking questions, but to your customers and what they have to say). Listen, adapt your questions to what they say, and really try to grasp the meaning of their words. Don’t interrupt, even if you haven’t reached halfway through your list of questions. If your customer starts talking freely, you are on your way to a successful interview. 

“The real sign of a successful customer interview is that they talk far more than you do. If you disagree with what they're saying, they likely won't give you more of their honesty. You're not

looking for information that agrees with your outlook, or even necessarily information that *doesn't. *Just get as much data as you can and save the sorting for later.”

Nate Tsang, Founder & CEO, WallStreetZen

End the Interview on a Positive Note 

Leave room for future discussions. This is not a one-night stand, but a relationship you are building with someone who took their time to help you. Make sure you show your gratitude for the effort they have made and end the chat on a positive note. 

“Simply asking your interviewee, ‘Is it okay if I contact you again in the future with follow-up questions?’ is a perfect way to keep in touch. You're implicitly conveying the significance and validity of their answer by asking to hold this door open (you wouldn't want to reach out to anyone if their answers were useless, would you?).

John Bertino, CEO, The Agency Guy

Yes, running customer interviews might not be the easiest thing under the Sun. But it is definitely worth it, particularly when you have a high interest in learning the genuine, unscripted thoughts of your customers.

Pro Tip: If managing a customer interview the traditional way comes to a halt due to some events, consider running your interviews through online forms. Here are 100 examples of feedback questions that you can use in your form.

Structured data can definitely help — but sometimes, the tone of voice, the look on someone’s face, and the fact that they have more freedom to answer open-ended questions verbally can all help you gain a deeper insight into what they really, really want from you and your product or service.