Customer Personas – Part 2: How to Find Out What Your Customers Actually Want

by | Oct 29, 2019

Figuring out who your target customers are can be hard. That’s why I like customer personas (especially the customer interviews). They’re invaluable when it comes to understanding what customers actually want and need. And let’s be frank, knowing your customer is the single most important ingredient in building a successful business.

Last month I wrote about what customer personas are and why they’re helpful. Now it’s time to get specific. Interviews are the linchpin of all great personas. So how do you start? What do you ask?

Create a roadmap.

Interviewing customers without a roadmap is really just a conversation without a plan. It’s like getting in the car with no directions and no clear destination. So before talking to any potential customers, you need to:

1. Define your goal.

What kind of information are you looking for? Do you want to know how people feel about their cable company in general or just the channel selection? These are two very different goals, so be sure to define yours.

2. Map it out.

Mapping things out ahead of time will get you far more valuable information so that you can learn the following:

Figuring out who your target customers are can be hard. That’s why I like customer personas (especially the customer interviews). They’re invaluable when it comes to understanding what customers actually want and need. And let’s be frank, knowing your customer is the single most important ingredient in building a successful business.

Last month I wrote about what customer personas are and why they’re helpful. Now it’s time to get specific. Interviews are the linchpin of all great personas. So how do you start? What do you ask?

Create a roadmap.

Interviewing customers without a roadmap is really just a conversation without a plan. It’s like getting in the car with no directions and no clear destination. So before talking to any potential customers, you need to:

1. Define your goal.

What kind of information are you looking for? Do you want to know how people feel about their cable company in general or just the channel selection? These are two very different goals, so be sure to define yours.

2. Map it out.

Mapping things out ahead of time will get you far more valuable information so that you can learn the following:

  • Current situation. What is their current situation? How do things currently work?
  • Pain points. What are the hard parts? What needs and goals aren’t being met?
  • Barriers. What’s stopping them from meeting their needs and achieving their goals?
  • Other considerations. What requirements/people/situations should be taken into consideration?

Great interviews have 3 parts.

Just like a three-act play, successful customer interviews have three parts.

1. Rapport building. That means building a connection with the other person. Basic niceties always work well, such as “Hi, nice to meet you, ___ [their name]? I’m ___ [your name]. Crazy snowstorm we’re having today – did you have any trouble getting here?” Or… How ‘bout those Cubs?” [harmless question of your choice] Remember, this is an interview not an interrogation.

2. The questions. This is where you’ll be doing the heavy lifting. Keep reading for the five questions you should be asking.

3. Closing. This is when you thank the person. Also, remember to ask if it’s okay to follow up with them if needed – and don’t forget to get their contact information!

5 Questions.

Years ago, someone (I wish I could remember who) turned me on to this helpful 5-question framework. It’s a great starting point for any customer interview.

1. What is the hardest part about…

This is where you’re trying to get some context about the problem.

2. Can you tell me about the last time that happened?

Here you’re digging deeper, essentially asking them to tell you a story.

3. Why was that hard?

Now that they’ve shared a story, you’re digging deeper still as you tease out the problem.

4. What, if anything, have you done to solve that problem?

This is when you’re listening for solutions they’ve tried, but that haven’t worked.

5. What don’t you love about the solutions you’ve tried?

Digging deeper, you’re listening for the reasons why those solutions haven’t worked. That way you can design your product or service so that it really does solve their problem (especially if you’re getting similar information from your other interviews).

More questions…

– What do you like about… ?
– What do you dislike about… ?
– What’s your favorite… ?
– In a perfect world, what product/feature/service would you want?
– In a perfect world, how…? what…? why…? when…? who…?

HOW to interview.

When interviewing potential customers, you want people to speak to you honestly. You want them to tell you stories. To do that you need to:

1. Start a conversation.

Interviews usually last more than an hour – and it can often take 20 minutes (or more!) just to get them to relax enough to be honest with you.

2. Ask open-ended questions.

Rather than asking, “Do you find public speaking to be hard?” (which assumes they think it is hard) instead ask, “How do you feel about public speaking?” If you watch a few late night talk shows, notice how most of the questions are open-ended so that a natural conversation evolves.

3. Actively listen.

In other words, you shouldn’t be talking at them or telling them what they want or simply giving them options. Remember, these interviews are your field research, not a sales pitch. It may help to practice active listening. You can use techniques such as repeating back (echoing)… “Let me see if I understood what you just said…”

While listening:

  • PAUSE periodically to think about and process what the person you’re interviewing has said. Pauses are a valuable tool because it lets the other person know you’re really listening -and- frequently the other person wants to fill the gap with additional information.
  • RESPOND to what they are saying rather than being tied to your roadmap like it’s a script.
  • LISTEN FOR PAIN POINTS, and not just validation for the ones you expect. The most valuable information emerges in natural conversation – issues you may not have thought of, challenges you weren’t aware of, solutions you’ve never heard of.
  • DIG DEEPER and be sure to ask follow-up questions. The more details they give you – the more specific they can be – the better solution you can design. Here are a few examples:

“What is that like?”
“When was the last time you did that?”
“Tell me more about that.”
“What did you do to try to solve that problem?”
“What did you mean when you said ____?”
“Can you tell me about another time when you experienced something similar?”

4. Be patient. Get comfortable with silences.

This may be hard to do at first, but if you work at it you’ll soon notice that most people are uncomfortable with silences, which will work in your favor and often result in additional information.

How many interviews is enough?

Some people say you need 5 customer interviews and others say 500. I lean towards the lower end. Eight is nice in case there’s a no-show or you have a weird outlier situation. More than 20 feels like overkill. The focus should be on getting valuable information – it’s not about averages or statistical validity.

If you can’t see patterns in 5 interviews then you’re not asking the right questions or your questions lack focus. Perhaps you’re not actively listening or you’re projecting or there’s a communication problem.

Extra pointers.

Behavior can change depending on context. Sometimes a trait can be permanent — like when someone has been blind since birth — or it can be temporary if the person is simply recovering from eye surgery. Behavior can be situational, too, like when you’re driving west at sunset and the glare temporarily blinds you. Will your product or service adapt to this range of needs? Does it need to?

Do not come up with an answer first and then create a customer persona based on that answer. That is a recipe for disaster.

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