How to Interview Customers to Get the Critical Market Data You Need

by | How To..., Strategy

Figuring out who your target customers are can be hard — that’s why I like creating customer personas that accurately reflect what your target customers want, need, struggle with and hope for. With a good set of personas in hand, your startup’s odds of success go up.

Customer interviews are the linchpin of creating a great customer persona — that’s why you’re going to want to learn how to do them well. But interviewing isn’t something a lot of us have experience doing.

So today I’ll walk you through the steps you need to take to lead a successful interview — the kind where, by the end, you know your customers better than they know themselves.

So… how do you start?

First, you 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.

Rather than wandering aimlessly, you need to know what information you’re after, and how you plan to go about getting it. So before talking to any potential customers, you need to:

1. Clearly 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 out the information you need to get.

Mapping out things ahead of time will get you far more valuable information (in a lot less time) so that you can learn things like their:

  • 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 account?

Great interviews go through 3 stages.

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

1. Rapport building. In other words, 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. Your questions. This is where you’ll be doing the heavy lifting. Keep reading for the five questions you should be asking.

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

Start with these 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. The more specific you can be with your question, the easier it will be for the other person to answer because you’re giving them something concrete to work with.


What’s the hardest part about choosing a mortgage broker?” is more specific than “What’s the hardest part about getting a mortgage?” The former is easier to answer because the latter might make them have to think of all the components while guessing what you’re looking for.

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

Here you’re digging deeper, essentially asking them to tell you a story. It’s a good idea to preface this with some form of validation-plus-curiosity — “I think a lot of people have that experience, and I’d love to hear more about your story.

3. Why was that hard?

Now that they’ve shared a story, you’re digging deeper still as you tease out the problem. Remember here that you’re empathizing with them and seeking to understand what’s going on under the surface, so this is a good place to mirror back things they’ve said to continue building rapport.

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. You’re not just looking for what they’ve done, you’re looking to learn about their experience when they attempt to solve the problem on their own.

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).

These 5 questions are a great starting point, but there’s so much more you can ask as you lead the interview. You can ask things like:

– 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…?

You may also want to keep a list of new ideas for questions as you run across them in surveys you receive about products and services. Having a file of these on hand can help keep your interviewing skills sharp.

Tips for leading the interview.

When interviewing potential customers, you want to get people to open up and speak with you honestly. You want them to tell you stories. To do that you need to be able to get people to:

a. 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 candid with you. Questions that allow you to build rapport and establish common ground can work well here. Talking about the weather, traffic, some current situation that’s suitable for lighter conversation — these are all ways to break the ice.

b. 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. Listening to podcast interviews can also help — you can learn a lot about how to ask great questions in a relatively short time.

c. 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, such as 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?

d. 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.

You don’t have to wait for formal interviews to do this either — you can dip your toe in the water and experiment with this in everyday conversation.

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.

A few extra pointers before we wrap up.

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.

Interviews get easier after you do a few.

While many people aren’t that comfortable leading an interview, I can tell you from experience that it gets easier after the first batch or two.

Once you’ve led even a handful of interviews, you’ll get more comfortable asking questions. You’ll also refine your questions and the way you ask them based on the feedback you get from the people you talk to, and over time it will start feeling more like a conversation than an “interview.”

But the only way to get there is to dive in — so use what you’ve learned here to map out the kind of customer interview you’d like to lead, and get started. There’s no better time than the present to start building yourself a profitable business.

Want clarity for your business? Give me a call now or book a discovery call.

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