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Avoiding the Angry Customer Interview

By John Burns, Ph.D. 

I train companies on best practices for conducting Voice-of-the-Customer interviews.  During the training, students sometimes share their experience with a bad customer interview.  This typically involves a customer who is reluctant to talk, seems distracted, does nothing but complain, and, on occasion, gets angry.   

Sometimes customers can get defensive or angry because they’re having a bad day, but this is rare.  More often, your actions before and during the interview will set you up for success.  Below are some interviewing best practices that will help you avoid the angry interview and create a positive experience for you and the customer. 

State that the Purpose Is Research, Not Sales – and Stand by Your Word.  Before the interview, when you’re recruiting customers to participate in the research, explain that the purpose is research, not sales.  Then, stand by your word: no selling during Voice-of-the Customer interviews.  Sometimes, customers can get defensive or angry because they’ve agreed to an interview where they expect you to listen to their experiences, only to find you’re trying to sell them something.  They feel betrayed, as they should.  Don’t do it.   

Use Open-Ended Questions.  Open-ended questions encourage customers to talk about their experiences: Tell me more about how you use these products?  What are some of the best things about your experiences with these products? What are some of the worst?  In their answers, customers focus on what’s important to them, leading to open and informative conversations.  Customers may voice displeasure with aspects of your company’s products and services, but under these circumstances, it’s typically free from anger.  In contrast, closed-ended questions can turn an interview into an interrogation: Which brand do you use: a, b, or c?  What speed setting do you use: high, medium, or low?  You have six of these products in the shop now, correct?  Closed-ended questions focus on what’s important to you, not the customer, and this can lead to frustration on the part of the customer.  Although closed-ended questions are appropriate in an online survey, you should use few if any of them in a customer interview.  Let the customer talk, and you’ll get more out of your interviews. 

Tell the Customer You Can’t Commit to Fixes or Timetables.  When you first approach the customer to participate in the research, make it clear that you’re not there as a problem solver.  The customer may have complaints about your company’s products and services, and this is something you’ll want to hear about.  But you can’t commit to fixes or timetables for addressing their concerns.  Instead, tell them you’ll mention their concerns to others at your company.  After the interview, make sure the right people at your company know about any customer complaints.  Letting customers know up front that you’re not there to fix problems or set up timetables for addressing their concerns will change the conversation.  It will direct customers away from offering a string of complaints about your products and services – if they’re inclined to do this – and on to more informative discussions. 

Review Key Details of the Interview.  At the start of the interview, remind the customer of the key details of the session.  Tell the customer how long the interview will take, that you’ll ask a lot of open-ended questions, that you’re interested in what they have to say based on their experiences, that they didn’t need to prepare anything, and any other points that are relevant.  Many customers will have forgotten these details, but they’re too polite or nervous to tell you.  Reviewing these items will help put the customer at ease, and you’ll get more out of your interviews. 

But what if you do everything mentioned and the customer is still defensive or angry?  You can’t win them all.  It’s not your fault.  Politely end the interview as soon as is appropriate, report any necessary details to those who need to know about it at your company, and move on.  Don’t take it personally.  They agreed to participate in the interview.  If you followed the best practices mentioned already, the problem is likely with them, not with you or your company. 

Take these steps to avoid the angry customer interview and get the most out of your Voice-of-the-Customer research.

Learn more about Voice-of-the-Customer by attending one of our upcoming workshops.

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