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Customer Interviews: Do's and Don'ts

By Carmel Dibner

Customer interviews are a valuable input to new product development and marketing decisions. Many firms undertake interviewing efforts themselves but become frustrated with the lack of insights they uncover. Below, we offer some guidelines on how to maximize the potential of your customer interviews.

Do: Make a formal list of questions to ask

Before interviewing, a best practice is to create a discussion guide to document the questions you intend to ask. The guide should be no more than 4-5 pages in length for a standard 45-60 minute interview. Questions should be organized to ensure a natural and logical flow. Each major question should have a number of sub-questions and probing questions under it. Make sure all questions are asked open-ended first to see what respondents come up with unaided. Then, feel free to drill down into specifics with closed-ended probes that present respondents with several answer choices.

Carefully crafted, the discussion guide will help to organize your questions and maximize your chances of a productive conversation. Familiarize yourself with the guide, but don’t be too reliant on it or sound too rehearsed as you ask the questions.

Do: Deviate from the discussion guide as needed


Let the guide inform your conversation, but feel free to go off-script. If something the respondent says sparks a thought or a question that wasn’t on the original document, ask it. Don’t be afraid of tangents, because sometimes they lead to the most interesting insights. And, as you learn new things, feel free to revise the guide between interviews. Remember, this isn’t a quantitative survey where we’re tallying responses to specific questions, so it’s alright if the questions evolve and if different respondents are asked different questions. 

Don’t: Rely on the sales team to conduct the interviews


Frequently, our clients wonder whether it would be most efficient to have their sales team conduct the customer interviews. After all, they know the customers better than anyone else in the organization.

While it may seem tempting, the sales team is not the best choice to lead these discussions. For one, the interviews are intended to gather a deep understanding of what customers need and their feedback about currently available products and services. These conversations are most authentic if they are separate from any sales activities as respondents may be more guarded in sharing their options if they believe you’re trying to sell them something.

If those best suited to conduct the interviews do not know the respondents, ask the sales team to make some introductions. And, if you choose to have members of the sales force conduct some of the interviews, make sure they’re explicit that the market research efforts are separate from sales conversations and that they won’t try to sell anything as a result of the conversations.

Don’t: Correct the respondent or offer advice


Did the respondent incorrectly state the price of competitor products? Did they mix up manufacturers? Do you know of a simple workaround that would help the customer?

It’s very tempting to correct the respondent or offer advice. However, when done in the context of a customer interview, respondents may become defensive or guarded. In these interviews, we’re more concerned with perceptions of the market and product offerings than in facts or figures that could be collected by other means. Therefore, hold your tongue and note their inaccuracies, confusions, etc. in your findings. There may be useful information that you can learn from their misconceptions.

Don’t: Ask them about their willingness to pay


We always say that asking customers outright how much they’d be willing to pay is the worst possible question to ask during an interview. Respondents are unlikely to tell you their true reservation price. And, even if they wanted to share that information with you, it’s unlikely that they’d even be aware of their willingness to pay until they’re faced with a choice. 

Despite these limitations, there are some effective ways to begin to gather qualitative reactions to price. For example, you can ask respondents what other products they think might be priced comparably to the product under discussion. You can ask about how interested they’d be to learn more about the product at a given price point. Once you begin to get some indication of willingness to pay, you can then consider proven quantitative methods, such as a conjoint study, to explore pricing in greater detail.

For more tips on customer interviews, watch our recent webinar on demand

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