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Three Traps to Avoid in Customer Interviewing

By John Burns, Ph.D. 

Interviewer: HAVE YOU EVER HAD A PROBLEM WITH IT AND HAD TO SHUT IT DOWN?” 

Respondent: “Yes.” 

Interviewer: “HOW OFTEN DOES THAT HAPPEN?” 

Respondent: “Once in a while it happens like that; probably twice a year.” 

Interviewer: “HAVE YOU EVER HAD TO GET OUTSIDE HELP, LIKE SERVICE FROM THE MANUFACTURER, HIRE A CONSULTANT, BRING ON A TEMPORARY PERSON TO HELP?” 

Respondent: “No. We’ve never done that. 

Does this sound familiar? We hear interviews just like this one all the time. It shows why customer research often gets a bad rap. We never learn anything new from customer interviews, people say. If you conduct interviews like this one, that statement is true: you won’t ever learn anything new with questions like this. Unfortunately, although extreme, the poor quality of this interview reflects how most customer interviews go.   

I teach interviewing skills to product managers and other professionals Some people are inherently better at interviewing than others. But regardless of innate ability, every interviewer can improve by learning a few basic guidelines. 

Let’s break down the interview example presented above. I’ve identified three common mistakes you should avoid and how your interview could improve as a resultThe changes, by the way, are not purely fictional.  They reflect actual responses from other customers – interviewed by a more skilled moderator – in the same study as the example from above. 

MISTAKE #1: Asking too many “yes” or “no” questions.   

Yes or no questions are easy to ask, but they’re bad questions. They don’t encourage conversation, thoughtfulness, or detailed answers.  In addition, yes-no questions imply to the respondent that you’re looking for short, quick answers. They tend to respond this way throughout the interview.  The result is that you get far less information out of your interview than you could 

MISTAKE #2: Focusing too much on the numbers.  

Numbers are for quantitative surveys. But in customer interviews, they have the same effect as yes-no questions. Consider leaving most of your quantitative questions for your survey later on, rather than trying to use them in qualitative interviewsThe numbers that you get in a qualitative interview are not reliable anyway. If you want quantitative answers, you really need to do a survey, which is another part of a complete Voice of the Customer. (Learn more in our groundbreaking article). 

MISTAKE #3: Filling in answers  

When we ask questions in an interview, we all sometimes provide possible answers for the respondent.  For example, “What are you looking for in this situation, is it something bigger, smaller, faster, something like that?”  Don’t do this.  It’s a way of softening your questions. It also makes the interviewer feel like they’re making it clear. But mostly, it’s imposing your thoughts about what a respondent might or should say on them. Respondents with strong opinions might challenge the premise of your proposed answers: “No it’s not that,” they say. “It’s really none of those things.” But others might not have such strong opinions in the moment, or even if they do, they’re just too polite or otherwise unwilling to challenge you. You’ll never know. Soften your questions when you ask them. Try not to lead respondents with possible answers because your initial question is probably clear enough. It’s better to provide clarification after, if your respondent asks for it. 

Here's another way the interview could have gone. In this example, the interviewer avoids the mistakes in the example above, and gets much more detailed information with far fewer questions. The detailed content these questions elicit is in bold.   

Interviewer: "TELL ME ABOUT THE LAST TIME YOU HAD A PROBLEM WITH THE MACHINE. WALK ME THROUGH WHAT HAPPENED."

Respondent: "We could see that the unit was running hotter than normal. It wasn’t due for maintenance for a while, but the temperature was spiking outside of what we usually want, and I was afraid something would fail, that the bearings might fail, or something else. I didn’t want to have to make a change, though, because removing the control panel is difficult, there’s several steps to it and it’s all in a tight place. 

"It’s also difficult sometimes to see the part numbers to know what to change, whether we have it or have to order it.  There’s a lot of grease and the lighting is not good.   

"It can take a lot longer to do it all, sometimes a day or more, and we weren’t ready to do that. So we waited, and it was okay, but when we got inside we saw we were lucky. We had a hose leaking fluid, and it could’ve shut the whole operation down if it failed, and we had no way to know until we looked inside, and it wasn’t due for maintenance."

Interviewer: "WHY DO YOU THINK THE HOSE FAILED?"  

Respondent: "Well, we’re in a difficult environment. The ambient temperature changes, the weather is corrosive with rain and salt from the seawater, and we plan for that in our maintenance schedule.  But I don’t think the machine handles the weather like they say it does. We have [another brand] that’s older that never fails, never has that happen. 

Although some respondents are better at answering questions than others, the way you conduct the interview matters. These represent a few examples of the good, bad, and ugly in customer interviews. Everyone who conducts more than a few customer interviews makes mistakes, but knowing what to avoid will help you avoid making these mistakes a habit. 

To learn more about Voice of the Customer interviewing, join us for our course, Listening to the Voice of the Customer. You’ll learn about these tips and more in a format providing lots of interview practice in a supportive environment.  If you’re a seasoned interviewer, it’s a great refresher. If you’re new to interviewing, it will put you on the right path and provide you with the confidence necessary to conduct successful interviews. 

LEARN MORE ABOUT VOC

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