By Andrea Ruttenberg, Ph.D.
The goal of a Voice of the Customer interview is to understand your customers’ (or potential customers’) wants and needs in as much detail as possible. In the end, you’ll want to know what works well about a category of products or services, what could be better, and why.
Qualitative interviewing isn’t rocket science, but it takes practice and skill to capture all the information you can from each respondent. And because qualitative research is inherently subjective, if you aren’t thoughtful about your interviewing technique, your respondents may not share everything you need to know.
How can you ensure your interviewing project is a success? Here are 4 tips to help you get started:
1. Start the interview by telling the respondent what to expect
It may seem like a minor point, but the introduction is a critical part of any good interview. Respondents want to be helpful and give an informative interview. But, if they don’t understand your project goals, they may skip over details that are valuable to you because they think they’re trivial or irrelevant.
A good interview starts with a good introduction. It should take only 2-3 minutes and include a few key things:
- Your name, title, and 1-2 sentences about your company
- The interview topic, why it’s important to you, and how the respondent was selected for the interview
- Broadly, what the interview will cover, and how long it will last
- What the respondent can expect from you, e.g., lots of probing and “whys”
- A chance for the respondent to ask questions
An introduction like this will set the stage for the rest of the interview and help ensure the respondent’s answers are useful for the project.
2. Ask easy questions first
Many respondents need time to warm up. At first, they may feel awkward talking about their experiences with a product or service; it’s not often that a stranger asks them to talk about the minutiae of their work life or their consumer purchases, for example.
Before asking complex, detailed questions, start with some basics. Most good interviews begin by asking respondents to share a little bit about themselves and their work. For a B2B project, typical questions include:
- Tell me about your company. What do they do, and who are your customers?
- Tell me about yourself. How did you get into this line of work? What do you do for your company?
- Tell me about your responsibilities. How do they relate to the interview topic?
These easy questions serve several purposes. First, they help the respondent get comfortable talking. Most can say a little bit about themselves without too much difficulty, and it will help them warm up before answering more complex or detailed questions. Second, they help you steer respondents toward the topics you’re most interested in. For example, if a respondent has 5 key job responsibilities, but you’re only interested in 1 or 2, you can let them know that from the beginning. Finally, these intro questions can help you tailor your questions to the respondents’ unique experiences. If a respondent has no knowledge of the maintenance process, for example, you can skip those questions entirely.
3. Within each section, start broad, then get narrow
Respondents may surprise you with their thoughts and perspectives. For example, you may think they’re concerned with delivery timelines, when their real issue is with packaging. If you start with specific questions, you may miss respondents’ true pain points and problems. To overcome this, within each section, start by asking broad, open-ended questions before focusing in on specific subtopics and probes.
For example, rather than starting with, “What do you think about delivery timelines?”, you could start broadly with “I’d like to hear about your experience with the delivery process. Tell me about the last product you had delivered. What happened? What problems or frustrations do you run into here, if any?”. Some respondents might mention the delivery timeline right away. If they don’t, you can probe first on their top-of-mind problems, like packaging, before following up with questions about delivery timelines.
By taking this approach, you’ll gain a greater understanding of your customers wants and needs.
4. End with a blue-sky question
Finally, before wrapping up the Voice of the Customer interview, make sure the respondent doesn’t have anything else to add. We typically ask directly: “Is there anything else you think is important for me to know? Is there anything you wanted to say that we haven’t covered?”. Often, the answer is no. But, occasionally, respondents will provide a critical piece of information that changes the way we think about the topic.
For more on VOC, request the groundbreaking academic paper, "The Voice of the Customer".