How to nail a customer interview


Written by

Laura Bosco

The featured image for this blog post.

Customer interviews are a type of customer research, and they’re especially useful when you want to gather rich, detailed insights from a small group of customers.

That makes them a great option for when you’re looking to:

For example, we’ve started partnering with clients to do 1:1 customer interviews during Roadmapping Sessions before we do any design or development work. These interviews help us answer specific questions around what problems clients’ customers face and what we should prioritize in an app build/update (i.e. what matters most to customers and what they’re trying to achieve).

Real-life example: Andrew Morris narrowed the scope of the GreyNoise build based on the 5 use cases he identified from users and community members.

Here’s how you can prepare for and run your customer interviews.

How to prep for customer interviews

A great interview depends on great prep work. Before you sit down with a customer you want to do three things:

  1. Set goals
  2. Qualify participants
  3. Come up with questions

Here’s how to do each one.

Determine your goals

Your goals direct your research (aka your interviews), so make sure they’re clear and specific.

For example, let’s say you provide a subscription service or software. You’re not happy with your churn rates — the rate at which customers stop doing business with you — and you want to understand what’s happening there.

Here’s how Consumer Psychologist Hannah Shamji explains it:

You may have one goal or several. Either is fine. The important thing is you determine what the end goal of interviewing is — why does it matter and/or what are you trying to solve?

Qualify your participants

Not every human out there will help you reach your interview goals.

Take the example goal above: “what factors influenced customer churn in the last two months?” Who’s more likely to provide meaningful insights here: a customer who churned last week or someone you run into at Starbucks?

Yupp, the customer who churned last week.

The folks you interview should be the ones best qualified to help you collect insights around your goals. Interviewing too broadly (even within your customer base) will only dilute your research and leave you scratching your head over conflicting responses.

Come up with questions

Think of your interview questions as the bumper guards in a bowling alley. You want to come up with a list of good, non-leading (more on that later) questions that keep you in your lane and rolling toward your goal.

Tips for formulating questions

The exact questions you ask depend on what the goals of your interview are. But generally speaking, you’ll want to dive into:

Again, the questions you craft beforehand are less like a strict formula and more like guard rails. You’ll go off-script from your question list in the interview, and experienced interviewers highly encourage that.

A word of caution on leading questions

One type of question you want to avoid in interviews is leading questions.

Leading questions force the interviewee toward a specific outcome or include an assumption. They’re questions where you lead the other person toward an answer instead of letting them lead you to their experience.

That sounds simple enough, but the tough thing about leading questions is we don’t always realize we’re asking them.

Either/or questions are, for example, a type of leading question. They assume only one of two outcomes are possible, and that is rarely the case.

Another type of leading question I once asked was, “what did you find enjoyable about this product?” The woman on the line paused and said, “well...I wouldn’t say I enjoyed it.” Oops. My question was leading because it assumed the customer enjoyed the product. A much better interview question would have been something like, “What’s it been like to use this product so far?”

How to run the interviews

Once you’ve set goals, qualified participants, and formulated questions, you’re ready to run the interview. Here are a few things you’ll want to do and a few things you’ll want to avoid.

Things you DO want to do

*Recording is ideal, but some folks just aren’t going to be down for this. When you can’t record, you have two options: (1) have someone else on the call who can take notes for you, so you don’t have to. Or, (2) do your best to record key quotes verbatim — getting the customer’s words down helps combat biases that creep in when you only write down your interpretation of their words.

Things you DON’T want to do

You’ll also want to keep in mind a few things you don’t want to do in customer interviews. For example, try not to:

Will you avoid all of these every time you interview? Of course not. Interviewing is a learned skill and that means you’ll make mistakes along the way. That’s normal. Do your best to avoid these, learn from them when they happen, and don’t let a slip-up stop you from doing another interview.

What to do right after the interview

Whew. You’ve done it — you’ve interviewed a customer. Now what? The steps you take immediately after an interview are largely admin.

Is that exciting? No.

Is it a tremendously helpful practice? Absolutely.

While your exact steps will depend on how you organize your research and what you do with it, you’ll probably want to at least:

What comes after that?

Schedule your interviews and follow the tips above.

Then, read up on what you can do with the data you collect and how to get past common roadblocks — we’ve put together some actionable tips on this in the second half of this blog post.

In that same post, we also mention additional resources for customer interviews if you want to dive deeper. Here they are again:

Free resources

Paid (but worth it) resources

Don’t want to DIY your customer interviews?

We’ve started incorporating those into our Roadmapping Sessions — check 'em out.

Laura Bosco is a writer and people person. She helps tech startups do tricky things, like explain who they are and what they're doing. Ping her on Twitter to say hi.