Customer Interviews

Learn how to schedule your first customer interview and ask the right questions to unlock new insights that drive growth.

Stuart Balcombe

Co-Founder @ LearnWhy

Lesson 1

Customer Interview Preparation

If you’re building a product or business, you’re likely familiar with the idea of building features, but the truth is your customers care far more about your products ability to help them make progress in their lives than any feature you could build.

To build products customers love we need to uncover their desired outcome or in other words the Job to be Done they are hiring our product to do.

The solution our customers ultimately hire for their job to be done will be the one that helps them achieve their desired outcome cheaper, faster or more efficiently than their current status quo.

This video by Harvard professor Clay Christenson illustrates why understanding the specific outcome a customer is trying to achieve is critical for building the right product for their context rather than just their demographic persona.

Here's an example of a job to be done I have in my own life:

When I want to talk to my customers I need a way to schedule meetings fast, without wasting time going back and forth via email so I can spend my time talking to customers not scheduling meetings.

It's important to note that the Job to be Done is product agnostic.

I don't need a better calendar or scheduling software I need a better way to achieve my desired outcome (talking to customers).

The most effective customer interviews are focused entirely on the needs, motivations, and behaviors of your customer (or prospective customer) NOT your product or idea.

The problem is the vast majority of founders skip this critical customer research step because they believe they have enough information to “know” their solution is right.

Unfortunately, the most common cause of startup failure (42%) is a lack of market need for the product.

That won’t be you.

Effective customer interviews are your superpower to avoid spending weeks of work and thousands of dollars building the wrong product.

Let’s get started.

Step 1. Identify your audience

Before you can start scheduling your interviews we need to identify who we would like to talk to. Your target audience will vary depending on whether or not you have an existing customer base or contact list. Here are a few of my favorite places to find participants.

Personal Network: The chances are you know some people or can ask for introductions to people who fit your target profile who you can talk to about their current needs and behaviors.

Online Communities: Niche communities like Slack, Facebook Groups, LinkedIn, Twitter are common watering holes to learn about customer pains where they are already being discussed. A quick Google, or Facebook search for: “your target audience” + “community” will give you a good starting point.

BuiltWith: This site provides a quick way to get a list of companies using competitor products. Remember the goal is not to start selling these people on your idea but to learn about how and why they hired their current solution to a problem.

Step 2. Schedule your customer interviews

Once you have a list of potential interview candidates it's time to reach out and start scheduling interviews. The number of interviews you need to do to make a decision should be correlated to how risky/expensive an incorrect decision would be. It's also important to think of customer interviews as an ongoing activity rather than a one and done investment you should only make at the start of a big project.

I've included email outreach templates to take the stress out of sending your initial invitations. Here are 3 additional tips to make scheduling interviews easier.

  1. Keep your emails short and personal. Try to position yourself as a partner who's looking to understand and address a real business problem vs selling a solution.
  2. Use a scheduling tool like Calendly to simplify the process of booking an interview.
  3. Send a meeting invitation that includes a conference link (video or in-person interviews are the best) but be sure to ask for a phone number as a fallback.

Next Steps

Download this outreach template and use it to identify and contact your interview candidates. I want to challenge you to book ONE interview before the end of the week.

In your next lesson, you'll learn exactly what questions to ask and how to facilitate an insight-rich customer interview to discover our customer's Job to be Done.

Lesson 2

Customer Interview Questions

In the last module, you learned how to identified interview candidates, get in touch and schedule a time to chat. But what should you ask in an interview?

Remember our goal is to understand the needs, motivations, and behaviors of our interviewees in their buying journey.

But, the prospect of having a conversation about someone’s problems can be difficult. Maybe you feel awkward asking deep questions about someone else’s business, or maybe you’re worried you’ll make the interviewee feel awkward.

Worst of all maybe you’re worried that you’ll waste everybody's time by scheduling and conducting an interview and still not getting the insight you need to move your business forward!

To help get you over the hump and start gathering invaluable insights. I’ve created a cheat sheet from my experience doing interviews to make your customer interview experience (actually) fun and not awkward at all.

Here’s a sneak peek from the cheat sheet: 3 of my favorite questions to ask during interviews.

- Can you share an example of a time you felt particularly stressed out or frustrated trying to achieve [DESIRED OUTCOME]?

- What happened that led you to start looking for something like [PRODUCT/SERVICE]?

- What can you do with [SOLUTION], that you couldn’t do before?

Each of these questions is will help you dig into the underlying motivation and behavior behind WHY people buy and use a product.

3 Customer Interview Secrets

  1. Focus on real events. In my experience, the best way to eliminate your own bias and to prevent people from telling you what they THINK you want to hear is to ask about very specific events and experiences. Let the conversation guide your follow-ups and remain curious about the underlying why behind each answer.
  2. Don’t worry about asking all your questions. The best interviews I’ve conducted focus on the stories and the real experiences of the interviewee. It’s perfectly okay if the first portion of an interview doesn’t seem related to your questions if it helps break the ice and create an open conversation. We’ll pull out the critical insights in the next module.
  3. Record everything. To allow you to focus on the conversation and not worry about missing a crucial insight, I’d recommend recording your interviews using a tool like Zoom or Uberconference if you’re doing video interviews or Call Recorder for phone interviews to record these calls for free if you're doing them virtually.

3 Common Mistakes to Avoid

  1. Introducing your own bias. It's very important to remember that each interview is about the interviewee and their experience rather than you or your product. Avoid introducing visual cues or asking leading questions that could lead your witness. Stay focused on discovery rather than feedback.
  2. Making assumptions. Sometimes you will hear things that at face value might seem to validate a hypothesis you already have. It's easy to just accept that and move on, but it's important to dig deeper for more evidence grounded in real behavior. For example, if you ask "Do you think you drink enough water?". You might hear a simple "yes", but when you ask "How many times did you drink water today?" you might get a different answer that you can dig into to understand why.
  3. Being too scripted. This isn't a job interview or a colonoscopy. Think of your role as being an investigative journalist following the story as it twists and turns. Ask your questions as they make sense in the conversation and use the cheat sheet as a reference guide rather than a rigid script.

Next Steps

Make a copy of this interview cheat sheet and use it to conduct your first Jobs to be Done interview.

In the next module, we’ll cover how to extract valuable nuggets of insight you can use to: improve your product, refine your positioning, or enhance your marketing campaigns.

Lesson 3

Extracting Customer Insights

At this point you might have completed your first customer interview and be wondering what to do next. (Don’t worry if you haven’t yet, this module will be here waiting when you’re ready)

To drive drive business value insights from our interviews, we need to organize and group our learnings so we can identify patterns and extract key quotes for ongoing use.

Let’s dive in.

Organizing your insights

In the last module I recommended that you record any virtual interviews to allow you to focus on the conversation rather than taking comprehensive notes.

My preferred next step is to transcribe those notes using a service like Rev or Sonix. You can simply upload your interview recording and get back a full transcription.

While transcribing the call is optional I find it saves a lot of time when it comes to extracting and organizing insights from the interview using my customer insights spreadsheet.

The spreadsheet contains 6 sections to help you breakdown your interviews into actionable snippets you can use to support your decisions or use directly in your messaging.

1. Struggling Moments

These are the current or previous events and situations that your interviee describes that caused them to seek a new solution and change their status quo.

Eg. When I’m trying to validate my product idea before writing code but I’m not sure what to ask to understand if customers need my solution.

2. Driving Forces

These are the emotions that your interviewee either wants to feel or wants to avoid feeling by seeking to change their current status quo. The are gold mine for identifying why people might sign up and purchase your product.

Eg. I’ve built products in the past and it was frustrating to spend some much time building software only to launch to crickets.

3. Existing Solutions

How is your interviewee currently solving the problems they identified? Look for stories that describe existing workflows and mentions of specific events to distinguish their current behavior from how they would like to solve their problem.

These existing solutions often won’t be software products. They may be manual processes happening via email or in an Excel sheet.

Eg. I built a coming soon page with an email signup form.

4. Alternative Solutions Considered

Before your interviewee hired their current solution, what did their status quo look like? How did they go about looking for alternatives and what made them settle on their current option.

Eg. Before I tried collecting email signups on a landing page I simply built software, released it and asked people to use it. I decided to build a landing page and collect emails for my next project because I got a new job and didn’t have time to spend writing a code before I knew if my project could be successful.

5. Motivations

What is your interview trying to accomplish by hiring a new solution? Do they know what the are trying to achieve but don’t know how to do it? Are they trying to avoid a behavior that currently frustrates them?

eg. I want to better understand my customers needs and current behaviors.

6. Desired Outcomes

What is your interviewees ultimate goal? How do they believe their life will be better by solving this problem with a new solution.

Eg. So I can launch a product people pay for, without building something they don’t want.

Applying your insights

Now our insights are organized and grouped lets discuss how we can use them to move our business forward.

The key concept here is:

Use their words.

We just spent the time listening to stories of our interviewees experience, the last thing we want to do is mask those golden nuggets of insight by paraphrasing. This is where transcribing your interviews really comes in handy.

Here are 3 examples of how you can use your insights to make informed decisions.

Prioritize a new investment.

Now that you have collected evidence about the current behaviors and emotions of your customers and potential customers you can use it to support your product decisions. You can stop guessing about whether your idea will work and confidently justify that investing valuable resources to solve this problem is a good bet.

Creating a product one-pager is an effective tool for succinctly communicating the evidence in support of solving a specific problem while ensuring you remain focused on addressing a real customer need.

Eg. By conducting numerous interviews with Biostrap users it became clear that successful users formed consistent habits around when they used the product. This allowed me to confidently design an onboarding experience that encouraged this behavior in new customers signing up for the first time.

Optimize an existing workflow.

The specific insights gained from customer interviews can be used to improve your existing product experience to help guide users to achieve the goals they identified and overcome the barriers they have experienced while using other solutions. Often these insights will allow you to make small changes in that result in outsized value for customers because you are able to be precisely identify the choke points in the experience.

Eg. At Sail I interviewed prospective and existing customers to understand their workflows for creating and sending client invoices. Armed with insights into their current behavior I was able to redesign the product experience to reduce the time it took to create and share a new invoice with clients by deprioritizing elements that were often left untouched.

Improve your marketing messaging.

Customer interviews aren’t only useful for making effective product decisions. They can also be used to understanding the objections that customers may have to adopting your product, improve your positions relative to competitors and ensure your messaging remains grounded and personal.

Directly quoting customers is a great way to a) increase social proof and b) use words that resonate with your target customers.

Eg. Here’s a quote from a recent interview I did that can now be used directly quoted in a tweet or ad campaign: “It's been a game changer for me. My doctor told me if I didn't improve my sleep I might die. Now I've never felt better.”

I believe it’s important not to view customer interviews as a one time investment with a one off reward.

The value of customer interviews compound as you build your library of insights to draw from. Equally, the cost of not doing customer interviews compounds and manifests itself in time and money wasted building the wrong product, poor sales conversions, and unnecessary feature bloat.

Next Steps

Make a copy of Make a copy of this customer insights spreadsheet and use it to organize your customer insight data.

I hope that this short course has shown that investing in continuous customer discovery doesn’t have to be an arduous or expensive process and the rewards speak for themselves.

Remember. Companies that invest in on going customer research grow 2-3x faster than those that don’t.

The fastest-growing companies are built on deep customer insights

Get a better understanding of your customers today.