Interviewing Customers: 12 Lessons Learned

Interviewing Customers: 12 Lessons Learned

Last Updated: 2021-03-02 (I'll likely add to this overtime)
Many people founders and new product managers struggle with interviewing customers. Many struggle and don't realize it, they "think" they're interviewing, but they're actually just talking and not learning. If you're confused on why you should be listening to customers read this.
Anyhow, the following are some of my personally lessons learned (sometimes the hard way, sometimes not) that might help you do better customer interviews.

Talk less and listen more

People love to talk about their problems. Remember your customer is a person and what do all people love to talk about? Themselves! That's right, if you talk less they'll talk more and drop knowledge bombs on your left and right.

Know what type of interview you're having up front

Are you there to learn about a customers job to be done or are you there to test an idea or design with them? If you're not clear on what you need you won't get it and if you show up with your own ideas first you're going to squash hearing the untarnished facts from your customer.
I suggest to keep things separate. If you're there to learn about how a customer does something leave your ideas for the next call. If you need to validate an idea, then start there, just know you're likely not going to get the same details about their context as you would otherwise

Don't be afraid, practice makes perfect

It's normal to be afraid of conversations. There are all sorts of reasons fear pops up. Pause and recognize those fears and realize they're very likely nothing to worry about.
The real game changer is to practice. Practice on friends, on strangers, on anyone who will talk about themselves (practically everyone will). The more you do the easier it gets.

Ditch you preconceived notions at the door

You're here to listen to them. You can't listen to them with an open mind if you're focused on your preconceived notion. So ditch it unless the reason you're having the conversation is to review your idea. But don't mix things up.

Count to 5 before you speak

I had to learn this one the hard way. It was pointed out to me that I often started speaking without pausing. But guess what? If you pause, and I mean REALLY pause, a lot of the time you'll end up learning more. People take time to think and reflect. Without giving them that time you're interrupting them. Which is the opposite of listening.
Hold back your thoughts so you give who you're interviewing with time to share theirs. In the end, resist the urge to fill the silent gap. The gap is good.

Ask probing questions to elicit response

It's an interview not a conversation. So dig into the details, but when you do try to avoid questions that elicit a yes or no response. Ask open ended questions or ones that ask people for specific details. Dig in!
Here are a few of my go to questions:
  • Can you tell me more about that? ← Seriously this one is a GOLDEN question that pays dividends!
  • How are you solving that today?
  • What would you do if you didn't have that?
  • What exactly did you mean by "X"?

Don't assume you know what someone meant

People use different words for different things. Every company has its own language. Be sure to ask questions to be 100% sure you know what they mean. For example, I recently had a conversation with a friend who just got into snowboarding and he used the phrase "Skiing has so many logistics". I know what the word logistic means, but in this context I wasn't sure we were on the same page. It turned out what logistics meant to him is skiing has so many things to know (how to get tickets, where to wear your ticket, how to use a lift, where it's best to go for your ability, what gear you need, etc.). Logistics meant what you had to KNOW as well as what you had to take care of.

Be in the moment, turn off all distractions

You can't listen (let alone take good notes) if you're distracted. So turn off the cell phone notifications, put your devices in Do Not Disturb, shut the door, turn off the music, etc. Put 100% of your attention to the interview. Otherwise you'll miss the interesting bits.

Ditch the agenda, let things go organically

Agendas are good to share to let them know what you're interested in and are great if you find someone who starts talking about their last golf outing, but otherwise let the conversation go where it goes.
Of course I'm not saying don't talk about what you need to hear about. But be open and willing to follow rabbit holes as they come up. Jump around in the conversation, go back to things a while ago, this often has the wonderful habit of getting someone to realize something new.

Take many notes

This seems obvious, but you'd be surprised how few notes people take. Don't waste your time, fill up that page with as many notes as you can. This interview is precious to you, be sure to capture it!
Also, don't be afraid to pause to take that note down. Resist the urge to speak and miss out on taking an important note.

Know what works best for your to take notes

Some people like pencil and paper, others type. Know what works for you.
Figure out shorthand that works for you. Sometimes I'll just just write a single word or two and put an ← after it or something to highlight its importance. Then right after the meeting I'll flesh it out.

Don't mix interviews with sales

Nothing will shut down a great interview faster than pivoting to a sales conversation. If they bring it up that's one thing, but if you do you can guarantee they'll start being more reserved and share less.
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