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The Art of the Customer Interview: Tips and Best Practices

Learn how to understand your customers and effectively analyze their feedback to improve your business.

Customer interviews help you understand your customers on a deeper level. Their positive feedback shows where your strengths lie and what to focus on during marketing campaigns. But criticism is just as helpful—it can help guide you toward making your product or service even better.

Conducting customer interviews gives you access to qualitative data, rather than quantitative. Where quantitative data is more concerned with numbers and facts, qualitative data is subjective, meaning it changes from person to person. However, once you start the process of analyzing your customer feedback, it can show trends and valuable information in your customer base that you couldn’t access any other way.

In this article, we’ll look at what customer interviews are, their benefits, best practices, and how to structure your customer interview process.

What are customer interviews?

Customer interviews are set up to help you better understand your customers’ needs and how they use your product or service. They can be ad hoc, but in this article, we’re focusing on a structured approach to interviewing customers.

Spending time planning and preparing your customer interview will help you gather the most valuable information you can and organize it afterward into useful data.

The terms customer interview and user interview are often used interchangeably, but the key difference is that user interviews often involve contacting potential customers, whereas customer interviews only deal with people who have already purchased from your company.

Why should you conduct customer interviews?

Customer interviews help you get an edge on your competitors through a deeper understanding of your customers. Successful organizations use customer interviews to gather feedback, better understand the needs of their clients, and get to know their expectations for the product.

Interviewing customers can also reveal potential new avenues for businesses and where you might find new target markets for your company.

Gather customer feedback

The qualitative data that you can gather from customer feedback can be as specific or as broad as you like. If you’ve recently added new features to your product, you can find out whether they address a direct need, how easy or difficult your customers find them to use, or if your customers would like more of this new kind of feature.

Cutomer feedback can also help you learn the vocabulary of your customer base—if certain words and phrases come up repeatedly, these can be incorporated into future marketing materials.

Identify your customers’ pain points

Understanding the needs of your customer base firsthand can show you whether there is a real demand for every aspect of your product and where to put your focus in the future. This kind of customer feedback can also call attention to customer needs that your business does not yet meet but could in the future.

In this way, conducting customer interviews helps you innovate and shape the direction of your business in the future.

Understand customer expectations

Customer interviews can show your team what people think about your product before they buy it and what their expectations are. Then you can find out whether your company has met their expectations, or if customers thought they were going to receive something different.

This can show whether your marketing team needs to change the way that they present your product to potential customers and what things might need to be modified going forward.

Discover potential customers

If you’re thinking about expanding your customer base, customer interviews are a great place to start. Asking customers about other organizations they think are similar to your company may give you a broader understanding regarding your competitors than you had previously.

Similarly, you can ask them who they might recommend your products to—and find new user bases you had not previously considered.

Customer interview best practices

Following these guidelines will help ensure that you get the most useful information from each of your customer interviews.

Set a clear goal

Understanding exactly what you want to learn is key to making the most of your customer interviews. These goals can be general or specific, but you need to have a clear idea of what you want to learn while talking to your customers.

If you conduct a customer interview without a clear goal, the data you gather will be too diffused, and it will be extremely difficult to get useful insights from your customer feedback.

Keep an open mind

Having a clear goal in mind doesn’t mean that you have to be overly rigid in your customer interview approach. You can create space for follow-up questions you hadn’t previously considered or allow the customer to direct the flow of conversation to a certain extent.

By remaining flexible, you'll invite your customers to feel that they can answer your questions authentically, hopefully taking their time to explain things in detail, and you may learn valuable information you didn't have access to before.

Document everything

It’s a good idea to record your customer interviews so that you can produce a transcript and retain as much data as possible from the conversation. You should also take notes on any ideas or particularly important insights that your interviewee might produce.

Getting detailed feedback is the key reason for holding customer interviews, so thorough documentation is very important.

A guide to conducting customer interviews

You can use this short guide to structuring customer interviews as a starting point for creating your own system. It’s very helpful to have a repeatable structure to your interviews, as it helps you to guide your interviewee through the questions and allows you to collate your data more easily once you’re finished.

Phase 1: Do your prep work

Customer interviews require preparation to make sure that everything runs smoothly and ensure that you get the best possible information that you can.

Understand what you’re looking for

Once you have a set goal for your interviews in mind, you can start to think about what kinds of questions you need to ask. You might want to ask about the product itself, such as whether customers find it easy to use or how they feel about the quality or price point. You can also pose wider questions about your brand messaging and marketing material, too.

Beyond your interview script, understanding what you’re looking for can help you devise the right structure for your interview, plan for how long the process will take, and pick out which customers would be most beneficial to interview.

Find customers to interview

Finding the right customers to interview depends on your goals, but it’s usually a good idea to speak to people from a variety of different demographics so that you don’t end up in an echo chamber.

Customer relationship management software can help you identify which customers you want to interview. Then you’ll need to craft an engaging invitation that gets your prospective interviewees excited about being on board.

Create an interview script

To make sure you get the most useful customer feedback you can, it’s a good idea to create an interview script. You don’t have to stick to the script exactly, but it can act as a helpful guide to keep the conversation relevant to your goal so that you get the information you need. Here are some tips for writing great interview questions:

  1. Ask open-ended questions: This means avoiding yes/no questions and asking for details. Understanding who, what, when, where, why, and how are all great ways to start an open-ended dialogue.
  2. Beware of your biases: From confirmation bias to the false consensus effect, our pre-existing ideas can interfere with how we ask questions and how we understand the answers we receive. Being aware of this means you can get the most authentic information possible.
  3. Avoid leading questions: These can lead your interviewee to respond the way you want them to, rather than answering your questions truthfully.
  4. Ask for specific examples: Make sure to get examples that will help you understand exactly what your customers mean and give you more precise data to work with.
  5. Follow a logical order: Guide your interviewee through the process step by step so they know what to expect.

How to organize the actual interview

Once you have your interview script together, organizing the interview itself is your final step in this phase. This includes all the logistics like time, date, and location. If your user base is widespread, video calls are a great alternative to in-person interviews.

It’s also important to make sure you have all your legal procedures sorted beforehand. If you are going to be discussing confidential information, your customers might need to sign a nondisclosure agreement, and if you are recording—even if it’s just for internal use—you’ll need to get their permission in advance.

The customer interview also doesn’t have to be one on one. If you want to involve other stakeholders, or create a panel interview, make sure you have everyone else on the same page before sending out invitations.

Phase 2: Interview your customers

As the interviewer on the day itself, you will be your customer’s guide through the process. This can take whatever form you want—our interview structure is just an example—but it’s important to have some kind of organized process, so that you don’t miss anything, and gather the best information you can.

Introduce yourself

The first step is just an introduction. You’ll want to make your customer feel comfortable and make sure they have everything they need for the interview going forward. This is also a great time to go over the framework of the interview together so that they know what to expect.

Warm-up questions

Your first few questions lay the foundation for the rest of the interview. These warm-up questions give you and your interviewee time to settle into the process.

This is a great opportunity to practice active listening and pick up on any nonverbal cues they might be giving as to whether they’re being honest and open, or if they’re holding things back. You can adjust your interview style accordingly.

Most important questions

Once everyone is comfortable, you can introduce the most important questions in your interview script. These questions are directly relevant to the goal of your interview, so make sure to validate your notes, and ask for clarification wherever you might need it. For example, if you have recently added new features to a product, you can ask about those features directly.

It’s a great idea to ask customers to explain their answers with specific stories or use cases, as these will help you better understand their responses and gain more detailed data for later on. For instance, you could ask customers to show you or tell you how they make use of the new features.

Follow-up questions

Leave yourself time for further follow-up questions based on the answers that your interviewee has given. You might also have an observer in the room, another stakeholder in the project, who will want to ask their own questions at this stage, to gain clarity on the discussion you’ve already had.

Ask if the customer has any queries

When you and your team have finished with your questions, open up the floor to your interviewee. They might bring up unexpected pain points or strengths that you had not considered—or they might give more detail to their previous answers.

Close the interview

Once you’ve finished your interview questions, don’t forget to thank the customer for participating. If you’ve organized incentives like freebies, now’s a great time to hand those over along with contact information if you would like them to contact you for follow-up calls.

Phase 3: Assemble your insights

Directly after each customer interview, it’s a good idea to take half an hour or so to go over your customer’s feedback and make note of anything you think is particularly important from the interview itself. This next phase is all about analysis, taking that feedback and turning it into useful insights for your business.

Analyze your data

Qualitative research, like customer interviews, requires a lot of administrative support to analyze. Thankfully, there are plenty of project management tools to help you in the process. You can use automated transcription software and identify themes in each interview with algorithms.

Create useful insights

Whether you use project management software or not, you will need to create insights from your customer feedback analysis.

These insights should be actionable, meaning that your team should use them to do something different in your business. For example, your customers might really like the results that your product provides but often find it a bit difficult to use. With enough specific examples of what exactly needs to change, you can make those tweaks and end up with an even stronger product than before.    

These insights should act as the answers to the goal you set way back in the planning process, and you might even have some unexpected new information, too!

Share your findings

When you have gathered all your information together, you’re ready to share your findings with the team. Whether you choose to make your insights available to the wider company through an intranet, create a knowledge base, or present them in a meeting, this is your time to reap the benefits of your customer interviews.

Get the most out of customer interviews

Customer interviews are a great way to get a deeper understanding of your customer base. With proper preparation, a well-organized structure, and thorough analysis, customer interviews could help your business to innovate and grow.

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