The Art of the Customer Interview

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by: John Caddell

I’ve done a lot of customer interviews in the past couple of years, and have learned a fair amount about what works and what doesn’t. You want to create an environment where the customer feels safe and free to share his/her actual experiences, and engaged enough to explore her memories without being distracted. Some tips:

1. Learn from Terry Gross. I love “Fresh Air” and I love the way Terry, the host, can get her guests to reveal very interesting insights about themselves. Many of the lessons below are directly borrowed from Terry’s approach.

2. Be curious and interested. One of my best preparations for doing customer interviews was podcasting (here’s a list of the podcasts I’ve done to date). I decided I would only do podcasts on subjects that really interested me, which made preparation not a burden, but a joy. With interviews you do on behalf of someone else, this isn’t possible–the client sets the subject. What is possible, even mandatory (and Terry Gross would agree), is to be interested in learning about a person and situation that is new to you.

3. Warm them up. In my early interviews, I tried to jump right into the meaty stuff. However, I found it far more effective to ask basic (but useful) questions up front. “What’s your role?” “What was the process you went through to purchase product X?” This gets the subject comfortable with talking with me, and allows him/her to ease into the subject matter. Ten minutes in, the more difficult questions work better.

4. Ask for stories. It’s easy to for people to spout their opinions. Stories, however, are more useful for making sense of difficult situations (see about 100 other posts on this blog for more on that idea). Anecdote, the Australian narrative organization, published a list of story-eliciting questions, which is a good starting point for making up your own questions.

5. Leave space for silence. In my first interviews, I jumped in with another question when there was a pause. I found of course that people had something else come to mind after they thought they were finished with a response. Now I try to leave lots of space for silence, so in case they have anything else to say they can say it without having to interrupt the interviewer.

6. “Is there anything else?” This question, the last question of the interview, has perhaps provided the most interesting answers in the interviews I’ve conducted. My first story project had me talking to customers at a market, taping interviews using a hand-held recorder. In my first dozen interviews there were probably six instances where I had turned off the recorder, thinking we were done, when the subject remembered something else important. I finally began leaving the recorder on until the subject and I had parted. The “anything else?” question, perhaps by its sheer openness, often probes more deeply than any directed question.

7. Thank them. “Thanks a lot for sharing your experiences” gets some warm responses from the interviewees and leaves the door open for a recontact if necessary. Plus, I really mean it!

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