Interviewing Customers (and Potential Customers) for Valuable Insights

by Diana Ecker on August 4, 2014

Interviewing Your CustomersInterviewing both the existing and potential customers of my clients is an incredible source of themes, insights, and language for their websites.

One client I had put me in touch with someone who had many, many years of experience in a role and industry that would otherwise be challenging to gain access to. That role made him an ideal representative of the target market, and we set up a time to talk.

Yes, he said, the client’s product was useful and good. But then he used a phrase that made me pause. What was that term he just used? It sounded unfamiliar. I hadn’t seen it in any of the client’s materials. I’d never even heard it before.

I waited for a break in the conversation and asked him about it. “Oh sure, that’s what we call that…that’s the most important thing in our business. In that role, we’re always being evaluated on it, so it’s a top priority.”

Whoa! Wow! Together, we had stumbled onto a phrase that was enormously important for the client’s target audience. I’d never heard it before, so I hadn’t known to plan questions about it in advance. For the interviewee, it was such an obvious term that he would never have thought to bring it up and make a special point of it.

That phrase went on to become an important part of the text on the client’s home page, placed front and center where it could have the greatest impact.

If you’re interviewing your own customers or potential customers to gather insights for how you market your business, here are some helpful things to keep in mind that will help you get the most out of the interaction.

To conduct a fruitful exploratory interview, get clear about roles

There is a common temptation to blur multiple roles together: Great, you’ve got an interview set up with someone from your target market. Hey, this person can give user feedback! And a professional critique! And common-sense recommendations! And descriptions of their own experience…and interpretations of that experience!

NO. That’s exactly how you squander a potentially great opportunity to interview someone. Instead, be perfectly clear about your interviewee’s role in your own mind before beginning the conversation. Customers are not consultants (even when they actually are professional consultants!).

Your interview will be most fruitful where you keep it grounded in the interviewee’s lived experience. This is not the same as his or her opinions about things, suggestions, or feedback. Of course, all of those topics can be incredibly useful in many ways. Just not for this.

Don’t be surprised if, at the end of a truly remarkable interview grounded in lived experience, the interviewee says apologetically, “Well, I’m sure I wasn’t very helpful, hope some part of this was useful.”

Most of us don’t have very many conversations where sharing about our own experience — often topics or details that seem relatively mundane — is of tremendous value to the listener. So it’s natural for your interviewee to be unsure that he or she has made a contribution…even when the conversation has been exceptionally helpful.

If you stay open to surprises, you might find some great ones

In my qualitative coursework in graduate school, one theme that was emphasized repeatedly was that a human being cannot wipe out all of their biases and assumptions. So there’s really no such thing as an objective interviewer.

However, you can be an interviewer who is committed to trying to notice your assumptions when they come up — and to actively remaining open to being surprised.

And it’s worth it, because the surprises can be fantastic. That’s where you’re likely to stumble on the building blocks of your fundamental value proposition, or precise phrases that will be invaluable when you go to actually revise the text on your site.

At the same time, don’t try to banish your assumptions altogether. Developing awareness of your assumptions can be useful in another way: It gives you the opportunity to identify them — and test them.

For example, if you believe you know exactly why people choose you over the competition, you can casually ask about the factor that you believe is a differentiator: “What about…?”

Be ready, though, to have your prized differentiator dismissed. If that happens, great! If it happens in multiple interviews, now you’ve really scored big — because you’ve identified one of your assumptions, perhaps one on which you’ve hinged a great deal of your marketing efforts, that is not compelling to your audience.

This frees you up to get rid of it…and replace it with something much more effective.

Panning for gold: How to pick up on valuable flashes

Sometimes it’s the little things that you’d normally gloss over that are of greatest value. As in the case with the interview described here, when you hear a word or phrase that you don’t recognize, ask about it.

Often it will be said in such a matter-of-fact tone that you might be tempted to keep going. Don’t!

Listen for changes in emotional tone as well. Many businesses are, at the root of things, tapping into deep emotional needs. If you hear someone’s voice crack with emotion, or you pick up on any kind of abrupt shift in emotional tone, you should immediately go on high alert.

You may be in the presence of a highly relevant emotion that could be linked to a powerful insight. Proceed with courtesy and respect. If inquiring further feels too intense, you can always make a note and come back to it.

It’s especially productive to stay alert for self-deprecating jokes or sarcasm, often followed by a laugh and a quick change to another subject. If you can, gently pause the conversation and invite them to talk a bit more about that topic.

Last but not least: How’s your “poker voice”?

The more you tune in to what’s happening in the conversation, the more likely you are to notice when an interviewee says something amazing.

When this happens for me, I’m so excited that I want to cheer! But at the same time, the last thing I want to do is make the interviewee self-conscious. This might cause them to start overthinking what they say, which could make the rest of our conversation less candid and less productive.

So what I do — and what I recommend — is keep my voice calm and even…. while underlining, bolding, and starring what they just said in my notes, because what they just said is going to be incredibly useful. But to make even more wins possible, it’s essential to stay cool and collected.

Whether you’re creating your website from scratch or it’s time for a tune-up on your existing site content, these techniques will help you get the most out of exploratory interviews with your target market.

Photo by Viktor Hanacek via Picjumbo

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