Stop wasting time with ineffective customer interview questions
5 min read

Stop wasting time with ineffective customer interview questions

Are you doing customer interviews, but feel that you are not able to use the insights with confidence? If you were like me you probably come out of these interviews with a lot of information, opinions, and affirmations. These things feel for sure good to hear. But too often they are too general and not close enough to existing problems your customers are paying money to solve. They don't hold true in reality.

These insights you spent so much time acquiring often turn out to be not very useful.

What makes insights ineffective?

  • Generalizations often show aspirations but hide what is happening when performing a certain action.
  • Opinions and predictions of future behavior show how someone would like to act, but might not be how they act when confronted with reality.
  • The interviewee's desire to be helpful. Interview participants want to be nice and help you, which in turn leads to feedback that you want to hear but often does not reflect actual behavior.

Ask the right questions to turn bad insights into great ones

  • Avoid generalizations. Focus on past behavior instead. A great method is story-based interviewing. Start with a specific activity/action and focus on understanding the steps the customer did before, during, and after performing this activity, e.g. "Plan a project"
TURN "How often does <situation> happen?" β€Œβ€Œ
INTO "In the past month, how many times has <situation> happened?"
  • Go deep to understand rich details. Focus on understanding details of someone's workflow and process. Search for that nugget of gold by asking for clarification, e.g. "What makes you care about this?", "What do you mean by ...?", "How are you doing this today?"
    Ask "how" questions to understand what they did. Ask "why" questions to understand the motivations behind it.
INSTEAD of trying to cover a broad set of different questionsβ€Œβ€Œ
FOCUS on narrowing in on a particular workflow/set of actions they performed to get a job done.
  • Avoid yes-no and leading questions. Instead, ask open-ended questions about an actual past experience. You might be surprised by the responses you get. Also, understanding where the thoughts of the interviewee go first when asked about a certain action/event provides some good learning in itself.
TURN "I am sure that was frustrating." or "Was this difficult to do?"β€Œβ€Œ
INTO Tell me about your experience in doing x.
  • Don't ask hypothetical questions or questions that try to predict future behavior. Either ask for a past experience or ask for a clear commitment.
TURN "Would you buy this?"β€Œβ€Œ
INTO "What solutions did you use in the past to help you do this? How much were they?"

What to extract and listen for from the conversions:

Past actions. It all comes down to understanding your customer's workflows and processes on how to get a certain activity done.

Their current behavior is your competition. It doesn’t matter how effective or ineffective their current behavior seems β€” it’s what they are accustomed to and it works (at least to some degree). β€Œβ€Œ

(Alvarez, Cindy. Lean Customer Development)

Past behavior is a better indicator of future actions than asking your customers to predict their behavior down the road - aspirations, bias, generalizations distort that picture too much.

So try to extract:

  • What did your customers do? How did your customers get this done the last time? Is that typical?
  • When did they do it for the last time? And how frequently?
  • Why did they do it? What were they trying to accomplish?
  • What constraints affected the choices and actions that your customers took?
  • What frustrates or motivates your customers?
  • What steps in the process were time-consuming, frustrating, costly, and unpredictable, and how big of a deal was this to the customer?
  • What measurements do your customers use to make decisions, spend money, and determine the value?

Recover when getting off track

Interviews do not always go as planned. The conversation might go in a different direction. Sometimes this can be good and unveil some unknown opportunities. Other times you might not be getting what you are looking for. You are missing out on some important details relevant to what you want to learn. In case this is happening here are some scenarios and strategies on how to get the interview back on track.

Unrelated feature requests and generic product feedback

Scenario: You are interviewing an existing customer. They are frustrated with the product or want to get some feature requests in.β€Œβ€Œβ€Œβ€Œ

How to handle: β€Œβ€Œ
a) If the feature requests or feedback is related to your research goal, try to understand why the feature request is important and how they would be incorporating it into their workflow. Since this is relevant to your research goal, just go with the flow and learn the why and how behind the feature request, e.g.

"If you had this feature, what would that do for you?", "Tell me about the last time when you would have needed that.", "Can you think of a time when this happened?", "What were you trying to accomplish?"

b) If the feature request or feedback is not related to your research goal but is very important for the customer, thank the customer, acknowledge the feedback, and allocate some amount of time at the end of the call to get back to this, e.g.

"I can see how this is painful and impacting your ability to use our product" OR "I can see how this feature is important to you."

"I would like to understand more and promise to come back to your feedback towards the end of our call. But first I would like to get back to what you mentioned earlier about <topic related to research goal>."

Interviewee goes off on a tangent

Scenario: During the interview, you went down a path that is not related to your research goal.

How to handle:
Be polite but steer the conversation back to your research goals, e.g.

"Let us get back to ...", "You mentioned x earlier, tell me more about that / how you are doing that."

How to bounce back from leading questions

Scenario: You stumbled and led the interviewee with a leading question, e.g. "That sounds frustrating and difficult to manage. How was this for you?"

How to handle:
You can acknowledge what happened and follow up with open-ended questions.

"I just assumed that this was frustrating. Let's rewind. Please, tell me how this made you feel initially. ... What else did you feel?"

To get the most from each interview, it is important to ask the right questions. These questions should extract insights you can trust. These insights are grounded in past behavior. Past behavior is the most reliable source to predict future actions.

πŸ§ͺ I am trying something new: If you want input on your interview questions, feel free to submit them through the form below and I will reply with feedback:

Get feedback on your interview questions
Asking the right questions during a customer interview can make the difference between insights you can trust and a significant amount of time wasted. Following best practices around good interview questions can help you significantly improve the learning you get and better inform future decisions.…

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