I’ve been interviewing customers for over a decade.
I’ve interviewed audiences across almost every scenario you can think of, from interviewing fans of a USA Network show to learning why employees at top companies like Dropbox, Square, and Robinhood use a certain software.
During this time, I’ve learned a lot, including what to do, what not to do, what to expect, how to ask follow-up questions, and so much more.
These experiences also allowed me to establish a consistent, repeatable process for conducting customer interviews, which I’ll be covering in detail throughout this article.
Let’s dive in!
Step 1: Identify Your Goals
Like with most things in marketing (and in life) you must start with a clear goal.
What do you want to learn (or accomplish) by conducting customer interviews?
For example, maybe you want to establish some foundational knowledge about your customer base, including their challenges, likes, dislikes, desires, and more.
Maybe you want to understand how your customers think or communicate so you can enhance your marketing messages.
Or maybe you want their feedback on something specific, like their experience as a customer or their reasons for cancelling their subscription.
Whatever the goal is, make a note of it, then move on to Step 2: Selecting your audience.
Step 2: Select Your Audience
Now that you have a clear idea of your goal, it’s time to choose the people you’d like to interview.
The people you select for your interviews will depend entirely on the goal you want to achieve.
For example, if you want to learn why customers are cancelling their accounts, you should plan to speak with recently churned customers.
If you’re focused on acquisition, you probably want to speak with new customers who recently purchased/signed up, or people within the audience group you’re targeting but have not yet converted (for example, leads on your email list).
Regardless of who you want to speak with, make a list of at least 10-20+ people, as it’s very unlikely that every person on the list will be available or will even respond to your interview request.
Ideally, you should aim for about 7-10 interviews total, as that should give you enough data to uncover some valuable insights, Voice of Customer data, and maybe enough information to make some informed assumptions (if combined with other qualitative or quantitative data sets).
Once you have your list of people, put them into some kind of spreadsheet so you can keep track of your progress and quickly grab contract information as you move into the next stage of the process.
Below is a very simple example of what that might look like:
Step 3: Request Participation & Schedule the Interviews
Once you have your list of names and contact info in the spreadsheet, it’s time to ask people to participate and get them to schedule an interview slot.
While this may sound complicated, with today’s technology (and the template below!) it’s actually one of the easier parts of the process.
I personally prefer to request participation via email (because it’s fast, easy, and repeatable), but you can request participation in whatever medium makes sense for your business (i.e. – live chat, social media, phone call, in person, etc).
I also prefer to use Calendly when scheduling interviews because all you have to do is give people a link and they can choose the best day/time that works for them within their time zone.
Alternatively, you can always schedule interviews manually by asking potential participants to respond with the “days and times that work for you and I’ll do my best to work around your schedule” (just don’t forget to ask for their time zone)!
Like most companies these days, I use Zoom to host my interviews because most people know what it is and have used it, plus, it has a recording feature which is something we’ll cover in Step 5.
Below is a “request participation” template very similar to the one I use for myself and my clients; you’ll notice this version includes an incentive ($50 Amazon gift card), which you can use or omit depending on what you think will work best.
Remember, this is just a template; you should adapt it for whatever medium you’re using or create your own from scratch:
Request Participation/Schedule Interview Email Template
Subject line: $50 for your thoughts?
Hi [First name],
My name is [Your name] and I’m the founder of [Name of your business].
I’m reaching out because I’m conducting some customer research and as a new customer, I think your perspective would be particularly valuable!
Would you be open to a 20-30 minute Zoom chat with ________ [fill in the blank with “me,” or “my team,” or “my research consultant, Name”]?
To thank you for your time, I’d love to send you a $50 Amazon gift card once the interview is complete.
If yes, you can schedule your interview via this calendar link here.
Either way, I truly thank you for your time and business and hope you’re enjoying [whatever your product is].
Once you have your template finalized, you can begin sending out the emails; I recommend emailing 10 people to start (from your list of 20+ people) and seeing how many people bite.
Depending on who you ask to participate, about half (or fewer) of those 10 people will schedule an interview, so you’ll probably have to reach out to more people on your list until you hit the quota you’re aiming for (i.e. – 7-10 interviews total).
Another thing to keep in mind is some people might cancel at the last minute; while some may reschedule, others will not, so just keep your backups handy as you go through the process.
Once you’ve sent out your emails and you’ve got some interviews lined up, it’s time to begin prepping your interview script and questions.
Step 4: Prep Your Interview Questions & Script
Like Steps 1 and 2, the questions you ask during your interviews will depend entirely on your goals and audience.
For example, if the goal of your interview is to uncover customer pain points, you might want to ask questions like…
- “What motivated you to look for a solution like [name of your product]?”
- “Walk me through your process for [activity related to your product].”
- After they answer the question above, follow up with: “What’s frustrating about that?”
If you’re trying to build a new product that fits a need, you might ask questions like…
- “What tools do you currently use to [activity related to your product]?”
- “Is there anything about those tools that’s frustrating or could be improved?”
- “If you could wave a magic wand and design your ideal solution to the challenges you just described, what would it look like? How would it work?”
If you’re trying to understand why someone cancelled their subscription, you might ask questions like….
- “What motivated you to sign up?”
- “When did you realize [name of product] was not for you?”
- “Is there anything we could have done to improve your experience?”
Regardless of the questions you ask, it’s important to keep a few things in mind:
(1) Keep the questions simple and open-ended
The simpler the questions, the easier it will be for the participant to understand and answer with a coherent, insightful response.
The more complicated the question, the more explaining that’s required which can result in confusion, incoherent responses, or you accidentally leading the participant in some way. This usually happens when a participant responds with something like “What do you mean?” or “I don’t understand the question” — this can catch you off guard and can cause you to unintentionally say things that are leading or biased.
You also want to make the questions open-ended which will invite the participant to elaborate, leading to richer responses.
(2) Avoid yes/no questions
While there is a time and place for “yes/no” questions (more on that in a moment), in general, you want to avoid them because they don’t invite the participant to elaborate or share more.
Sure, you can always ask, “can you tell me more about that?” as a follow-up, but it’s best to stick with open-ended questions that elicit richer responses while keeping the conversation flowing.
That being said, sometimes you need to ask a “yes/no” question to help guide the conversation in the right direction.
For example, if you wanted to learn about a participants role in assessing potential solutions (yours being one of them), you might need to ask something like, “Were you involved in the selection process?” Knowing the answer to this question will allow you to either ask or skip questions, depending on the relevancy for the participant.
(3) Watch out for “leading” questions
Just like any other type of research method, you want to avoid leading the participants or accidentally incorporating biases where there should be none. This means avoiding leading questions like…
- How much did you enjoy our customer experience?
- Our website has an excellent user interface, doesn’t it?
- A lot of people are saying they love our new website. What do you think?
While these examples may seem obvious, leading questions can sometimes be tricky to identify; if you want to learn more about leading questions, check out this article from FormPlus which goes into great detail with lots of different examples.
In terms of length, I usually ask between 10-15 questions for an average customer interview.
This number may fluctuate depending on your goals, audience, and the timeframe of the interview, but I’ve found that 10-15 questions is a good number both in terms of fitting within the 20 to 30-minute timeframe, while also giving you enough questions to make the conversation valuable.
If you ask too few questions, you probably won’t get the insights (or the depth of insights) you’re looking for, which will feel like a total waste — especially if you used a high-value incentive to drive participation.
If you have too many questions, it’s unlikely that you’ll get to all of them and if you try to, the conversation may feel rushed; it’s also entirely possible to “tire out” the interviewee, which can definitely happen around the 45 to 60-minute mark (you can tell by their tone and quality of responses).
Once you have your questions, you’ll also need some kind of an interview “script” or something you can read at the beginning of the interview to introduce yourself and to provide context and directions.
Below is a sample “intro” interview script you can use as inspiration when creating your own version:
Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with me today.
Before we begin, I’d like to give you a bit of background so you have more context. We’re conducting some research to help us better understand our customers and part of that process is interviewing people like you.
During this interview, I’m going to ask you some simple, open-ended questions. There are no right or wrong answers and you can be completely honest and transparent. Does that sound OK to you?
Great, and is it OK if I record this conversation so I can remember what we talked about?
Perfect, let’s get started!”
Along with your “intro” script, you can also create an “outro” script which you’ll use once the interview is complete. This is usually much shorter, but important nonetheless.
Remember, the more you prepare ahead of time (even if it seems silly), the less likely you are to panic in a moment of silence and say something that’s incorrect, leading, or biased.
Below is a sample “outro” script you can use as inspiration when creating your own version:
“Okay [Name], that concludes our interview for today. I’d like to thank you for taking the time to chat and share your feedback today — we all really appreciate it. As promised, your [incentive] will be delivered [insert when it will arrive]. Thank you again and have a great rest of your day!”
Once you have your interview script and questions finalized, you’ll be ready for Step 5: Conducting your interviews!
Step 5: Conduct the Interview
Assuming you’ve got your interviews scheduled and questions lined up, let’s walk through a few tips for ensuring a successful interview.
Before each interview, I recommend creating a version of the questions/script for each participant so you have a dedicated document for guiding the conversation and recording notes throughout the process.
I like to open up Zoom about 5 minutes before the interview so I can get prepared. I also hit the “record” button 1-2 minutes before the interview starts so I don’t get distracted or forget to turn it on.
This may seem obvious, but it’s CRUCIAL that you record the conversation so you not only have documentation (especially important if you’re using video/screen-sharing), but you’ll also use the audio file for transcription (more on that in Step 6).
Be ready for early, late, and on-time participants.
Sometimes participants show up 5 minutes early and other times they’ll show up 15 minutes late. Regardless, I put a “lock” on my Zoom meetings so I can admit the person when the interview is meant to start (plus, you don’t want participants joining in the middle of another interview if you’ve scheduled them back-to-back).
I give participants 10 minutes to show up (with a reminder email about 5 minutes in if they’re late); if they don’t show up, I require them to reschedule the interview so I don’t have to fit 15 questions into 10 minutes (this is especially important if you have back-to-back interviews and don’t have flexibility to “go over” the allotted time).
When your participant shows up, simply read the script and go straight into your questions.
As you listen, you may find that the conversation goes in different directions than you original intended, and that’s OK. You can always use your questions to help redirect the conversation or you can ask follow-up questions that may take you somewhere else.
Like anything in life, practice makes perfect — the more you speak with customers, the easier it will become. And the more you practice, the more confident you’ll feel as an interviewer, which will help you come up with better questions and even better follow-up questions.
One thing to keep in mind is no matter how good you are as an interviewer, sometimes you just have a bad interview.
This tends to happen when the participant is just doing the interview for the incentive or for some other reason (i.e. – feelings of obligation, pressure from a boss, etc) or the participant is shy, uncomfortable, or just needs a lot of probing in order to get good information.
But it can also happen when the interviewer (I’m talking about us!) is inexperienced, nervous, or ill-prepared, which is why it’s so important to follow the steps I’ve outlined above to minimize the chance of failure (trust me, there’s no worse feeling than ending an interview knowing it was unfruitful, especially if someone is paying you to conduct them).
Assuming everything went well and your interviews are complete, you’ll send the audio files to a transcription service (I use Rev.com) so you have a clear, coherent record of the conversation you can use to identify insights and Voice of Customer data, which we’ll get into in Step 6.
Alternatively, you can skip the transcription step if you were able to record coherent notes during your conversation with each participant, but I wouldn’t recommend this as it’s very difficult to capture everything people say while also trying to listen and come up with good follow-up questions (this is especially true if you’re interviewing someone who speaks very fast).
Alright, let’s get into the last part of the process: Looking for insights!