Meeting with customers during the early stages of a new product definition provides an understanding of the underlying needs, opinions, and motivations behind their behaviour. It validates assumptions about the problems we are willing to solve and informs a value proposition. At the same time, we have the chance to develop ideas or hypotheses to be tested with a successive quantitative research.
Customer interviews help develop a deep understanding of the situation before deciding to take action. Having 40+ hours of interviews is not like sitting at a research agency de-brief reviewing a bunch of PowerPoint slides. I usually come back from the experience with real faces in my mind, people’s words surface to rescue me whenever I need insights to take a difficult decision.
However, as most of the valuable things in life, it’s not easy stuff. Interviews take a lot of practice, and at the end of the day we might feel exhausted. They don’t cost much money, but do require quite a lot of time to recruit the right people, to organise the agenda to accommodate them, and to run the actual sessions.
Here are ten tips I put together on how to run effective customer development interviews.
- Come prepared, have clear in mind what I want and how to get it
I don’t do improvisation, it might waste the opportunity and I might end up not knowing what I originally wanted to know. I usually prepare a script, which forces me to focus in advance on my objectives and find the right way to achieve them during the session.
- Smile and be kind, interviews contribute to make the whole process more human
People are generally happy to help and talk about their frustrations if they feel that someone is going to find a solution and they are going to be part of the process. Sometimes they are also driven by the curiosity to see how a new product is developed. So I try to be kind and open with them, it’s my opportunity to learn and I’m grateful for it. Besides, I might end up meeting with someone with an interesting story to tell, it’s a nice way to spend a hour at work.
- Create a connection when meeting customers
I usually thank them for taking the time to meet me, and I offer them something to drink. If I am meeting at an office, I choose a cosy and comfortable room, better if with sofas rather than board tables. And I try to spend the first minutes to create a connection with them at an emotional level. The more comfortable they feel with me, the more they will open up. The entire session shouldn’t feel like an interview. It has to be more like have a conversation with a friend about their problems in their daily lives.
- Keep in mind that it’s an opportunity to learn, not to sell
I resist from talking about my ideas all the time, about what I’m doing it’s cool and why they should love it. A customer interview is not the right place to do it, I am there to learn not to sell. I try to keep the conversation focused on customers problems, that’s the place to start. If they keep suggesting new features or what I should do – some people just can’t help – I gently take them back to the problem side: what is their frustration and how they solve it today. That’s what matter the most at this stage. I make it clear and explicit from the very beginning of the session: I’m not here to sell, but to learn from you.
- Don’t overdo or overcrowd it
Interviews can be exhausting, with all the emotional connection I have to create and the stress to facilitate the conversation around the areas of my interest. I don’t do more than three sessions per day, with one customer per session. And I try not to scare the customer with a crowded room. It’s good to bring team members with me to meet with customers. It will increase their understanding of underlying needs behind the product. But two of us is more than enough.
- Be ready to hear things I might not want to hear
During interviews, I start to validate assumptions about problems first and then proceed with solutions. I make use of my industry knowledge, available insights and my experience to draft these assumptions. I’m aware might be wrong, but it’s better to be proven wrong at this stage than after a ££ million development and marketing campaign. That’s the whole rationale behind this! So I’m ready to be proven wrong, and I take that as an opportunity to learn about which are the problems customers really care about, or what is my target market. In fact as a rule of thumb, we should always ask at least one questions that has the potential to destroy your currently imagined business.
- Make sure I prevent polite validation
The worst thing that could happen is to build and launch something nobody wants. So I prevent them to give me positive feedback or validation because they think they have to be polite. I make it clear from the very beginning with customers that they will really be of help if they are brutally honest with me. And I try to control my facial expressions when they say something I really didn’t want to hear. But most importantly, I don’t talk about my idea during problem validation interviews. Anyone will say my idea is great if I am annoying enough about it. So I would give as little information about my idea while I am nudging the conversation in a useful direction.
- Avoid asking customers what they want
I’ve realised that if I ask someone “which are your problems with…”, they will probably struggle and it will be a bad start for an interview. Asking the wrong questions (here a list of some of them) might waste my time and my guest’s time, and result in incorrect conclusions. I do my best to make assumptions about the problems target customers might face, and tell them a story they can relate to. I describe a real life situation, and if I see them nodding and smiling, that when I know I am on the right path! After that, it’s all about letting them talk about their life and to ask about specifics in the past instead of generics or opinions about the future.
- Organise my notes as soon as possible after the interview
After the interview, I know I may soon forget everything, especially if I immediately have another one. I’ve realised that it’s important to leave some time in my agenda so that I can take half hour to rest after the session and carefully document what they said and any meaningful non verbal reaction related to what we have been discussing about.
- Ask for permission to follow up and for referrals
When wrapping up, I thank customers again for their time and I share with them how much is valuable for my job to have had the opportunity to meet. If I had a good exchange with a customer and I believe she is a potential early adopter, I ask for a permission to follow up. Moreover, they might know someone interested to participate. So I also ask them if they know someone else with a similar profile to recommend. It’s hard to find the right people, I know I shouldn’t miss this opportunity.
Based on my experience, I realised that if I follow these ten tips I will finish my sessions with a clear understanding of my target customers. Their frustrations, their hacks, their behaviours: all valuable insights that I can use to define and launch a new successful product.