Customer Interviews: Tips, Do’s, and Don’ts

customer interviews

Agostinho Almeida’s article, Customer Interviews: Tips, Do’s, and Don’ts, has been updated with additional information and resources. The article was originally published on September 20, 2016.

Steve Blank’s Lean Startup approach to entrepreneurship is based on a simple idea: quickly find out what works and discard the rest. That way you’ll discover if your idea is worth pursuing before putting a lot of time and effort into it. One of the key ways that entrepreneurs uncover what works is through customer interviews to discover critical information such as: What do the customers really need? Does your business idea meet that need? 

But what’s the best way to conduct customer interviews? Many entrepreneurs think they already know how: what questions to ask, what information to listen for, etc. Conducting ineffective interviews, however, and then launching a product or service that no one really wants or needs can create a lot of pain and wasted effort. Effective customer interviews can help you build a better business from the start.

Below are some simple tips, do’s, and don’ts for conducting customer interviews. 

Tips for Effective Customer Interviews

Before conducting customer interviews, there are a few things to consider:

  • Focus on the problem. The first thing to understand: You are not selling anything. Chances are you don’t have anything to sell yet, so focus on the problem first.
  • Define customer archetypes. It’s crucial to understand to whom you need to talk. Take your time when you define the customer. Give them names. Don’t simply list institutions. Understand their role.
  • Develop an agile mindset. While you want to keep the conversation on topic, it’s important to remain agile when unexpected and new information arises. Agility will allow you to keep the interview going to collect more relevant and meaningful information.
  • Be prepared to listen and learn. It bears repeating: you’re not selling anything. Your goal is to gather as much valuable information as possible. It helps to record customer interviews – with permission – so you can stay fully engaged in the conversation while ensuring you capture all of the information during the interview.
  • Conduct in-person interviews, when possible. Phone calls and video chats are convenient, but nothing replaces face-to-face interviews. They allow you to make a connection and better read people’s facial expressions and body language when they’re sharing the information with you. 

Do’s

During your customer interviews, it’s important to:

  • Focus on questions that allow you to validate the problem. Who actually has the problem? How do they deal with it?
  • Develop questions that help you collect quantitative and relevant data that you can later test. Avoid questions that lead to subjective or speculative answers.
  • Tailor questions to better understand a customer’s habits. You may uncover important information around how a customer thinks about a problem that you hadn’t considered.
  • Finish each conversation with:
    • “What did I not ask?” Always assume that you’re asking the wrong questions, especially in the first interviews. This allows you to capture what you missed.
    • “Who else do you suggest I interview?”  This is an excellent way to capture more targeted contacts directly from individuals who work in the industry. For example, you may believe that talking to the VP of Business Development is valuable, but the true insights could come from Plant Managers.

Don’ts

It’s best to avoid asking the following types of questions during customer interviews:

  • “What do you think about our breakthrough disruptive technology?” Avoid talking about your technology and solution in the initial conversation.
  • “Do you think our product is too expensive?” Never go there. You’re not ready to discuss pricing. Focus on the customer’s costs, budget, operations, efficiency, etc.
  • “Would you be willing to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement)?” Big mistake for two reasons: 1) an NDA (or similar) will just predispose people to narrow the conversation rather than widening it, and 2) you should be focusing on the problem, not talking about the technology and/or solution.
  • “Would you mind answering these survey questions?” Avoid asking closed-ended questions that lead people to predefined answers. Instead, encourage people to explain their pain points in greater detail.

Visit our Resources for Innovators page and read our article, A Practical Guide to Primary Market Researchfor more best practices on conducting impactful customer interviews.

VentureWell offers several programs that feature customer discovery as the core tenant of the curriculum including the E-Team Grant Program and I-Corps for early-stage innovators and Lean LaunchPad® for entrepreneurial faculty.

About the author

almeidaDr. Agostinho Almeida is an Investment Manager with Promotora’s Venture Capital Unit. Based in Medellín, Colombia, Agostinho has executive training in Tech Commercialization and Venture Capital, and currently is part of a team that leads the Life Sciences Investments and Portfolio companies at Promotora. There he helps manage a COP$ 40,000 Million size fund, having made 7 investments and 3 exits (2 total and 1 partial) in the Life Sciences and IT sectors and is currently fundraising for a second fund of COP$ 60,000 Million.  Additionally, Agostinho has helped develop businesses and projects in sectors ranging from medical devices to software development and has co-founded and owned three companies, raising approx. 2.0 € million euros for his different ventures.

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