This article 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. And remember: the customer is not always the end user, so be sure to align your questions within each interview effectively.
- 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.
- If in person isn’t an option, conduct video interviews. While nothing quite replaces face-to-face interviews, video chats are a worthy alternative and can help you expand the quantity of interviews you conduct and the scope of your research. Unlike email or phone interviews, video calls allow you to make a connection and better read people’s facial expressions when they’re sharing information with you.
- Develop a consistent system for analyzing your interview results. Before beginning interviews, define the metrics and demographics that are important to you. This will let you evaluate interview responses for recurring needs, ideas, and pain points.
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.
- Ask open-ended questions to create space for what you don’t know. Interviews are opportunities for you to learn, not assume. By allowing the customers to fill in the blanks, you may uncover important information about problems that you hadn’t considered.
- Summarize the interview during the interview. Use language like “If I understand you correctly,”; “I hear you saying…”; and “If I were to summarize,” to ensure you’re truly absorbing what the customer is saying, and allow them to expand or clarify their answers.
- 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.
- Be sure to follow up and thank them for their time. Networks are built one relationship at a time. Contacting customers post-interview to express gratitude can also offer an opportunity to ask a follow-up question or inquire on a referral they may have mentioned.
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.
- “Do you think this problem will exist in X years? Would a product like ours help you in the future?” Avoid questions about future expectations. Instead, focus on the customer’s past experiences and learnings.
- “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.
Finally, be sure not to commit the four deadly sins of customer interviews:
- Death by PowerPoint. Don’t use interviews to pitch or present your venture; customer interviews are opportunities to listen and grow—not sell.
- Death by Demo. Do not bring your product! Your focus is to learn as much as you can about the customer and their perspective on your industry. More than anything, a demo or product prototype is a distraction.
- Death by Passion Blindness. Customer interviews may lead to unanticipated discoveries about your product or field—be open minded to go where each conversation takes you, and use this new info to refine your venture, not double down.
- Death by Idea/Solution Bias. The interviews are only useful if you analyze them honestly. Report the findings as they are, not what you want the findings to say about your product/idea.
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.
What does it take to get from idea to impact? Our new case study offers a deep dive into one innovator’s entrepreneurship journey, highlighting the nuanced experience, lessons learned, and major development milestones.