How to Do Customer Interviews
Customer interviews are the key to unlocking your business.
I forgot this lesson while building my first business. My mom was the heart behind that business. She was the artist who created every sauce, side, rub, and hushpuppy recipe that came out of the kitchen. I was on the business side of things making sure that her art turned a profit.
From time to time, we would have conflicts over certain areas of the business.
One of the unique things about Lyles BBQ was that our entire menu was made from scratch. I don't just mean something cute like the sides or the sauces. I mean everything. Even the bread our sandwiches were served on.
In my “infinite” wisdom of looking for the answer to the test that was business, I decided that we should remove the homemade bread. There was a solid option from a commercial bakery. We would save dozens of hours of labor every week and cut our COGS by about 50%. In a business that runs on 10% profit margins, that’s huge.
From a business standpoint, I was right. The answer to this test was that you go with the option that cuts costs and boosts the bottom line. There are two problems with this answer. One, business isn't actually a test with right and wrong answers. Two, I never talked to one customer about it before making the decision.
People loved that bread! They loved the story behind the bread and they loved what the story of that bread meant about themselves.
Our customers chose to eat with us because we created a unique experience that they could share with other people they cared about.
At the end of the day, we have to always be speaking to our customers. It’s the only way that we can build better products and services that stand the test of time.
We are all selfish creatures in our natural state.
We, rightfully so, are worried about how we’re going to survive and move forward in this world. To actually stop and put the thoughts of someone else before ourselves takes real effort.
In his book, “Never Split the Difference,” Chris Voss calls it Tactical Empathy. A special blend of emotional intelligence and listening that helps us understand the wants of another person.
My personal favorite tactic from that book was the “How/What” question framework.
Look to ask 'How' and 'What' questions to get inside of the other person’s mind. Try to understand what it is they like and why they actually like it. Then, after you ask the question, shut up and listen to the answer. Then, follow that up with another “How/What” question.
Eventually, I did listen to the customer's (and my Mom's) feedback and brought the homemade potato buns back. We found a local bakery that could produce the bread for us at roughly the same cost.
It all worked out in the end but I would've saved myself a ton of headaches if I just would've listened before I spoke.
Here is a deeper dive into our customer interview framework:
Step 1: Prepare for the Interview
1. Identify your goals.
What do you want to learn and what questions need to be asked to learn it?
2. Choose Your Interviewee
Current customer, former customer, new customer, cold customer . . . it matters who you're speaking with. Choose wisely based on your answer in number one.
3. Prepare Your Interview Questions
The specific questions don't matter as much as the frame you present them in. The environment should be safe and you should approach the questions with an eagerness to learn. Your questions have to be open-ended 80% of the time. This is the only way that you'll actually learn valuable insights.
4. Schedule the Interview
Will this interview be done in person or online? Have they accepted the calendar invite? Have you messaged them a couple of times beforehand at varying intervals to make sure that they will actually show up? It all matters.
Step 2: Conduct the Interview
During the interview, it's important to follow these guidelines:
1. Practice Active Listening
I like to record the conversations and have another person with me to take notes while I facilitate the conversation. This way we can go back and review what actually was said.
2. Don't Lead the Witness
80% of your questions should be open-ended and you should be listening the other 80% of the time. Humans are pattern recognition machines. We are looking for answers in our environment constantly. As soon as the interviewee sees where you want them to go, they will go there. That won't be very valuable to you.
3. Probe, Probe, Probe
Go deep. "I heard you say 'XYZ.' Would you mind expanding on what you meant by that?" Surface-level answers are only going to take you so far. Get in there!
4. Maintain Focus
Conversations have a tendency to wander. Don't let it! Tell the subject you'll make a note of the thing they are talking about if it isn't relevant and then circle back to the interview with another open-ended question.
Step 3: Analyze the Results
1. Review Your Notes
Look for key themes and insights.
2. Organize the Data
Take those common takeaways and begin to assemble them into something visual so that you can see what was said.
3. Develop Insights
Write something . . . really anything. Take time with pen and paper to write down your takeaways.
Step 4: Take Action
Look at how you can actually implement these findings into your product or service. Then communicate that with the relevant leaders in your organization that can actually implement the change.
The Most Powerful Tool in Your Business
Customer interviews are a powerful tool for businesses looking to grow and improve. Following this customer interview framework will give you a valuable look inside the mind of the market. Once you see the problem clearly, you can solve it.
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