Early-stage companies are often searching for a big enough problem to solve. Entrepreneurs possess a hunch that a problem exists, but articulating this problem and producing a solution for the right audience is an ongoing challenge.
And once a solution has emerged, that is just the beginning.
Utilizing web analytics data to track the progress of KPIs and dig for insights is perfectly fine – I would highly encourage you to do so. However, capturing this data properly and analyzing it has become table stakes.
Startups, and companies in general, need to do more to understand their customers.
How many people have you talked to about your idea or product in the last month? I hope it is a healthy number (although my guess is less than 10 if you’re a SaaS company).
If you aren’t actively engaging with people outside of your four walls you could be at the risk of solving the wrong problem, or worse, building something that no one cares about
Creating a viable business is all about asking the right questions to the right people and then acting on the information gathered.
Sure, customer interviews are not scalable, can be logistically challenging, and require time… but they offer too much to be ignored.
In the beginning of customer development they act as a critical component for problem validation and problem solution fit. And moving forward they accelerate the process towards product/market fit and sustainable growth.
You cannot substitute the value of a good customer interview.
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In this article, we’ll look at:
- Why we overlook customer interviews
- The importance of customer interviews
- How to successfully plan, conduct, and review these conversations
Let’s jump in:
Why We Overlook Customer Interviews
The two most common reasons we overlook customer interviews are:
- Moving too quickly
- Having an internal focus
Both can compromise designing a viable solution.
Moving too quickly
With today’s technology, we truly have the ability to make anything we can imagine. With on-demand resources like Fiverr and 99designs there is never a shortage of talent. And with sites like Udemy, and Lynda we can learn anything with little friction.
This is all great, but within these nearly unlimited resources lies the problem. Moving from idea to product has never been easier. You have an idea? Go build it. Nothing is stopping you.
This streamlined process is ideal if you are solving your own difficulty, but it can lead to disastrous results if you are designing and actualizing a solution for others.
Your idea may represent EXACTLY what others are looking for. However, it will more likely land miles away from the proper solution, leaving you with a product that no one desires.
Awesome. You wasted time, resources, and money building something that will collect dust. Customer interviews can save you that effort.
Having an internal focus
Another likely reason to overlook customer interviews is having an internal focus.
Entrepreneurs can fall into the trap of thinking they know what customers require and this can make it difficult to change course. Possessing a strong vision is integral to being successful but sticking to an unvalidated path can be a costly mistake.
Customer interviews offer tremendous insight, but with this also comes the risk that you may have to pivot your product. This could mean halting development, hiring new people, or solving an entirely different pain point.
This may suck in the short-term, but if you truly care about developing a sustainable solution it is necessary to take a customer-centric approach.
The importance of customer interviews
Getting outside of the building and talking to potential customers is important to solving an actual need in the marketplace.
By sitting down face-to-face with potential customers you can gain unmatched, nuanced qualitative data.
Customer interviews are invaluable because they give you data that can directly impact your vision and the evolution of your product. This data can be leveraged throughout the growth course of your company.
Prior to doing anything (this includes creating a minimum viable product) you should be talking to potential customers to validate your assumptions and hypotheses in reality. Your pre-conceived notions may prove to be wrong and that is perfectly okay. The goal is to listen, learn, and discover. There is no such thing as a failed interview (unless you introduce bias).
Once you have validated (or invalidated) that a problem exists, you can move forward working on putting together a minimum viable product. Now, with an MVP in hand, leave the building and again interview customers, but this time ask different questions (more on this later).
Alright, at this point you may be saying “Cool, but we’ve already done that. We have a promising product and existing customers.”
Splendid! You trudged through the early stages of customer development, but that doesn’t give you an excuse to not continue interviewing customers. Customer interviews can be just as valuable, if not more valuable, after launch.
Why? Customer success.
Customer success is measured by retention rates. With high retention rates indicating strong customer success. It is a vital metric to consider, but it often overlooked in growth strategies that focus solely on acquisition.
By consistently interviewing your top customers and those that churn you can better understand your target audience. Why they use your product. What they hate. What they love.
Word of caution, I’m not saying you should modify your vision or add a feature because of one interview. Instead, I’m encouraging you to use the insight gained from customer interviews as one piece of the puzzle. An important corner piece, but regardless, simply a piece.
Customer interviews should be used in conjunction with other sources of data (qualitative and quantitative) to make better decisions.
Now that you understand why we tend to overlook customer interviews and a few reasons why customer interviews are important, let’s discuss how to pull them off successfully. The following sections are segmented between before and after launch because the questions you ask are different depending on whether your product is live.
1. Planning Customer Interviews
Planning carefully is an important first step of the customer interview process. You should be striving for quality when it comes to customer interviews, but interviewing a breadth of people is also extremely important.
The planning process includes:
- Determining the correct people to interview (choosing interviewees)
- Figuring out a way to reach out to those people (contacting interviewees)
I will guide you through each step, offering general tips and helping you articulate the questions to ask yourself.
2. Choosing interviewees
Before Launch: Choosing who speak with in this stage is difficult because you have little or no data on your target audience. In this phase, the key to success is active discovery. Kickoff the process by making educated guesses on who might be useful to speak with and then generate a system for prioritizing these conversations.
Justin Wilcox of CustomerDevLabs recommends prioritizing customer segments employing the SPA Treatment which evaluates segments based on market size, the estimated amount they will pay, and their accessibility. He suggests adding these factors together to determine which segment is most viable. This is a scrappy method that gets the job done, but don’t be hesitant to adopt your own system for prioritization.
Questions to ask yourself:
- Who cares about the problem I am solving?
- Is this solution B2B or B2C?
- Who are the relevant stakeholders in this idea?
- What are relevant industries?
- What is the title of the people I care to speak with?
- In what context do people experience the problem I am solving?
- Who could potentially be an early adopter?
After Launch: Choosing individuals to interview after launch is a less ambiguous task. You likely have data on early adopters and can identify churners. This makes everything much easier. I recommend targeting both of these segments to better understand what attracted people originally to your solution and why they eventually stop paying. Another group to consider are customers you haven’t been able to reach, but would like to.
Question to ask yourself:
- Who are my most important customers to retain?
- Which cohorts have been most engaged?
- Which cohorts have been least engaged?
- Who are the people that are churning?
- Who do I want to reach?
3. Contacting interviewees
Before Launch: Successfully contacting the right people before you have a product can be challenging. Especially if the people you want to talk to are high-ups in a company. This phase requires you to be creative. Experiment creating content to gather emails or contacting the customers of a competitor in the space.
Questions to ask yourself:
- Who do I already know that fits my assumption of the target audience?
- Can the people I know give me other’s contact information?
- What kind of content will attract my target segment?
- How do these people care to be contacted (email, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)?
After Launch: Similar to choosing interviews, contacting is also easier after launch because you already have an email list (hopefully). Utilize the contacts you already have and send them cold emails. Another option is contact users based on the actions they take. These actions could include: becoming a paid member, signing up for the newsletter, or becoming inactive. Regardless of the specific actions, set up ways to trigger automated emails when a user engages in these events.
Questions to ask yourself:
- Are certain cohorts continually churning?
- Who are likely to reach activation?
- Who are the most engaged customers?
- Who are the least engaged?
- Who is spending the most money?
- How do these people care to be contacted?
4. Conducting Customer Interviews
Through questioning and an unbiased approach, experienced interviewers can facilitate lively conversation while making sure to hit key points. This should be your ultimate goal. However, don’t be discouraged if you find it difficult at first. Interviewing is a skill, like any other, that improves with experience.
First, some advice that is applicable before and after launch.
Interview in pairs
By interviewing in tandem you can have one person as the main question asker and another person to take detailed notes and read body language. This is possible for one person to do if necessary, but two people is ideal. Do not let the ever-so-important non verbal queues go unnoticed. This is where the more nuanced qualitative data lies, and is a distinct reason why in-person interviews are valuable. Also, consider recording interviews so that you can play back audio in the future. However, it is important to note that recording interviews could cause some people to not open up.
The best insights emerge when an interviewee is relaxed and comfortable. Begin the interview by asking questions unrelated to your product. This demonstrates that you genuinely want to understand the person you are talking to. It can also help you collect important demographic data that can be valuable later on when reviewing your interviews.
Clearly state your objective
Explicitly tell interviewees that you are not trying to sell them anything. Tell them you care about hearing what they have to say and the goal of your interview is to learn and discover. Nothing they say is wrong and you are not looking for a right answer. Give them permission to let it all flow because the best data can often comes from a rambling person. Conversely, awkward silence can also produce great insight.
Generalizations won’t cut it. Ask for specificity whenever possible. For example, if an interviewee states “yes, we have that problem often” follow-up with “When specifically was the last time you had the problem? How did you solve it?” Follow-up questions like these elicit concrete, actionable responses. Also, never ask interviewees to predict the future because that is bad data and completely meaningless in the majority of cases.
Always end the interview by asking if the interviewee has additional questions, comments, or anything for that matter. This will ensure that you didn’t miss out on any insight by failing to ask all the relevant questions. Steve Blank, a pioneer of the Lean Startup movement, recommends asking “What is the one question I should have asked you?” to elicit interesting results.
5. Ask for Referrals
This is the quintessential last step of conducting an interview. Interviewees likely know other people you want to talk to – take full advantage of that fact. A simple “Is there anyone you know who I can reach out to?” or “Who else should I talk to?” can go a long way. Further facilitate the referral process by crafting a message that interviewees can use to make introductions.
Now, some advice before and after launch for conducting a successful interview. The major differences in this section are the actual questions to ask.
Before Launch: In this stage your primary focus should be problem validation and then problem-solution validation. First things first: don’t talk about your idea. This seems obvious, but it important to note because we have the natural tendency to share something that excites us. However, falling into this trap will lead to false positives. Attempt to not to even think about your idea. The objective is to learn and discover, not pitch.
Questions to ask:
- Do you have X problem?
- How are you solving the problem currently?
- How much does this solution cost?
- What effect does this have on your company/organization?
- When is the last time you had this problem?
- The problem you are having is X, is that correct?
After Launch: When interviewing after launch the focus should be on learning about how and why customers use your product. You can utilize this qualitative data to inform future development and increase retention rates.
Questions to ask
- Did you use a product before switching to our solution?
- What caused you to start paying for our product/service?
- What frustrates you about our product?
- What is your favorite feature of the product?
- When was the last time you used our product?
- How frequently do you use our solution?
6. Reviewing Customer Interviews
You’ve made it through the difficulties of choosing the right interviewees, contacting them, and properly conducting an interview.
Now you need to gather all of this data and begin to interpret what it means.
Aggregate all the data you have collected from interviews (notes, recordings, videos, etc.) and determine the commonalities. If you have completed your fair share of interviews you will most likely already have discovered some recurring themes. Don’t stop there. Let others on your team review the data. This is important to get the most out of your interviews. For example, a software engineer may see a connection that a marketer cannot vice versa.
The methods of organization are similar before and after launch, but the action you take after fleshing out these insights is quite different.
Before Launch: Take the information you have found and determine if you need to travel back to the drawing board altogether or create a new minimum viable product. Prior to launch pivots are common and maintaining flexibility is of utmost importance. Don’t let one interview sway your vision, but if all signs are pointing to the same conclusion consider adjusting your future course of action.
Questions to ask yourself:
- Why were all customers saying X?
- What opportunities did I discover?
- What assumptions of mine where incorrect?
- Was my hypothesis correct?
- How can these insights change my future course of action?
- What other data can I use to confirm these results?
- What is the root of the problem I am solving?
After Launch: Because your product is already out there the majority of the review process after launch is about determining how to make changes to the customer experience or product.
Questions to ask yourself:
- Which issues need resolving first?
- Where do my customers see the value of my product?
- How can I prioritize implementing this feedback?
- What changes will have the biggest impact on X?
- What did all customers love?
- What features of the product got them excited?
- What are the customer pain points?
You now have all the information necessary to pull off a successful interview!
Customer interviews should not take a back seat when considering growth – before and after launch… and onward. They are not a substitute for scalable methods of qualitative research. However, these conversations are powerful sources of insight, especially when combined with other data sources.
Take the time to properly plan, conduct, and review interviews so that the investment of time and resources is justified. Bad interviews lead to bad data.