“Surprisingly few companies take the basic step of attempting to learn about their customers.”

So said Eric Ries, entrepreneur and author of The Lean Startup, all the way back in 2008. He added, “I’ve been guilty of this… it’s just so easy to focus on product and technology instead.”

A lot has changed since then. And a lot has stayed the same.

  1. Which customers should you interview?
  2. How often should you speak to customers?
  3. Setting yourself up for conversational success
  4. Incentivising your audience
  5. How long should your interviews be - and how do you set them up?
  6. Getting people to show up
  7. The intro is everything
  8. Questions, questions…
  9. What if your customer isn’t opening up to you?
  10. You’re listening, but you’re still getting nothing, nada, niente
  11. What next?

Speaking to customers - outside of sales conversations - isn’t always a high priority activity. Everyone talks about doing it, and talks up the benefits. But 7 out of 10 organizations speak to fewer than 10 customers or prospective customers each month.

That’s despite the fact that talking to customers through every stage of the customer lifecycle has been shown in multiple studies to be a predictor and contributor to business growth.

Laura Klein, VP of Product and Co-founder of Users Know, says, “User research saves time. Period. When you actually understand what your user needs before you build things, you have a much lower chance of having to go back and rebuild everything after shipping something that nobody uses.”

So why aren’t those important conversations with customers happening?

Interviewing customers

Part of the problem is that arranging those calls can be difficult. Sales teams and account managers might not want product managers talking to prospects and customers. There’s a (usually unfounded) fear that the product team could “mess up” those relationships.

But even without an account manager warning you off, you might not have anyone in the product team who knows how to conduct interviews. And if there’s no process in place for interviewing, where do you start?

Well, let’s start at the very beginning…

Which customers should you interview?

Talking to a range of different customers is important. And being able to dig a little deeper, rather than take their initial answers at face value, is vital. That’s why it’s not enough to simply read sales call transcripts or sift through support tickets - though both of those can be useful.

Ideally you want to be interviewing potential customers, current customers and churned customers. And out of your current customer pool, you want to talk to a variety of people - from your biggest fans to your most disgruntled users, as well as those in between.

It’s harder to get hold of potential customers and churned customers, but worth doing. Potential customers who haven’t come on board yet will share their decision making process - who they’re comparing you to and why. And customers who’ve churned will help you figure out why people are leaving your product.

All of the interviews will help you understand what your customers are trying to achieve with your product - and with any additional features they request - their Jobs to be Done. You’ll end up with a more visceral sense of what’s important to them. And you’ll also have the opportunity to dig into the features that people have requested, so you have a better understanding of why they’re needed, how important they are, and where they should go on your roadmap.

How often should you speak to customers?

There’s no right answer to this one. You may have questions about a specific feature you need answers to, and choose to structure the questions around that. In which case, you’ll have some project-based conversations.

Or you may go down the ongoing discovery and development route, where you’re constantly getting feedback from customers then recording, sharing and acting on it on a continuous basis.

Setting yourself up for conversational success

How do you make sure your interviews go well? After all, if you’re not used to interviewing people, it can seem intimidating or uncomfortable.

That’s why it’s better to look at your interviews as “conversations”. And only ever refer to them as conversations or chats in your communications with customers. An “interview” doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs for anyone involved, but a chat is light and friendly. That’s the feeling you want to get across.

Incentivising your audience

People regularly ask about incentives, but there’s often no need. Start out by asking for help, with no bribes involved. If you struggle to get customers to talk to you, then you might want to try offering a gift card or small incentive. If you’re looking to talk to a former customer who’s already churned, you’re more likely to need to incentivise them. But that’s not always the case. Some people are more than happy to tell you exactly why they switched to a competitor!

How long should your interviews be - and how do you set them up?

The easiest way to get your interviews set up is to send a short, to the point, email invitation with a scheduling link that’s hooked up to your calendar. Remember you’re scheduling a “chat” not an “interview”.

In an ideal world you’d ask for at least 45 minutes with someone, but you’re much more likely to get people to book a call if you suggest 20-30 minutes. Sometimes people are happy to stay on the call a little longer than planned, depending on their schedule, but - after a bit of practice - you’ll be able to get useful insights within 20 minutes.

Don’t be afraid to send someone a reminder if they haven’t booked on. You might send one or two reminder emails before someone schedules a call.

Getting people to show up

It probably goes without saying that show-up rates for these calls aren’t always great. But being friendly and human can skew things in your favour. Try an emailed note a couple of hours ahead, along the lines of, “Our call’s at this time, here’s the link to join the call, and please let me know if you can’t make it, so I’m not waiting in <video call platform of choice> like a lemon”. Maybe you’ll want to choose less colloquial language, but aim to be as light and chatty as possible. Because it works.

The intro is everything

It’s your job to put the customer at ease. You might struggle with this at first, but it will come with practice. Aim to be relaxed and friendly at the start of the call, and hopefully they’ll follow suit. Ideally you’ll both be on video for the call, as this means you can read reactions more easily, and adjust your questions accordingly. So ask them if they’re happy to go on video if they don’t already have their camera on.

Then cover the following points, so everything’s crystal clear:

  1. Tell them the purpose of the call - you’ll be asking them some questions so you can get insights to help you improve your product and/or the way you talk about the product to customers.

  2. Check how much time they have available and ask them if they have a hard stop. Promise to keep an eye on the time and end the call at the agreed time, so they can relax and focus on the questions.

  3. Ask them if they’re ok with you recording the conversation, so that you don’t have to frantically take notes. If they look uncertain, reassure them the recording won’t be shared. You’ll only use it to get a transcript of the call for internal use. If they say, “Yes,” hit record. If they say, “No,” open a TextEdit doc (or equivalent) so you can make typed notes and still see both them and your questions.

  4. Ask them if they have any questions before you get going.

You might weave in some initial ice-breaking conversation as you work through the points above. But if it’s clear they’d prefer to get on with it, then move straight to your questions.

Questions, questions…

So, what are you going to ask, once you’ve built a little rapport with the customer?

Start by asking them about their role, and the company. It’s good to have some easy kickoff questions. But be ready to suggest that this bit only needs to be a whistlestop tour, not War and Peace.

When you’re planning your questions, consider what you’re looking to find out and brainstorm some options. Cut the ones that can be answered “yes” or “no” and any that might put words in your customers mouth. And keep the list to no more than about 10 questions. You won’t stick to them rigidly - they’re just a starting point - and you may end up digging deeper on some, or ignoring others completely that are obviously not relevant.

Some useful questions could be:

What if your customer isn’t opening up to you?

One of the biggest mistakes novice interviewers make is to talk too much. You’re here to listen. You should hardly be talking, compared with your interviewee. And you need to allow them thinking time. This might mean there are gaps in the conversation that feel uncomfortable. Relax into those natural pauses and don’t rush to fill them. If you can stay silent, you’re giving your interviewee the space to come up with deeper insights.

You’re listening, but you’re still getting nothing, nada, niente

What do you do if you’re struggling to get any useful information out of the customer? (It happens to the best of us!) It can help to try and place them in the moment. So rather than only asking, “How can we improve this product?” you might say, “Think back to the last time you were using the product… what were you working on?” Once they’ve answered, ask, “Was there anything that annoyed you? Or anything you found frustrating?”

Taking people back to a specific moment can help jog their memory.

Don’t worry too much if an occasional interviewee struggles to give you helpful answers. That’s the downside of dealing with humans. Sometimes they’re having a bad day and they can’t tap into the info you need. Or they’re mono-syllabic and even Oprah wouldn’t be able to get them talking.

These experiences are a normal part of interviewing. Thank them for their time, warmly, and look to your next call for some valuable insights.

What next?

Now that you have some clear guidance for conducting interviews, how do you make this a regular part of your process? Ultimately, anything you can do to automate the process of booking interviews in, will stand you in good stead, and mean that you’re regularly talking to customers - prospective ones, new ones, established ones and those who’ve just churned.

But if you hadn’t been interviewing before now, it might not be realistic to go from 0-60 in 2.4 seconds. Start small. Aim to book one or two interviews. Depending on your customer base, you might need to send two invitations or ten, to get one person on the phone.

Set a goal that feels realistic. Perhaps you want to interview two customers each month. So start with that. Once you start chatting to your customers in this way, and sharing the insights with your team - and within the company at large - you’ll be getting such valuable insights, you won’t want to stop.

Photo of Liz Painter, Founder of Comma Comma
Liz Painter is an email strategist and conversion-focused copywriter, and the founder of micro-agency Comma Comma. She works with SaaS, technology and B2B businesses in the UK, Europe and North America - to help them attract, convert and retain customers using strategic email sequences. As part of her research process, she’s interviewed 100s of her clients’ customers, enabling her to write messages that connect with users and boost conversions.