10 Tips for Amazing Customer Development Interviews (Part 1)

When it comes to discovering and validating a great product, nothing is a substitute for hearing the good, bad, and ugly first-hand from potential customers. The interview is the most basic, core part of customer development, and is the best way to challenge your assumptions, validate your minimum viable product, and find early customers.

If you’ve done even a handful of customer development interviews, you know what a great interview feels like. The energy is high. There is synchronicity with the potential customer. Even if you don’t get to “yes” at the end of the interview, it can be a fantastic and rewarding experience because you have learned something new. That’s the point, right? You have gotten one step closer to validating your hypothesis.

After conducting over 1,000 interviews for startup products that did not yet exist I’ve developed a handful of techniques for getting the most insightful data out of your precious time with potential customers. Although most of my experience is with Web-based business software, many of these same concepts hold true with consumer software and other products. Here are the first five tips for conducting an amazing interview.

Tip 1: Interview the decision-maker. For consumer products, this is often straightforward. However, if you are pitching a proposed solution for a business, make sure you are talking with the person who writes the check or has significant influence over the decision. Sure, interviewing users is an essential part of development, but at this stage, you are trying to determine if someone has pain, which in turn leads to whether they will buy your product. If you are early in the customer discovery process and do not yet know who the buyer is, start with the person you think has the biggest problem, and ask them to walk you through the steps of a hypothetical purchase in their organization. They will lead you to the person with buying authority.

Tip 2: Prepare your questions – but don’t follow a script. This should be a conversation, not a structured interview. But since you are testing a hypothesis, be sure to write down the questions in advance so you know what to ask to prove your ideas. It will also help you stay on track and get the most out of the customer’s time. Feel free to deviate from the script though and don’t stress about getting an answer to everything – you will learn more by letting the conversation flow naturally. Don’t bother to send questions in advance to the customer; you should be listening closely to their reaction. Another tip: ahead of your interviews write down what you think the answers will be. It’s virtually guaranteed that you will hear something different from customers along the way and it’s a great way to document your learning.

Tip 3: Ask open-ended questions. In the early discovery stages you don’t know the right questions to ask, so open-ended questions lead you to new questions you hadn’t thought of asking. If you are asking Yes/No questions in your interviews, you are assuming too much. Open-ended questions give you insight into desires and motivations that can help you understand buying behavior (often an irrational process). Asking a customer “what’s the worst part of your day?” will yield far more insight than several survey-type questions. Yes/No questions are fine for getting specific answers, but they presume you know the right questions to ask.

Tip 4: Let them talk. You should be talking less than half the time. Ask them a question and then shut up. It’s OK to let a potential customer think about their answer. Let customers fumble through their answers without jumping in and you will get deeper insight into their thought process. It’s OK to have a bit of radio silence. If you are at the early stages of your product concept you should be in pain-finding mode – when you let customers speak, you may find pain in unexpected places.

Tip 5: Dig deep and ask why. Don’t accept the first answer and move on to the next question on your list. Use the five whys to get to the root cause of a statement. During discovery for a new product a few years ago, I had potential customers tell me they hated going to the office on the weekend to finish up work. Taken at face-value, this is obvious –who loves going into the office on the weekend? But by probing deeper, we uncovered underlying fears and desires. They wanted to see their kid’s soccer match. They feared missing a potential business opportunity. They wanted flexibility. Through deeply understanding customer problems and our value proposition, we were able to build the right features, charge a higher price for the product,and craft better messaging. By asking “why?” you can understand real motivation and uncover your product’s potential.

In the next post I’ll share five more tips for getting the most out of your customer development interviews.

10 Tips for Amazing Customer Development Interviews (Part 2)