10 Tips for Amazing Customer Development Interviews (Part 2)


Whether you’re a startup or part of a larger product team, interviews with prospective customers are the best way to test your assumptions and identify problems worth solving. If you are actively developing a product and have yet to get out of the building to validate your assumptions, how do you know you’re on the right track?

In 10 Tips for Amazing Customer Development Interview (Part 1) I shared the first five ways to get the most insight from each conversation. Here are five more.

Tip 6. Tell them what their problems are. That’s right – you tell them. Present them with a list of problems you have heard from others (or problems you think they have). Your primary goal is to identify repeatable problems worth solving, and if your customer doesn’t share the problems on your list you may be on the wrong path.

Ask them if they agree or disagree with each item in your list and to add other problems they have experienced. If they agree with a problem, ask for specific examples. Then ask them to prioritize the top problems. If you can, find out the cost of the biggest problem (whether it’s lost time, lost money, lost opportunity, and so on). You can replay this insight later in the interview to help justify the return on investment for your product.

Tip 7. Ask difficult questions. Asking difficult questions may make you a bit uncomfortable, but will elicit insight you might not expect. For example, if the customer tells you what their biggest challenge is, ask: “How much is it worth to you if we solved that problem?”

Or if the interview isn’t going anywhere, take a cue from the theory of “reverse selling” and state “Based on what you’ve been saying our product doesn’t sound like a good fit for you – am I missing anything?” Of course all of this needs to be done with tact and stated in a nice way to avoid sounding like a jerk.

Tip 8. Ask if they’ll buy. This tip may not be relevant if you are in the early stages of customer discovery where you are attempting to identify problems. However, if you are further along in the process and have a product hypothesis, get this question on the table early – you do not need to have specific pricing to learn a lot. Ask something like “If this were available today would you buy it?” Then take a deep breath and let them talk through their rationale.

If they say, “yes,” here is where your job gets hard. My core principle is that people like to help. But that means they may give you answers you want to hear. So here is where Tip 5: Dig Deep comes into play: You need to ask them to justify their answer. Ask them “why.” Ask them how much they would pay. Ask them what their world looks like after they buy your product.

Challenge them (nicely) with your questions and you will gain a ton of insight – and a potential early customer. I have conducted a number of interviews where the prospect thought through the purchase process and were a probable buyer by the end of the discussion.

Tip 9. Ask for a referral. Over the years I’ve learned that my best source of prospects is through existing contacts. While cold-calling and other methods are great ways to test your acquisition model and sales funnel, the rate of success is much lower than a warm referral. At the end of the interview make sure to ask “Is there anyone else we should talk with?” or “Would you mind introducing us to a peer of yours at a different company?” If they are willing to make an introduction via email, offer to send them boilerplate text they can use when making the introduction – this will make it easier for them to follow through.

Tip 10. Leave on great terms. Don’t overstay your welcome, but know that people will give you time if you are respectful. Practice good time management. If you said you would spend 30 minutes, ask for permission to continue at the 30-minute mark. Chances are they will give you more time.

You want to leave on great terms, because at the end of the interview you want permission to contact them again when your hypothesis is further along. Oh, and follow up with a thank you email. That may seem obvious, but I’m always surprised at how many people don’t do this after an interview.

Customer development requires critical thinking and challenging all your assumptions. Great interviews with prospective customers are absolutely best way to have higher confidence your product is on the right track.