Why you need to start doing customer interviews


I hate the name "customer interview", but I love the process. It's a great way of understanding how you can help people more effectively. If you've ever struggled to sell your work, or selling feels fake and inauthentic, then it's the process for you.

When I first went full-time on my business, I had a vague notion of who I wanted to help and how. I knew that I wanted to help people doing personal development work. I had little idea how my particular skills could do that.

I decided to do some customer interviews with people who work in personal development. Customer interviews are a qualitative way of testing your assumptions about a group of potential customers. If you've ever performed a semi-structured interview, then congratulations, you've already used this method.

The point of a customer interview is to give you insight into how people feel. By understanding how people feel you can better explain your service to them. You can make sure that you're solving something which really bothers them.

The harsh reality is that people will not buy from you unless you solve a problem for them. Not only that, they have to trust that you will be able to solve the problem. It's not enough for them to like you. It's not enough for them to like the idea of what you do.

By interviewing people in this way you can both understand the problems that are keeping them awake at night and the language they use to describe them. The former is important because you want to solve a real problem they have now. The latter is important because it helps you frame your solution so that you can reach people.

The rules:

  • Be up front about why you're doing the interview

  • Focus on current behaviour and current needs

  • Use the 3/3/3 format

  • No pitching

  • Record the interview and look for themes

Be up front about why you're doing the interview

This isn't some slimy sales tactic. Make an honest offer to potential interviewees. You want to help them and people like them. You want to improve what you do so it's more helpful. For many people it's a chance to complain at someone who's interested and engaged for a while. That's something most people have to pay for.

The tricky part is to be fairly vague about exactly what it is you might be planning. You want to be up front about your intention, but not the solution you're offering. Offer to explain your service after the interview session has take place. I've even had customers buy from me as a result of this explanation.

Focus on current behaviour

Lots of market research approaches focus on questions about how people behave in the future. This is a bad idea for two very important reasons.

  1. People are nice. They'll change their answer to support what you've told them about. If you tell them what you're planning, they'll try and support you. They'll adapt their answers to fit your solution. You don't want that.

  2. People are awful at predicting their own behaviour. It's part of being human. We think we'll do something, and we won't.

To get around these problems, focus on what people are doing right now. Ask questions about current behaviour and current feelings.

Use the 3/3/3 format

When building your interview, aim for nine questions in a half-hour interview. That might not seem like much, but it's only a little over three minutes a question.

Divide your questions like this:

  • First three: Setting the scene. Use these questions to understand your interviewee's context. Use them to get the conversation flowing and to have people open up a little.

  • Middle three: Exploring problems. This is the juicy part of the interview. What problems does your interviewee have? What's really bothering them? Why is it such an issue?

  • Final three: Current solutions. How is your interviewee tackling those problems at the moment? What's bad about the current solution? This step is vital because it tells you how much the problem really matters to this person.

No pitching

That is, don't try and sell, or even explain your solution, unless pushed. You're interested in the interviewee's problems. That's their are of expertise. You are the expert in your solution to their problem. It's your job to deliver that. Indeed, that's what customer will pay you for.

Record the interview and look for themes

Either take notes during the interview or record it and go back to look for themes. Experiment with whichever approach you like. Be open to surprises. At this stage things emerge which I'd never considered before.

As you do a few interviews you'll see the same themes emerge over and over again. These are the ones you want to focus on. When you stop seeing new themes, you've probably done enough interviews.

Use these rules to get started with your customer interviews. They'll help you understand your customers and the problems they face. Once you're clear on that you can help them more effectively. You can also use that information to market what you do.

If it were up to me, though, I'd change the name. Instead, I'd call them "empathy building sessions" or "new idea conversations". Whatever you call customer interviews, though, they're an invaluable source of information. Use them so you can help more people more easily.

I'm helping people like you build their personal development practice into sustainable, effective businesses. I am offering two workshops one in Brighton and one online in June on building your business with empathy. One of the things I teach in these workshops is how to get confident doing customer interviews.

I also run the People Developing People community, a space where you can get the support you need to grow your personal development practice.