How to interview (potential) customers 💬

An actionable guide to setting up and running customer interviews when you are investigating your startup ideas.

Hello friends! ☀️

Another day, another (hopefully) insightful post to help you move forward with your idea(s). Today I want to share my approach to interviewing potential customers.

As mentioned in my previous post, most ideas are about a solution. And how you came up with that solution is based on assumptions. To understand if you really should build the idea you have, it is essential to talk to your potential future users and customers.

This comprehensive guide will walk you through the process of preparing, conducting, and analyzing customer interviews to gather the data you need to move forward with your ideas.

Why is this important? Because you want to be certain that the people you want to service actually have a problem that needs (ie: they want) to be solved.

A "hair on fire" problem is so urgent that customers would desperately accept any solution, even an unconventional one, like using a brick instead of a bucket of water to put out a fire. Even though the brick (obviously) is not the perfect solution.

Your focus should be on the problem itself, rather than your product, as customers care about resolving their pain points, not the specifics of how it's done.

Understanding the "job to be done" is essential, as it refers to the progress your customer hopes to achieve in a given situation. Jobs can vary in size and frequency, from small and infrequent tasks to large and recurring ones. Customers "hire" a product or service to help them accomplish these jobs, and their satisfaction determines if they will continue using it or seek alternatives.

The primary purpose of customer interviews is to collect data and insights about your target audience. You want to confirm whether your assumptions about their pain points are accurate and gain a deeper understanding of the context surrounding these issues. This can only be achieved through direct interaction with potential customers.

Before you start approaching people, it is important to determine who you want to talk to. A general approach for that is to pick a segment from the eventual target customer group you want to reach.

For example, you have an app idea focused on mothers.

Ask yourself: “Which mothers”?

  • New mothers?

  • Single child mothers?

  • Divorced mothers?

  • Young mothers?

Any customer segment you can think of can always be segmented into smaller, more focused, segments.

You have to pick a segment to interview that you think (assume) will experience and bring you the most value when you talk to them.

Prepare by using a topic map to outline the most relevant topics and questions for your interviews. Remember that a topic map is not a script – a customer interview should feel like a natural conversation.

A topic map is a visual representation of the subjects (problems) and their relationships. The things you want to ask your interviewee. This "free format" structure allows for a more dynamic conversation flow by providing quick hints on how to transition between the main subjects. It may take some practice to master, but it is a useful tool for organizing and navigating your interviews.

Types of Questions to Ask During Customer Interviews

Understanding the types of questions to ask during customer interviews is crucial to obtaining valuable insights. Let's explore the different types of questions you can use:

  1. Open-ended questions: These questions allow your interviewees to provide detailed answers without limiting them to a specific response. Examples include:

    • Tell me about your experience with X.

    • What challenges do you face when trying to accomplish Y?

  2. Probing questions: Use these to dig deeper into a specific topic, particularly when you sense that the interviewee might have more to share. Examples include:

    • Can you give me an example of when this happened?

    • How did that make you feel?

  3. Follow-up questions: These questions help you explore the answers your interviewees provide further. Examples include:

    • You mentioned X, can you tell me more about that?

    • Why do you think that happened?

  4. Comparative questions: These questions allow your interviewees to compare different aspects of their experiences or preferences. Examples include:

    • How does X compare to Y?

    • What do you prefer between A and B, and why?

  5. Hypothetical questions: Although it's essential to focus on the past and present, occasionally, you might want to ask hypothetical questions to understand your interviewees' decision-making process. Examples include:

    • If you had the perfect solution for this problem, what would it look like?

    • How would you handle this situation if you had unlimited resources?

Try to strike a balance between asking open-ended questions and more specific ones, as well as avoiding leading questions that might skew the interviewee's responses.

During the interview (virtual or in-person), set the stage by explaining the purpose of the discussion and encourage honesty. Focus on getting a conversation rather than just asking a series of questions. Look for actionable facts, emotions, and commitment from your interviewees.

People will lie to you if you ask the wrong questions. Focus on learning, not selling, and avoid questions about the future.

Your goal is to understand your customers better than they know themselves.

Take detailed notes during the interview and pay attention to the actual phrases and quotes used. These can help you position your product and craft your value proposition.

To summarize:

  • Pick a segment of your larger target customer group

  • Create a topic map and consider the order of your questions.

  • Don't script and allow interviews to go off track.

  • Listen more than you question (90% listening, 10% questioning).

  • Keep silent until it feels uncomfortable to ensure your interviewee has said everything they want to say.

  • Confirm understanding by repeating answers.

  • If you have a co-founder, try to interview people together.

  • Record the audio of the interview (with permission).

  • Avoid pitching or selling your idea.

  • Be prepared for questions about your project.

  • Always ask for referrals.

I hope this guide can serve as a building block to help you master customer interviews. When you do it will become easier to gather the insights needed to develop a successful MVP and build a strong foundation for your startup.

Please reply to this email to let me know if you used it and found it valuable.

See you next week!

High five from the internet,

Bram Kanstein (@bramk)