How to Interview Customers and Get the Answers Your Business Needs

August 23, 2012 | By | 1 Reply More

Many businesses need to know what their customers think and want, but getting the answers to their pressing questions isn’t as easy as it seems. It’s not that customers lie; it’s just that they don’t always tell the truth, are trying to spare your feelings, or are simply too busy to talk.

So how do you get the information you need to run your business more effectively?

business meeting

It’s important to know you don’t have to interview hundreds of customers to get your answers. While most people believe their situation is different and unique, in reality, it’s not. Most people have similar needs, problems, and experiences. When interviewing customers, a consistent picture forms in as few as 20 customer interviews.

If your business is small right now, try to interview 10 customers per week. I usually send out emails asking for an interview in batches of 10 and I’ll get up to 8 positive responses each week. I don’t do too many at a time because even 8 interviews can be a big hit on my weekly schedule.

Ask for an Interview, Don’t Just Cold Call

The first step is to send an email and make it brief. It should only be 2 or 4 lines. The structure of the email is simple: introduce yourself, ask the customer for a 15 to 20 minute phone conversation, tell them why you want to talk to them, and offer to call their assistant to arrange a specific time. Many customers feel honored that their opinion matters.

Always leave an hour in your schedule for the interview. I’ve rarely had one end in 15 minutes; mostly the customer keeps talking for 30 to 45 minutes. If I asked for 15 to 20 minutes, I make a point of showing respect for their time and ask them if they want to end the conversation after the allotted time.

Sometimes you don’t really know one customer from another, and so just asking all of them is the best you can do. If your customers have ever filled out a questionnaire, you may be able to target the ones in a particular category. If you know your customers, start by picking the happiest ones because you want to find more like them.

Which Is Better – Phone, Online Survey, or In Person Interviews?

There are mistakes people make when conducting customer interviews. First, surveys don’t produce the same level of information that an interactive conversation does. In my personal experience, I get at least twice as much information from a conversation than from a fill-in-the-blank survey. Next, phone conversations work the best. In-person interviews are hindered by interpersonal dynamics. Lastly, don’t call customers out of the blue, make an appointment and get on their schedule. Everyone is busy. Calling someone unexpectedly just interrupts their already tight and overbooked schedules, and they are likely to cut your short.

If you feel you need to do in-person interviews, here are a few hints. See if you can meet them at a tradeshow, conference or networking event. The reason is people at these events are removed from their day-to-day situations and are at these events to talk to others. They are more likely to be relaxed and willing to give up more insightful information. Second, if you are at their offices, having a customer show you what they do or how they use your product is more useful than them telling you. If your customer is reporting in their weekly status report to their manager that a task takes 30 minutes per week, they may not want to have their boss overhear that it’s really taking them 4 hours to do the task.

What Do You Want to Know?

Next, decide what it is you want to know and then outline the line of questioning. I recommend limiting it to 5 related questions. You don’t want a yes or no conversation, but an interactive dialogue. A few questions works best because then you can probe deeper or even redirect the conversation based upon the answers.

I always take lots of notes during my interviews. You can even record your interview, but if you do, tell the customer. Some people tend to clam up if the conversation is recorded, but not when you are taking notes. After the interview is done, I review my notes and write a summary. Often, just the tone of their voice, or how the hesitate to answer a question can mean a lot.

Show Your Appreciation

Remember to thank them for their time. If you want to splurge, a gift card for a cup of coffee at Starbucks is all it takes to make them feel appreciated.


About the Author

Cynthia Kocialski is the founder of three start-ups and helps entrepreneurs transform their ideas into new businesses. Cynthia is the author of Startup from the Ground Up and Out of the Classroom Lessons in Success. Cynthia writes regularly at Start-up Entrepreneurs’ Blog. and provides in her video series information on Business Startup Success.

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Category: Customer Service

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  1. Yvonnew says:

    Great information for any new business.

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