How to interview customers

It’s hard to think of any other type of data that can produce as much value per effort as a customer interview. Customer interviews can bring value on every stage of your startup journey from ideation through launch all the way to enterprise-scale.

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Why do customer interviews?

It’s hard to think of any other type of data that can produce as much value per effort as a customer interview if it’s done right.
Customer interviews can bring value on every stage of your startup journey from ideation through launch all the way to enterprise-scale (and especially, on a stage where you worry a lot about increasing free-to-paid conversion rate).
In this guide we’ll cover customer interviews at each stage:
  • How to run an interview
  • Who to talk to
  • What data to gather
Feel free to use the navigation bar to skip ahead to the sections most relevant to you and the current scale of your company.

Who should interview customers?

If you’re a bootstrapped founder, and especially if you’re a solopreneur, the short answer the answer is you!
And you should start from day one, while you’re still ideating.
Google Analytics, traffic data analysis, heat-maps — it’s all very useful. But nothing can beat feedback from real people interested in paying you money.

Should the marketing team or product team talk to customers?

  • Who defined the product spec?
  • Who prioritizes features?
Marketing team that interacts with customers and shape the messaging and positioning? Or Product Managers?
The only person who can really decide on all of this is THE CUSTOMER.
It doesn’t matter who specifically on a team carries out these functions as long you’re running a clean process and incorporating feedback in an intelligent way.
How that’s done and what you should take away from customer interviews depends on the stage of your business.

Customer Interviews for Companies at the:

1. Idea Validation Stage

Customer interviews can be extremely valuable even from the earliest days of ideation.
The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick, a classic on the topic of customer-interviews, begins with a hypothetical situation where a founder “interviews” their Mom with a simple question:
“So, what do you think? Would you use an application like this?”
Obviously, Mom says “Yes” because that’s what moms do — they always try to say “Yes” to their children) and the product based on the “insights” like these ones are destined to fail.
Unfortunately, many founders don’t use customer interviews on the Ideation and Idea validation stage, or — which is probably even worse — use them in a wrong way.
They ask leading questions like those from The Mom Test, they describe their ideas in detail, or run social media polls and make upvote-led decisions. These are all rookie mistakes.
Useless at best, deadly to your young business at worst.
Some founders are feel too shy to talk to real people. They think that they can limit themselves to analyzing online trends, perhaps by extracting data from subreddits and picking customers’ pain points there.
This is a mistake too.
In a nutshell, when you research data online you should be aware of the fact that this data is heavily biased: it will follow the mood of the platform.
People on social media exaggerate the size of their problems because social media is a great place for a good rant.
Only conversations with real people will reveal the actual “size” of the problem they are complaining about.

Go deeper on the ideation-stage customer interview with this case study:

👉
Ana Bibikova’s Guide to Building MVP through listening to the customers’ voice

Further reading:

 

2. Product Launch Stage

Customer interviews at this stage are a great why to find the perfect messaging for your landing page copy to increase conversion rates.
Your goal here is to extract language people are using while describing their pain points.
Every moment of “pain” is a great bullet point on your landing page to describe how your product works and the problems you solve, in your customers’ own words!
For example, if customers say “What we don’t like about existing solutions is the lack of professionalism. The interface looks like it’s been drawn by a five-year-old kid”.
Then your landing page should contain the phrase “professionally-looking interface” because that’s what your customers are looking for.
What are the alternatives to customer interviews at this stage?
  • A/B testing.
Though it’s a popular option among the founders the tough truth is that it works only if you have enough traffic to your website.
5K visitors a day — Yes to A/B testing.
20 visitors a day — definite No.
Why?
Because the data you’ll be getting is absolutely irrelevant. It’s the same as flipping the coin — which you can obviously do as well.
Wait until you have more traffic, enough to draw statistically significant results, before you start running A/B tests on your landing page.
  • Surveys
Services like Amazon Mechanical Turk and Wynter.com promise to automate message validation.
They ask real people what they understand and don’t understand on your page, what their impressions are.
Customer interviews at this stage can also be used as an alternative to usability tests which are quite expensive.

Go deeper on the launch-stage customer interview with this case study:

👉
Arnaud Belinga and Breakcold: how customer interviews helped to shape the product in 2 weeks

Further reading:


3. Beta Stage

Founders should definitely use customer interviews when the product is launched at beta to get insights on what features are useful for customers and what can be removed, how they move through the onboarding process, and what customers’ expectations are.
There are cases when founders have pivoted to a totally different product due to customer interviews during the beta stage.

Go deep on the beta-stage customer interview with this case study on Hiten Shah’s company Nira:

👉
How Nira pivoted to a different product due to a customer interview
 

4. Growth Stage

When your product is up and running it doesn’t mean that you can relax and ignore the voice of your customer.
Here are just a few large companies that crashed and burned after growing deaf to their customers’ needs and wants;
Nokia — was one of the leading cell-phone manufacturers in early 2000. Completely shut down their phone manufacturing facilities several years ago.
Blockbuster Video — home movie and video game rental services giant, was evaluated over $500M in 2000. In 2010 they completely lost the game because of Netflix.
Toys “R” Us — one of the biggest US-based retailers that sold toys. It was supposed to feel great because in 2000 they signed a deal with Amazon that limited toy sellers on the e-comm platform to just 1 player — Toys “R” Us .
In 2004 Amazon decided that it would be better to sue with retailers and pay the fees but let other manufacturers and retailers on the platform.
Toys “R” Us was so focused on the contract with Amazon that it completely ignored the move of the customers online and did not make any attempts to build an e-commerce branch.
They filed bankruptcy in 2018 and closed all stores.

Tools for growth and enteprise-stage customer interviews:

There are many tools you can use to listen to the voice of customer and automate the process (MedalliaClarabridgeQualtrics, etc.), but most of them are enterprise-level solutions.
As an early stage startup you probably won’t be able to afford any of those.

Free-alternatives to gather customer-feedback:

Whatever product you’re dealing with there must be influencers on social media who cover this subject. Influencers are very responsive to change in customer demand and habits — if you see a change of narrative start getting worried.
  • Use tools that will help you to collect user feedback
Forms (TypeformTally, Google forms, Reform) chats, surveys.
  • Keep on arranging customer interview sessions
To assess how your customer natural workflow has changed and what improvements your product need to resonate with these changes.
 

How to find customers to interview?

If you already have a product this should not be a big problem, most customers are happy to chat to a founder personally.
Send an email and offer to schedule a call in exchange for some benefit (an extra month of product usage, extra gigabytes of space, 100 extra emails, etc.).
As they already use your product, offering product-related rewards makes total sense.
Other great candidates for customer interviews are churned customers.
The goal of these interviews is to figure out why they churned (cancelled their subscription) and to decide if customers like those are not your ideal customers (you will not target your ads on users with the same demographics) or the churn is situational.
You may also get the insights on your pricing policy and the opportunity to improve it considerably.
If you’re at the ideation stage and don’t have any active or churned user then you’ll have to be more creative and use free (takes longer and not guaranteed) or paid-for services.

Go deep on churned-user interviews:

👉
How
Stagegaimer.io went to 3 paid customers a day talking to churned users

Services and platforms to use for recruiting customer interview candidates (click to expand):

I. Totally free — Twitter and LinkedIn
Social platforms will be your first reasonable choice because they offer access to millions of user profiles for free.
Step 1: Search for candidates
Put the role/keyword you associate with your product within your search bar and go through the results. For instance, you think of building an app for productivity and you think it will be the most useful for young energetic developers who try also to get a degree on the side. Therefore, you need to search for “developer” or some specific computing language — probably, a popular one right now as you’re targeting the young ones (ex., Python, R, Node.JS, etc.).
Step 2: Research the candidates
Make a list of 50 candidates. Don’t reach out straight away! Go to Advanced search in Twitter and check out if any of them have ever made a comment or posted a tweet about productivity. If they have — great. Add a link to this tweet to your project file — you’ll use it on the next stage.
In LinkedIn just do a regular search “productivity” [email protected] account you have dugout. Again, if anything yields — add it to your stash.
If you have no mentions of the problem your product is dealing with from any of your prospects — let’s try to go to the next stage. But your chances of getting a quality interview have just decreased.
Step 3: Reach out
Try to reach out to every prospect in DM and explain your plan. Use techniques and tips from the Cold Email Outreach guide
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Things to remember Tons of socil media accounts that are “dormant” — people who visit the network once a year or only when they change an employer and want to update their CV. Before reaching out make sure this person is active (comments, posts).
II. Almost Free — Reddit
Some founders insist that Reddit belongs to the first category and you can find candidates for your interviews there. Our recommendations — give it a try. But before you do it — check out the sub rules. Most of them now don’t allow posts that invite members to surveys and research. If you insist Reddit will simply ban you from using it for a month.
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If you decide to use Reddit, a couple of tips: 1. Choose small subs, not the ones with 100K members. Those usually have more tough policies. 2. Only chose relevant subs. 3. Be honest about your request and right to the point. 4. Reddit is a network where you know next to nothing about your prospective candidates for an interview. You know nothing about their location, age, income level, are they even who they claim they are. It’s not like LinkedIn or Twitter where you can go through a person’s activities and figure out all the demographics without asking prying questions. Therefore, if you use Reddit you have to add one more step to your recruitment routine: screening!

Reddit-post template

— Hey, I’m a researcher running a study related to X. We’re looking for 10 people to run a set of 30-min long interviews. In exchange, we’ll be happy to send a $15 Amazon gift card to every participant. If you’re interested in taking part please DM me.
Alternatively, you can use a survey sub r/SampleSize. Here you can post a call out without the risk of being banned by the admins. Use the template above. Always do the screening!

How to screen Reddit candidates?

It’s a process where you basically filter your candidates and choose the ones you would finally talk to. In some rare cases, you’ll have to be creative about it. But most times it’s a pretty straightforward workflow. 1. If demographics is really important, ask the demographics-related questions after a person agrees to an interview:
— Thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me. Would you just answer some basic questions so that we can schedule an interview? What are your age and location? … 2. Then ask 2–3 questions that will prove that a person is who they claim to be. For instance, if it’s a programmer ask what programming languages they use now more often and why. If it’s a pet owner and you’re planning to manufacture dogs raincoats, ask how often do they take their dog outside, when do they do it and what distance do they usually cover.
III. Paid For Services
There’s a number of them now: Userinterviews, Dovetail, OptimalWorkshop.
Step 1. Post a “project”
Similar to posting your call to interview in a public subreddit. The difference is that provider does a background check for you and you don’t have to ask demographics-related questions. You can choose from the offered pool candidates of a specific age, location, gender, household income level, language — whatever. This is what you’re paying for.
Step 2. Post screening questions
However, you’ll have to do the screening too. Usually, you’d have to post several questions in a form of a survey for the candidates to answer. I like to use open-ended questions and/or open answers. They usually give you a better feel of a person.
Step 3. Approve candidates and schedule interviews
Then the platform starts hand-picking users that align well with your requirements and send their profiles for you to approve. You can approve or reject after going through candidate’s answers to your screening questions and their profiles on social media. Add a link to Zoom or Google meets and schedule an interview.
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What is the budget for paid services? Different platforms offer different deals. With Userinterviews.com for example, you can very well get 5 quality interviews for less than $100. Plus money that you would spend on Amazon gift cards.

How to run customer interviews for potential customers?

If you go to Google and start researching the subject of customer interviews you’ll find terms like “Jobs-to-be-done”, “4 lists formula”, “Stages of awareness differentiation” etc.
They all are very helpful and allow you to ask the right questions in the right context.
However, you can do it pretty well if you follow the basic rules and protocols. A little practice — and you’re good to go.

Basic rules:

  1. NEVER ask a person what they think about your idea or product ❌ ”Do you like it?” “Would you buy it?” “Do you think it can be useful for someone like you?”
  1. NEVER ask them if they would pay someone for solving their problem. ❌ ”How much would pay someone to solve this for you?” ✅ Instead, ask them to describe their existing process of solving the problem you think they have. Ask them to walk you through their thinking process and the way they look for a solution.
  1. If you’re building a solution to the problem based on the tools that already exist and that you presume customers are unhappy about ✅ Ask, what exactly are they unhappy about. What “work around” have they found to deal with inconveniences they see in the existing tools.
  1. NEVER ask a customer a straightforward question about their problems and pains ❌ “What are your existing problems?” Or “What do you feel stuck at?” People are horrible, indeed, with identifying their problems — if they were better at this , psychologists would not make a fortune helping people with finding out what their problems actually are. During customer interviews you have to be this psychologist ✅ Ask about current emotions, reactions and workflows. Never ask about future or probable actions.

Go deeper on the how-to of running customer interviews:

👉
General protocol for customer interviews from Michele Hansen

Further reading:

 

How to analyze customer interviews?

The interviews are obviously done for analysis.
  1. Make sure you record and transcribe every single word (use Otter.io for this or any other transcribing tool you can get tour hands on).
  1. How many interviews do you need to get statistically significant results? Generally, it is recommended to have 20–30 interviews. However, with a strong negative pattern (when there’s no pain point and problem to solve) you can usually tell much earlier. If you are having 10 out of 10 participants that say the same thing you don’t need more data.
  1. If you get 50/50 or 60/40 split in opinions it probably means that you have identified the wrong segment — it’s too wide, customers show ambiguous behavior, you have to narrow down your pool or participants (for example, not web developers using Node.js but web developers who work in enterprise level companies and use Node.js).
  1. If you see the repeating patterns, tag them and mark the specific quotes participants have use to address to these issues — you will be using them on the landing page to talk with your customers in their own words.
  1. After every interview try to place a customer perception of the problem you’re trying to solve, within the Eisenhower matrix. It’s a beautiful concept that is used to increase productivity but I like to use it for problem differentiation too. If you place all existing products within this matrix you’ll see that mostly, people pay for solving Important and Urgent problems. With Not Important but Urgent it works more or less too. But lower right squire is a dump for effort and energy — you won’t be able to build a profitable business on it.
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After a set of interviews and a thorough analysis you will be able to come up with a clear understanding of the following things:
  • Your customer segment (who has this problem you’re trying to solve and perceive it as important and urgent or at least one of those);
  • Who is NOT your customer — a segment you will not be targeting from the very beginning because they are unaware they have a problem, they are not looking for solutions, and never pay for those;
  • What are the competitive alternatives for your product? Competitive alternatives are wider than competition because they also include an option of doing nothing or doing something manually. For instance, you offer a fancy SaaS for budgeting — all the problems that you’re offering to solve can be solved using Excel. If you’re going to market it as a B2C solution you have to understand that thousands of people out there don’t do their family budget at all and feel very comfortable with it.
  • What is the current process customer uses to solve their problem. What are they unhappy about in it
  • How important and urgent the problem they are solving and how often does it occur (for example, if it’s an event that happens once a year they are unlikely to pay you a monthly subscription)
  • Words and expressions customers repeat more often to describe their attitude to the problem or/and existing solutions.

 

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Ana Bibikova - @NotechAna
Ana is an Author, Marketing Strategist and a Mentor in the Founder Institute. Ana has 18y of experience in building businesses, growing them to $4M annual revenue.
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Anthony Castrio - @AnthonyCastrio
Anthony is a Software Engineer, Fractional CTO, and the founder of Indie Worldwide, a virtual incubator and social club for bootstrapped founders.