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How to Conduct Successful Customer Interviews

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This blog is the third installment of a three-part series on B2B customer interviews. Check out my two previous articles: What is a customer interview? and Getting B2B Customer Interviews.

 

Entrepreneurs tend to involuntarily ask biased questions during interviews so they get the answers they want to hear. Asking “Is online reputation important to you?” will usually result in customers telling you, “Yes, of course,” but that doesn’t necessarily mean they will pay for an online reputation management solution.

 

When conducting interviews, you should be aware of three common biases:

  1. Confirmation bias. We seek information that confirms our preconceptions or assumptions. If I believe that all left-handed people are more creative than right-handed people, each time I see a creative left-handed person I will reinforce my belief and ignore information that contradicts it.
  2. Interviewer bias. When we interview, we tend to lead people to the outcome we desire with our questions. For example, “Is this solution better than what you have now?”
  3. Response bias. In general, interviewees want to be nice and tell us what they think we want to hear, even if it’s not true.
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So how do you avoid conducting a biased interview? First, you should prepare an interview guide with unbiased, open questions. For example: “Tell me about a time when your restaurant received a bad review.” Your questions should be specific and relevant to your business idea. Your goal is to understand current behavior by asking customers to share their real experiences. Remember that humans are natural storytellers – most will want to tell their story.

 

Open questions about specific past behaviors have two huge benefits. First, customers will probably tell you the truth because they don’t know the answer you expect. Second, they won’t have to reflect too much on the answers. Founders love to ask “would” questions (“How much would you pay for an online reputation solution?”) but these questions tend to generate useless responses. The word “would” forces respondents to create a hypothetical world and predict how they might react, which humans are notoriously bad at. Do yourself a favor – run a “find” function on your questions and banish the word “would.”

 

When you write your questions, don’t forget to test assumptions that seem obvious to you. An entrepreneur and I once entered discovery interviews with the hypothesis “Michelin star restaurant managers hate no-shows.” It seemed pretty clear – if someone was scheduled to pay me $400 and never showed up, I’d be pretty irritated. We were surprised to discover that many simply overbook their restaurants and if all the guests show up they see it as a fun opportunity to give everyone champagne at the bar and play Tetris with the tables. So much for that assumption.

 

 

Once you’re validating a potential idea, you can go further. After a few open questions, read two or three potential value propositions of your product or idea and observe the reaction. This is the first step in understanding how you will sell your product. After testing some value propositions, the best thing you can do is bring something they can touch (don’t leave it with them in case you change the whole idea). It can be an interactive prototype or just a flyer, but it will help customers react honestly to your idea. As Jake Knapp of Google Ventures reminds us, reactions are hard to fake. When you show someone something, their reaction and how they interact with it will give you the best idea of how they really feel.

 

Your goal during the interview is not only to hear what customers have to say, but also to get them interested in what you are starting to build. At the end of the meeting, you should always try to get agreement for a second meeting, both to strengthen the relationship you’ve created and so they believe you will stick around.

 

One last thing — don’t forget to take good notes! In a perfect world, someone will take them for you, but you can also ask the customer for permission to record the interview (Smart Voice Recorder is a good basic app for this). When you take notes, pay attention to emotion and reactions, and get direct quotes whenever you can.

 

The key to customer discovery is to listen to your customers’ stories and observe their reactions to what you present to them. Then, and only then, will you know if what you’re trying to solve is really a problem. Of course, practice makes perfect. Feel free to share your customer development trials and tribulations with us by connecting with me on LinkedIn or emailing the accelerator.

 

 

If you are interested in learning more about customer interviews and customer development, check out The Four Steps to the Epiphany by Steve Blank and The Lean Startup by Eric Ries.