When properly done, customer interviews can reveal a treasure trove of valuable insights. They truly are underutilized marketing gems. However, a customer interview conducted poorly can create a sticky situation at best (or, at worst, damage a solid relationship).
Today’s article covers not only the right customer interview questions to ask, but also how to ask them, who should ask them, who should be answering them, and when those questions should be asked. All of these aspects contribute to getting what you want from voice of the customer questions: feedback that makes you aware of what your customers want and how they feel, and insights that help you better understand your buyer personas.
There’s a lot to consider, so we’re also sharing a discussion guide to help you. But first, let’s explore the types of insights you can expect from your efforts.
What Benefits Can You Expect From Customer Interviews?
There are multiple benefits to be gained from doing customer interviews, again, when done the right way (I’ll explain the wrong way, too).
Customer interviews provide:
a platform that shows you’re listening and care about your customers
insights from the customer’s perspective on their buyer’s journey with you
feedback on what you provide straight from the customer’s mouth
improvement opportunities relative to how you deliver services
R&D ideas focused on what customers want (not what you think they want)
Not every customer is a good choice for investing a significant chunk of your time and effort. It’s wise to be very intentional about the customer participants you target because you want to talk to the people who can teach you the most about yourself!
Consider your ideal customer; the type of relationship you’d love to spend your time serving. That’s usually a customer that mirrors what we call the “interview trifecta” ...
The relationship is profitable for you
They are growing their business (or have the potential to do so)
They are a pleasure to work with
It’s not easy to find a customer that nails all three, but it’s important to consider them all as you plan your interviews. Speaking of easy, the customers that are easiest to schedule time with aren’t usually as helpful as ones that offer real insights. So, shoot for the best.
It’s also smart to target customers in various stages of the customer lifecycle. New customers have the best recall of why they became a customer, while your contacts at long-standingcustomers may not even be the people who initiated the relationship. Also consider customers that developed over time. Instead of winning a comprehensive vendor search, maybe a specific engineering challenge got you in the door. Sometimes it’s the small wins that evolve into great relationships.
When Should They Be Interviewed?
The most useful customer interviews — the ones that are incredibly valuable to organizations — occur during key milestones in the relationship. Issues, large and small, are top of mind and should be documented ASAP.
After the Onboarding Process — A new customer clearly remembers the selling process, the key decision moment, and opportunities to improve that process (see more in the Discussion Guide below).
After an Important Project — Recent activity is always easier to recall. Scrutinizing how a project originated, how you got selected, and how this experience could inspire future opportunities is a great exercise, with the customer providing the feedback. Simply asking, “Will this successful project give us more opportunities down the road?” can spark new business. It shows you’re interested in that customer’s long-term success.
After a Bump in the Road — All relationships encounter challenges. A simple 1-on-1 with your main contact after a tough stretch can provide insights on how/when a project went off the rails. It also allows you to explain how this bump is in the rearview mirror; you’ve learned from this experience.
How often you decide to conduct customer interviews may depend on how often these milestones occur, but it should happen regularly, yearly at least. It’s also best to change out which customers are interviewed so you don’t burn out your best ones, and you also get fresh insights.
Customer Interview Discussion Guide
Creating a thoughtful discussion guide is critical. Sure, after doing dozens of customer interviews, you may not need this script-like tool, but until then, this is a lifesaver. You can customize this rough guide depending on the customer and when the interview is happening (after an important project, for instance).
Begin by warming up the interviewee and earning their trust
How long have you been with the company?
Where did you start your career?
How did you achieve your current position?
Not only are you showing interest in them as a person, you want to understand their journey. It’s amazing how smoothly the rest of the interview will go and how much information you can learn. People are excited when they know that what they input could be put into action.
I ask the interviewee to commit to 30 minutes, but be ready to go longer if the customer desires! Often, someone may enjoy being asked their opinion, especially when it could help a good relationship progress, so they may get quite chatty.
Go with it! Every minute is valuable and can uncover important information or ideas that you can use for years to come. You could gain insights on quoting projects, communication, billing, handling problems, technologies, etc. If a point of friction can be eliminated, you want to know about it!
Who Should Be Doing The Interviewing?
I saved this for last because just as there’s a right way to conduct customer interviews, there’s also a wrong way, and most of that rides on who is conducting the interview.
“Be prepared,” the Boy Scout motto goes, and that’s especially true for customer interviews. Approach them similarly to how you might research a candidate interviewing for a position at your company. If you don’t already know them well, do some backgrounding. Search the internet to find their position, education, credentials, and anything else that gives you a clear idea of who this person is.
Next, make sure you understand their industry.
No interview ever ended well that began with the interviewer coming across as a neophyte. Know the industry language, that person’s scope of responsibility, and that customer’s accomplishments.
Why so thorough? Because the first impression you make on the interviewee can set the table for a successful (or disastrous) interview. If you’re not ready to put in the homework, you’re not ready to connect with your customer in this way.
So remember, a customer interview should be properly structured, well paced, and hosted by a skilled, aware, and knowledgeable interviewer. Don't attempt it if the interviewer is unqualified to do it.
Here’s one more possibility when you get good at customer interviews. A video interview featuring a dynamic interviewee can be shared with others internally and even serves as a ready-made testimonial. Like any interview, choose wisely!
I mentioned the inbound flywheel methodology earlier. If you’re interested, our handy digital guide walks you through it and includes self-assessment worksheets you can apply to your business. Click the link below and get your copy!
Posted by Greg Linnemanstons With 18+ years in senior management roles at Fortune 500® and medium-sized companies, Greg has deep marketing and sales experience with CPGs and manufacturing. He leads strategic initiatives with clients and is involved in developing client inbound marketing plans. Greg holds an M.B.A. from Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management and a B.A. in Economics from Lawrence University.