Volume 12, 
March, 2014


Four Customer Interview No-Nos
Conduct better interviews when you learn to relax, tolerate silence, and be a little pushy


Sheila Mello


One of the best ways to understand your customers' lives is by interviewing them.

Unfortunately, the customer interview is one of the most frequently botched methods of obtaining information.


Everybody knows how to have a conversation. You ask a question; I answer. I make a statement; you agree. So, the assumption is that when a cross-functional product development team goes out to gather the voice of the customer, its members know what to do. Why would you need training in how to have a conversation?

But you’re not looking to have a normal conversation when you talk with customers. You’re looking for customers to tell stories. Stories make the customer experience come alive in a way that opens up new vistas for creative problem solving. Stories become the foundation for images, which are translated into requirements, which form the basis of possible solutions.

Here are four interview mistakes that could prevent you from getting the story:

  1. Establishing rapport by oversharing and overtalking. Yes, you want the interviewee to feel comfortable enough to share. But you don’t want to focus on your concerns, issues, problems, or ideas. Get the interviewee to talk about something they care about—maybe family, sports, a hobby—to put the them at ease, then get down to the business of listening.  
  2. Rushing to fill the silence. Silence in a conversation can be awkward, uncomfortable, even emotionally damaging. A Time article revealed that as few as four seconds of silence can produce this effect. No wonder we want to keep conversation going at all costs. The trouble is that an interview is not the same as an informal conversation. An insecure interviewer who rushes on to the next thought or question risks losing access to the deeper workings of the customer’s world.
  3. Following the interview guide word-for-word. Practicing acrobatics without a net can be terrifying. That’s why we use interview guides—lists of topics to cover during the discussion. But asking only questions set out in advance means you lose an enormous opportunity to find out what is really bothering the customer. Moving too quickly off a topic means you may get only the beginning of the story, or only the facts of the story without the emotion behind it.
  4. Failing to probe. A customer is likely to have more to say after initially answering a question, even an open-ended one. You’ll never know what you might miss if you let them stop there. When you follow up with a simple, “Can you tell me more about that?” or “And then what do you do?” or even a simple “What else?” you enter another realm of possibility.

These things seem simple. So why are they so difficult? Interviewing is a skill that requires us to feel self-confident, comfortable in our own skins, and comfortable making other people feel comfortable. If you’re anxious, it’s easy to get off on a conversational tangent. If you’re not sure you’re going to get all the information you need from a customer, you feel more confident relying on a pre-determined set of topics. If you’re afraid of seeming impolite, you may be reluctant to press people to share more.

The ideal interview team consists of professionals from many disciplines, from engineering and marketing to quality assurance and operations. Interview skills rarely come naturally and are rarely taught outside of specialized marketing or journalism courses.

The way around this is to practice, practice, practice. Practice with co-workers, friends, spouse, kids. (You’ll be surprised how much more you can find out about what’s going on with your mate or your teenagers when you practice interviewing skills with them.)

Most of all, practice with customers and potential customers. You won’t attain perfection immediately, but you’ll be honing skills that will pay off in an invaluable understanding of what it’s like to be a customer.

Then the fun really begins.

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