Volume 13, 
December, 2015


Hello, please tell me more
A party-goer's four-part guide to interviewing


Sheila Mello

At this time of year many of us maintain a whirlwind social schedule of office parties and family get-togethers. Some people thrive in these situations and others would rather swallow hot pokers than engage in conversation with strangers–or relatives. But deconstructing what seems like idle party chit-chat might help you think about how you ask questions of your customers.   

1. “Tell me, Aunt Mary, what don’t you like about Grandma’s chicken?”

In response, Aunt Mary gives you specific ways she would improve Grandma’s chicken. But she never tells you that she’d really like Grandma to make lasagna.

Asking specific questions about your current product never opens the door for customers to share ideas beyond your current offerings. It’s fine after you are further along in the development process, but it’s not a suitable tactic for uncovering as-yet-unarticulated needs.

2. “Do you prefer salad before the main course or after?”

Maybe the person you’re talking to doesn’t want salad at all. When you fail to ask open-ended questions, you narrow the range of possible responses.

An example of an open-ended question: “Uncle Milton, tell me what family gatherings were like when you were a kid.” If you’re lucky, Uncle Milton will paint you a picture with words or share some stories. You’ll begin to get a feeling for what it was like when he was growing up. Maybe you’ll understand how to get along with him a little better. When you use open-ended invitations to share stories, you gain a richer understanding of the world your customer lives in.

3. “What kinds of desserts you like?”

“Any kind of pie,” your friend answers, and you move on to talk about the weather and last night’s basketball game.  You get points for asking an open-ended question, but points deducted for failing to probe. When questioning customers or potential customers, the payoff comes in the probing questions you ask as a followup to the initial answer.

“Tell me more about your favorite pie. When you think of desserts, what images come to mind? Explain how you go about deciding what type of pie to eat. Can you describe the last pie you ate and what you liked or didn’t like about it?” There’s always one more question to ask.

4. “How are things going at work, Cousin Ed?”

Cousin Ed complains about the crazy new policy his company has instituted. You say, “I know exactly what you mean! At my company…” And you launch into a long story about your experience at your company. Not only will this make you a poor conversationalist in social settings—conversation, after all, is mostly about listening—it spells doom in a customer inquiry situation. It’s not about you. Yes, you need to avoid acting like an automaton when interviewing customers; it’s fine to say hello and make small talk in the introductory phase of the interview. But once you launch into the questioning and probing part, keep the focus on the customer’s experience and story. (This can be especially difficult for salespeople to do, especially if they are accustomed to discussing the company’s products.)

If you find yourself talking more about your company and your product offerings and less about the customer, go back to #3—probing questions—and ask the customer to tell you more about whatever he or she just shared.

We at PDC hope you have a delightful holiday season filled with good cheer, and a productive new year filled with insights into what your customers value.

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