How to Nail Customer Interviews

Interviewing Customers is a Special Kind of Torture

  1. Talk to a stranger. Fun.
  2. That stranger is immensely busy…and hates being sold things. Getting better.
  3. That stranger will likely destroy your vision for a company. Ready to get started?!

When I started interviewing customers, the only thing I cared less about than talking about other people’s problems, was asking about them. So, I skipped all the questions I thought were BS, and jumped to the most important ones:

“Would you use a product that does _____________?”

and

“How much would you pay for it?”

Turns out, those aren’t the most important questions…they’re the most misleading. Apparently, I am not a natural interviewer.

When I realized interviewing customers meant standing in front of strangers doing something I was awful at, any enthusiasm I had towards “getting out of the building”, evaporated.

When I see other founders hesitate to interview customers, or do them wrong, I empathize. I’ve been there. It’s a daunting task we have no experience with – and – isn’t nearly as fun as building stuff.

Let’s Fix That

Despite my early misgivings, learning to interview customers has become one of my most indispensable skills. Not just because it gives me a leg up on competitors, not because it helps me (in)validate ideas quickly, and not because it helps in my personal life as much as it does my professional. It’s indispensable because…

For me, interviewing customers makes customer development…fulfilling.

Instead of being stressed about what the customer is going to think about my idea, instead of fumbling over my words and worrying about the perfect way to pitch my product, a customer interview isn’t about me, my product, or my words. It’s about theirs. All I have to do is listen. No pitching, no negotiating, just ask a handful of questions with a sincere interest to learn.

Other people’s problems are interesting – when you’re in a position to solve them. Tweet this

How Not to Interview

A few ground rules I use that will prevent you from torpedoing your interviews:

1st rule of validating your idea: Do not talk about your idea. Tweet this

tyler-fight-club-quote1 Your brain is hard wired to screw you as soon as you start thinking about your idea.

Once your idea pops into your brain during an interview, your body will literally turn against you. It will start looking for validation that the idea is good. Your interpretations of statements, intonation, body language will all be skewed. What’s worse, the person you’re talking to subconsciously knows what you’re looking for, and based on our desire to build relationships, will want to help you. They’ll be your unwitting accomplice and provide the  “validation” you’re looking for – leading you in the wrong direction. To the best of your abilities, avoid thinking about your idea during the interview – and certainly avoid talking about it. These interviews are about your customers and their problems. Do your best to keep the conversation focused there.

2nd rule of validating your idea: Do not ask about the future.

No hypotheticals, no projections, no guesses. The way I remember this rule? I never ask a question with the word “would” in it:

  • “If we built a product that solved X problem, would you use it?”
  • “How much would you pay for something that did X?”
  • Would you like your existing solution better if it did X?”

When you use the word “would”, you’re making a thinly veiled attempt to validate your product…not their problem. Don’t do that. See Rule #1. In addition, when you ask about the future, you’re asking your customer to predict it. She can’t do that. She’ll try, but she’ll be wrong. Listening to wrong answers can only serve to harm you (“75% of people I talked to said they wanted…”, “Half of the interviewees said they’d pay $20″, etc.) – they’re all bad guesses. There are better ways to answer those questions.

How To Interview

There are five questions I use to form my customer interviews. Start with these, and you’ll not only to learn about your customer’s problems, you’ll learn if they’re worth solving (and how to solve them):

My Customer Interview Script
1. What’s the hardest part about      [problem context]    ?
2. Can you tell me about the last time that happened?
3. Why was that hard?
4. What, if anything, have you done to solve that problem?
5. What don’t you love about the solutions you’ve tried?

The trickiest part is figuring out what to put in the blank for Question #1. You don’t want to be so specific that you tell them about the problem you want to solve. For example, imagine you want to build Yelp for Vegetarians…

Don’t ask: “What’s the hardest part about finding a good vegetarian restaurant in a new city?”

But you also don’t want to be so broad that you’re inviting discussion about a range of problems you have no interest in solving:

Don’t ask: “What’s the hardest part about being a vegetarian?”

You want to ask about a significant problem context – situations that occurs frequently enough, or are painful enough, to warrant solving:

Ask: “What’s the hardest part about eating out as a vegetarian?”

This question will certainly evoke responses, but they could range from:

  • “The portions aren’t large enough” to
  • “I don’t really trust that the things I order are meat-free” to
  • “A yelp search for ‘vegetarian’ returns results like ‘Joe’s All American Steak House’ with comments like, ‘Don’t bring your vegetarian friends here.’”

And that’s the best part about interviews! Not only will they help you validate whether the customer has the problem you hypothesize, if they don’t, interviews will point you to one they do have. You win either way. Btw, this is one of the benefits of interviews vs. surveys. Surveys might tell you how often a customer experiences a problem, but if the answer is “not very often”, surveys won’t give you another problem to explore. Interviews will. More specifics on why we ask each of the questions in the video above, but here’s here’s the gist:

Question #2 - We ask stories because they enable us to dive deeper into paths we could never hypothesize “inside the building.” You’ll learn 23x more from a story than you will a yes/no answer. It’s science.
Question #3 - Customers don’t buy the what, they buy the why. We’ll use this answer to craft our marketing copy.
Question #4 – If they aren’t looking for solutions already, this isn’t a big enough problem for us to solve. For someone to take a bet on us, a startup, an unknown entity, we must be solving a problem so pressing, customers are actively searching for solutions.
Question #5 - This is our Unique Value Proposition. We’ll build something that solves our customer’s problem, in a way that’s better than their alternatives.

That’s the list of starter questions. Other great questions to consider adding to your script:

  • How often do you experience this problem?
  • How much are you spending to solve this problem now?
  • Where do you find information about      [problem context]     online?

That last question is great for a couple reasons: if you don’t already know, it can tell you some of your online channels and, if you’re not interviewing an early adopter (someone trying to solve this problem already), the answer to this question may point you to folks who are. There are some other recommendations I make in the video above regarding looking for emotional cues, asking why, and repeating the process with the same customer – watch it for full details.

Invalidation

If the problem you hypothesized doesn’t get mentioned during interview, you can still ask about it – just start the interview again with Question #2:

“Can you tell me about the last time you tried to find a good vegetarian restaurant in a new city?”

The trick is, you must put extra weight on their response to Question #4.

If you have to bring the problem up and they’re not taking steps to solve it, they won’t use your solution. It doesn’t matter how simple it is, how well it solves the problem, how cheap it is…none of it matters. This problem is not a big enough concern for this customer to take the time to find it, pay for it, learn it, or use it. Something must change.

Your hypothesis has been invalidated.

This scenario happens more than any other – and when it happens to you, like it’s happened to me (over, and over) – know that it’s OK. It means you’re doing it right. While disappointing, this truth is a reflection of reality. Knowing it sooner than later will serve you well.

The good news is, because you asked Question #1 & the channels question during your interviews, you’re ready to setup your next interview! Either interview another customer segment (try the online channels customers look to for additional information) or validate a different problem they’ve mentioned.

Next Steps

Armed with this information, you have everything you need to (in)validate your problem hypothesis:

Validated? You’re setup beautifully to test your unique value proposition and channels.
Invalidated? Congrats (and bummer). Good news is, you’re doing it right. Time to find a new customer segment, or a new problem.

You can search for new customers in the online channels they mentioned during the interview. If those folks don’t have the problem, time to try solving a different one - you’ll have a list of them from the responses to Question #1. Pick the most popular one.

Summary

Interviewing customers is the key to customer development. It unlocks all the most important components of the business model canvas. It’ll be the skill that distinguishes you from other startups, and it will not only tell you if you’re going in the right direction, it will give you a map if you’re not. But I promised more than that. I promised interviewing customers would make customer development fulfilling. To me…

Few things are as fulfilling as understanding someone’s problem, and helping them solve it. Tweet this

What’s Next?

This is Part 4 of a series of Customer Discovery posts designed in collaboration with Startup Weekend NEXT. I highly recommend the others:

  1. Which Customers Should you Interview (The SPA Treatment)
  2. How to Find Customers to Interview
  3. Getting Customer Interviews with Cold Emails
  4. How I Interview Customers
  5. You’ve Interviewed Customers. Now what?

Our next post will be…5 Tools I use for Customer Development. Subscribe to get it via Email or RSS.

We want to Help

If you want help interviewing – you’re not alone :)

There’s a group of us who are asking, and answering, questions about interviewing every week:

  • How do I find customers to interview?
  • How do I get them to give up their time for an interview if I don’t have a product?
  • When can I use surveys and when should I interview?
  • When do I talk about my solution?

Join a Customer Acquisition Team to trade tips with other founders who are actively interviewing their customers.

25 comments

  1. Mark

    Justin,

    Love your blog post!

    I have discovered huge pain… to one potential customer. Pain is huge and they have no real practical solutions at this point AND are ready to pay. To make it even better, I CAN develop this product!

    But how do I find more people like this that have the problem? This is in B2B security space. And there is probably just *one* person in company that is responsible for this. (It’s one person in where I am at).

    I want to interview potential customers, but I am stuck trying to figure out how to find people to talk to.

    Any ideas?

    Thanks,
    Mark

  2. Mike Clark (@mclark497)

    One word , brilliant.

    This should be given to all business analysts. Is a great way to tease out problems. We could add an outcome question to this. “What if we solved this problem, what outcome would you like to see”. These outcomes would enable us to align requirements and possible offerings, which would help the customer achieve this need.

    Outcomes can also be put into categories:

    Emotional Outcomes – This is the human element i.e. feelings and experience for the user/customer
    Functional Outcomes – The measurable result of activities undertaken by an individual or group
    Economic Outcomes – These are the more harder outcomes i.e. financial value
    Process Outcomes – These are the “how” outcomes, they relate to the process being performed

    http://bridging-the-gap.me/2013/05/15/we-need-to-focus-on-outcomes/

  3. Cy

    Great video – thanks for sharing your experience. This is a really clear and concrete path to follow – I can’t wait to give it a try!

  4. Rick Galloway

    Justin- Clarification please.

    First of all- Intelligent stuff THX.

    Is the goal to get the other party simply talking in depth about topic X?

    How close to the line of a business centric question do you get before you cross the line?

    I don’t want to pitch, but I want valuable information.

    THX in advance

    • Justin Wilcox

      The goal is to identify and understand the customer’s problems. If you’re worried about crossing a line…you’ve probably already crossed it :)

      This exercise is about being curious about the lives and hardships of your customer. Save your questions about your product and potential solutions for another day. Today is all about hearing their problems.

  5. Chris

    Hey Justin,

    I just stumbled upon your blog… (actually I was reading another guys blog post where he mentioned your workshop at the lean startup conference about pricing and I was curious enough to look for your blog…)

    It is indeed the most valuable help and information about a customer discovery interview I read so far! Thank you so much for that.
    At the moment, we are trying to launch a product for recruiting, but it seems not very compelling to potential customers… so in review of our interviews made (actually we did them quite unbiased, but when we evaluated, we had the mind set to validating our idea / solution way too much…), I can see now (in learning mode) how we fell into the pit of question #4 -> they didn’t even look for a solution yet!
    “So they don’t know they have that problem yet, that will change as soon as we show them our solution” we thought… But as you can guess, they didn’t… ;-)

    The good thing: reviewing the interviews we saw some other problems a subset of our customer is facing, and we might be able to provide a solution…
    I guess maybe it’s necessary to fall into that trap, and it hurts, but otherwise I might have the trust in your advise about interviews as I do have now…

    Oh and one question:
    would you recommend to re-schedule some interviews to learn more about the other segment of customers who already solved that new discovered problem to look for flaws, or would you start to do solution interviews with the ones who still have that problem? (so we validate more quickly that it’s at least a solution for that subset?)

    thanks and again: great post!

    • Justin Wilcox

      Thanks for the great feedback! I think you’re onto something…nothing teaches quite like failure :)

      As for what to do next, will discovering the flaws in the existing alternative solution help you design a better solution for both groups?

      • Chris

        Hey Justin,

        thank you for your response! I thought quite a bit about your question, and I guess that these flaws in existing alternatives are more specific for one group.
        As we came across a great talk of Simon Sinek (the Ted Talk about the Golden Circle, nice recommendation from Ash Maurya…), we decided that we currently have gone too far from our initial “why”, so we started over and are now running complete new interviews!
        So thanks again, your video and post is always an inspiration!

  6. omni

    I just started studying the lean startup methodology, and as I’m reading one question kept coming up for me and that’s – “How do I ask customers the right questions?” This question was nagging me non-stop until I found this page, and I’m so glad I did before starting with customer interviews. I can’t thank you enough Justin, you’re really filling a gap here.

    Because the better questions lead to better learning, I’m hungry for even more understanding of which questions to ask and how to ask them. Specifically I’d like some ideas of how to find and engage customers for face to face interviews (surely the startup community has this nailed) and really nailing that first question: What’s the hardest part about XYZ

    Figuring out how to best phrase XYZ for my particular product vision is the new gap that will nag me.

    Cheers Brother, I appreciate your good works big time. And offering a half hour of your time is beyond stellar.

  7. Siri

    Hi Justin, incredible video!

    Could you speak a little on how to form the various hypothesis that a company would want to test?

  8. Michael of Empass.io

    From two weeks ago on a mentor call to now trying to scale our services quickly enough to meet demand, the usefulness of this process didn’t just help us think through a customer’s problem: it helped us entirely reframe our information seeking and uncover an entirely new opportunity.

    What happened?

    Before digging deeply into the philosophy of these videos, we were using the customer discovery process to continue expanding the capacities of our business. “Wow, we didn’t think about that need – we can totally serve that, too!” Bad idea, getting worse. We didn’t build anything, thankfully, but we weren’t getting any closer to a product.

    Enter Justin.

    We talked through our process, set some weekly discovery goals – with pass/fail ratios, specific users we were questioning, and a single problem focus we would be trying to invalidate. Our goal: would they pay if we did just one thing? We invalidated almost everything – and went back to the drawing board. Racked our brains, and – finally – thought about the basics: what do we care about, how would we define success for our business, who are the customers we really want to serve? We used the customer discovery on ourselves, and then extended it to others.

    Now we’re building something we love, that will serve the entrepreneurs we care deeply about working with, that can be MVP’d and is showing more demand that we can provide supply.

    So: Justin, thanks. This blog doesn’t just rock cusdev – but proper entrophilosophy.

    • Justin Wilcox

      I love this Michael…thanks so much for sharing! I’m really excited you’re building something you love, and serving customers you care about. Please keep us posted on the progress and let me know if there’s anything else I can help with!

  9. masterofallarts

    Hey Justin,

    thank you for the „buy the why“ link. You just changed my life. No kidding. You enabled me to write down why I do *anything*, and this is because I believe we all can live our dreams. I realize that:

    I am writing you this comment because I believe I can live my dreams. In one aspect, I do that by being around powerful, inspired people. What I do is letting you know that you just literally changed my life.

    What you gave me with this link to the TED talk:
    From now on, at any moment, I can refer to this crystal clear formulation of the fire inside my heart.

    Live our dreams.

  10. Gopi Sundharam

    Awesome article Justin. Liked it. I can see how I was doing interviews differently and the old-fashioned way and the results after that. Will switch your way and see what happens. Thanks.

  11. ron

    Hey Justin, thanks for an invaluable article! My question is how to set the context for the intertview, especially if you know the person you’re going to interview? “Hey I just want to ask you some questions without telling you what is this about, ok?”

    • Justin Wilcox

      Great question Ron. I usually set context with something like…

      “Thanks for taking the time to chat. I’m try to help (insert your problem statement – make remote coding easier for outsourced coding providers such as yourself) and I’m really looking forward to your input!”

      After that, start firing away. Once you start asking about their problems, they’ll start talking.

      When I’m all done, I finish with, “This was really outstanding – thank you again for your time. I’m pretty excited because we’re focusing on solving (insert the biggest problem they mentioned). I’m going to take what we talked about here back to the rest of my team and do a little tweaking based on your input. When we’re ready, can we setup another conversation to get feedback on our potential solution?”

      This separates the problem and solution interviews nicely and gives you a chance to prep for the latter.

      Good luck!

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