How to Interview your Customers
November 5, 2013

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 _____________?”


“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, but I’ve created an Interview Script Generator that will do the heavy lifting for you! 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.

[New] Interview Script Generator

Want some help drafting your interview script? I’ve created a free Customer Interview Script Generator that will help you start your interview script in less than 30 seconds.

The tool creates a custom Google Doc for you, based on who you’re interviewing and the problem you want to interview them about. Here’s an example:

Custom Interview Script: Page 1Custom Interview Script: Page 2Custom Interview Script: Page 3
The script also includes tips on:

  • How to make your customer feel comfortable and open up about their problems
  • For each question, what you should listen for
  • How to get their permission to get in touch with them again about your solution
  • How to ask them for introductions for additional interviews

Check out the Customer Interview Script Generator to get a head start on your interviews.


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.


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.

Customer Development Made Easy…


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Evelyn okafor

Awesome, I just discovered this post at the right time. I am at the verge of kick starting customer interviews.

Nat Londo

Hi Justin,

Thanks for putting this together!

I’ve interviewed like 10 people in the B2B space, and I frequently find myself in silence between my questions and the persons’ answers. I hear their frustration trying to go over the questions quickly to finish. Off course I don’t want to start a relationship with a customer feeling that I’m wasting their time. Any advice?

Thank you!

Tani Chambers

Got it.

Thanks so much Justin. I’m off to DO IT!


Tani Chambers

Hi Justin!

(I hope you still respond on here!)

This article (and video on the techstars YT) has been so helpful!

Let me make this short and sweet…
I’m interviewing entrepreneurs about their finances – specifically how they manage them.

So, if I ask them something along the lines of:

What’s the hardest part of managing your finances as an entrepreneur?


Tell me a story about the last time you were in contact with your tax preparer or accountant?

Am I leading?

The script generator says to ask:

“What is your biggest challenge as an entrepreneur?”

I think it may be too vague/open… but I’m willing to try if I’m leading with questions above.

Also, if you already answered this question somewhere in the loads of posts here, I apologize and I promised I searched.

Feel free to just point me back to them and I’ll review.

Thanks in advance for your help! So happy to have found this gem!


Hi Justin,

Thanks God I found your site. I have read most of your post, but I still have some questions (maybe I missed out something).
1. My products are matching outfits for moms and kids – they are designed not to exactly solve a problem but to improve a situation where I experienced myself: I would like my kid and me to wear the similar dress – for fun, for pride, for the joy when we hang out. And I myself tried a solution by buying a larger size (size of 15 year old) to try to wear the same design as my kid – and that solution did not work because it looks too childish (of course, it’s kid clothing) . That’s why I startup with a clothing brand that has similar, but not exactly the same design for moms and kids – it s completely age appropriate for both, while making both looking matchy and fashionable at the same time.

If i ask my potential customers that ‘ what is the problem with finding something to wear for you/for your kid’ -> they’ll never think abou the matching outfits. If I ask ‘what is the problem with finding something MATCHY to wear for you and for your kid’ , it will be a leading question – i suppose. So as for fashion brands and other products that do not exactly solve problems but just improve life (people never knew they needed a thing like ‘facebook’!) , how to ask question in an interview to find out about product-market fit?

2. As far as I understand, we need to find early adopters to interview. And does that become trial-and-error process where we have to find 100 pp from our target market and find a few early adopters there? Or how to effectively find early adopters and evaluate if the market size is big enough?


Justin, thanks for all the incredibly helpful tips and insights. I’m currently in the process of interviewing potential customers, and I’m trying hard to not step into the ‘future mode’ by asking them whether they would be receptive to solution X (which, of course, is my app).
However, I do want to get a sense of what they WOULD find useful. My current approach is: a) Ask them about their problems doing a particular task, eventually followed by b) What are some things they wish existed, that would make this task easier.

Is this a valid line of questioning?

Holly Payne

Hi Justin,

First, thank you so much for your website and the videos. My team is learning a ton from you!

My company, Booxby, received a National Science Foundation grant and is in the process of deep customer discovery.

We are currently in the midst of many author/publisher interviews.

What’s the best way to ask about pricing without breaking the ground rules? Do you have time to answer this or direct me to something you’ve written that will? Thanks again for your awesome teachings!


Open Source High (@OpenSourceHigh)

Hi Justin!

Do you have any tips on interviewing homeschool teenagers? I’ve been able to locate the parents and interview them, but it’s a lot harder when dealing with “children.” Obviously if their parents introduce me it 1) requires and extra step and 2) brings in some bias. My goal is to get their true, honest opinion. I have a long list of twitter accounts for homeschool teens (feels creepy to say that) but I’m not sure whether to keep it via tweet or try to move it to a phone interview, which, for some reason also feels creepy.


I just came across this video…great one. Wish I had seen this before I started reaching out to potential customers, because I’ve been doing it so wrong. My question is, what is the best way to even get an interview with a potential customer? Do you just walk in to the business and ask or do you call an ask for an interview. And if so, what is the best way to do it?

I ask because the businesses I am trying to reach out to are usually small retailers and they do not have the owners (who are usually the decision makers) onsite. So they tend to just give me the email address of the owners. So now I have to email them and when I do, I feel like I have to provide a background of what I am doing…and that can easily lead to pitching. Do you have any advice on how to deal with a situation like this?


Hi Justin, that was a great great read, very insightful!
Could you clarify something please? I always read about interviews helping to figure out if a certain problem exists in somebody’s life, so we can create a product that solves it, here we’re validating a product’s idea. But how about interviews that are focused to answer other objectives, like for example interviewing customers of a live product to figure out why exactly use it?

Thanks in advance, Juntin!


Great, Justin! Yes, it does help. I can guess how easy may be for you to come up with those nice questions! It’s interesting the twist you make.

I see that obviously when interviewing current users, we can talk directly about the product, unless we’ve got a new feature idea for example, then we must avoid mentioning it.

Since we want to know why people use the app to make smarter improvements in the future, would be enough asking 5-10 active users, until I find patterns, to consider them as a significant sample with which we can make “safe” feature decisions?

My last question. When researching, do we need to be very very very specific in our research objective, like “Discover why our users use our app”?, where all the questions of the interview should be lead towars getting that answer only? But then if I also want to know if they find difficulties to accomplish those goals in the app, and also what’s the context of usage, are those all too broad already to ask together? Should we ask them in another time to other people?

Thank you Justin!


Hi Justin, thanks for the great detail there. I understand the point, the more I get into the why I’m actually doing research, the more I’m gonna get close to the concepts you exposed. Congratulations for your seriously good job coming out with those series of books, they look really exciting!

Saul Lieberman (@Saul_Lieberman)

Great post! I came already having read a lot about the concepts but this post created a structure for me to design the interview and a way to convey the learning to others. Thanks!


First, I would like to say that I love your customerdevlabs website. I have recently subscribe to it and it has provided me with a lot of clarity in my pursue of my startup. Thank you for sharing your information with the public.

Now to my question. I have watched your video on the NEXT customer discovery program probably 40 times and I have watched Simon’s TED’s video as well. I am still having trouble understanding how to get the interviewee to explain why was it the hardest when they feel like they feel like they have already explained it in the what was the hardest question. Do you have any suggestions for me to explain to the interviewee the differences? Thanks Justin!


Justin. Thank you so much for that breakdown. What you wrote makes more sense to me and I look forward to putting your methods in motion. Thank you for the information and this website.



Great article, Justin. I am now reading through all your blogs. One question is, do you usually record the audio when you interview customer face to face? I am speculating that the customer may be reluctant to accept recording. But if no recording, it would be quite busy to take note, isn’t it?

Edy R.

Excellent article Justin – I just failed at my first attempt at one potential client (I’m still early stage). I re-read this article with my wife (who is a teacher) and she explained your process is similar to teaching kids.

What I take away is “Don’t pitch….hear their b!tch”.



I just ask and talked about my idea with one potential client. Now I am reading this I am in total remorse.


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?”

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.


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.

Michael of

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!


Hi Justin, incredible video!

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

Justin Wilcox

Great question. The quick answer is “Business Model Canvas.” Every box is a pile of assumptions that need to be tested. For example: How assumptions made an ass out of my company.

That said, there’s a longer answer that deserves it’s own blog post. You’ve inspired me to think more about it. If you’d like the audio version in the meantime, hit me up here:


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.


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?


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!

Eviathar Sarizada

Brilliant. Thanks for sharing your experience, Justin.

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.

Rick Galloway

Thx for that and had I scrolled down after watching the video I would have seen the commentary as well.


Damn I just recently conducted a set of interviews, and did fall into the trap of pitching than listening. Wish I had this earlier. Great post!


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!


Very helpful, thank you Justin!

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

Kevin Dewalt (@kevindewalt)

Justin, you rock. I will send this video to everyone I help. Bravo, bravo, bravo.

Smoking Hot Coffee (@SmokingHotCoffe)

Another awesome post!! keep these comin…


This is an awesome post – wish I had this one year ago when I was in full interview mode… I wasted a lot of time asking those misleading questions.

Patrick John Stevens

I know exactly what you mean. The joys of learning! Thankfully, I am not quite as far down the path yet and can still apply this stuff. Awesome post 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?



Mark – Have you tried asking your prospect if they know of others that have the same problem?