How to Interview your Customers


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…

What I Learned about Press Hacking

Thanks for everyone who attended our Press Hacking Hangout yesterday. It was a privilege to work with Adam and Nathan to produce it, and a ton of fun to take your questions live.

If you’re new to “Press Hacking” this is the post that started it all

Here’s the recording, including bookmarks for each of the questions we answered (show starts at 1:35:38):

Subscribe to participate in our next Hangout: Email or RSS

We also wanted to summarize our key takeaways from the session.

My Learnings

I used to think press was a great way to get customers – now I feel the opposite.

Press is another form of advertising; an expensive one.

It costs fewer $’s than Adwords, but it costs much more time and mental energy…plus I have much less control, and it’s not a sustainable source of leads. Press is great for brand building, buzz building, and ego building. For customer acquisition though, I’ll be focus on solving a “hair on fire” problem and telling customers about it via a sustainable customer acquisition channel. If I do that, my next adventure will fair much better than ThingWeStart (even if it did get piles of press coverage).

My Favorite Press Tactics

Tactic #1: How will I measure success for my next press campaign? (hint: just getting press is not success) I’ll think of press like any other experiment (Success = x new customers at y% conversion rate).
Tactic #2: Pick 2 blogs my customers read. Start leaving value-add comments on both of those blog articles each time they post. If I help these bloggers, they’ll help me.
Tactic #3: Test your press pitch. Before you start a campaign, test it with reporters you’ve built relationships with – see if they bite. When you do, send different versions of the pitch to different journalists, see which pitch resonates the best. When you launch the campaign, use the pitch that resonated the best.

Adam’s High-Level Thoughts

Use the “trail of breadcrumbs” approach to press: Use press coverage to lay out a series of data points that will lead people to your company or product. You may not see direct or immediate results, but the real value will show out in the longer term.

Adam’s Favorite Tactics

Tactic #1: Find the narratives in and around your company and match them up with publications, i.e., the local paper in your founder’s hometown, the alumni publication for your business school, the amateur musician news site that your top customer is a part of, etc.
Tactic #2: Be your own journalist: Generate research and data that has value for news outlets, customers or other members of your industry in the form of reports or infographics. Share them through your own site or a press release service.
Tactic #3: Make yourself discoverable as an expert and resource through sites like and and by having information for media inquiries on your site (phone #, location)

Adam will be following up on his blog with more information about maximizing press. Subscribe there for more information, or shoot us any additional questions the comments below. Our next post will be…How to Interview Customers! Subscribe to make sure you get it Email or RSS

First time to Customer Development Labs?

Check out our most popular experiments:

  1. MTurk + Google News = Press
  2. Interviewing 100 customers in 4 hours with MTurk
  3. Finding Customers to Interview

Hacking Press is a Waste of Time

Our MTurk + Google News = Press post got quite a bit of attention – all supportive, some supportively critical.

Adam Drici has been the most supportive critic and as a journalist, he took us to task. 

[Update] Adam and I recently did a Google Hangout hashing out our thoughts on getting press. Watch it here: What I learned about Press Hacking.

Adam Drici – Journalist, Ball Buster

I really liked the first half of Justin’s hack. It’s a smart and efficient way to identify reporters writing in your space and collect their contact info, which can be a hugely valuable resource if you’re smart about how you use it. But while getting your launch day announcement picked up by the big tech blogs is nice, it just scratches the surface of how you can use the press to help grow your startup.

Show, Don’t Sell

A reporter’s primary job is to serve his or her readers. The best way to get them writing about you and your company is to show them how you can help them do their job better.

Be an Expert and a Resource. You can make yourself available to reporters through websites like and These services are free to reporters, but there is a fee for companies and experts to get listed, so they may not be the right tool for everyone.

Find the reporters that are most relevant (in terms of subject matter, geography, demographics, etc.) to the work you’re doing. Develop a relationship with them. Journalism is a small world, everyone’s only a degree or two away from everyone else, and if you build a few of those relationships and demonstrate your expertise, other reporters will call or email you. When you have a good story to tell involving your company, they’ll be there to listen.

Tech sites aren’t always the best when it comes to the value of your press coverage. About half of the articles Justin got were on sites with a lot of crossover in readership. Some of those readers could have seen pretty much identical stories about the site seven times in one day, which:

  1. makes it way less special and
  2. means you potentially missed out on six additional sets of eyeballs.

Plus: if your target users/customers are “normals,” you have an incentive to get into the “normal” publications they read on the regular, i.e., general news sites, and local news outlets in particular. Tech and the web get very little coverage on that level, but those are the publications that often have the highest reader engagement. Reaching out to a targeted handful of local outlets could pay big dividends.

People like reading about other people, not websites Startup weekend customer development

Don’t waste column inches having your CEO or co-founder tell people how your website works. Instead, use them to share a story about how your product helped some user(s) achieve a goal, preferably one that readers can relate to or that they face in their own lives.

One of the area’s where ThingsWeStart’s press was lacking was its velocity.

I didn’t feel compelled or motivated to take any action after reading those articles. But if I had just read about how someone saved their farm by connecting on Kickstarter through this site or a small town or inner-city neighborhood banded together to crowdfund a new park or addition to the public library, I would head to the website and try to find some meaningful local project that’ll make me feel like the star of my own story.

Know your users/customers. Who are they and how are they using your product? Find the ones with interesting stories, and either shine a spotlight on them yourself through your company blog or point them out to the relevant reporters.

On Press Releases

In the 13 write-ups for ThingsWeStart, there were only two narratives:

  1. the press release about the company, maybe with a fresh quote or two thrown in
  2. stories about the infographics where the company was not the main attraction

Both are easy, throwaway stories that reporters crank out in 15 minutes because the story they want to be writing fell through or hasn’t come in yet. The results would have been the same, if not better, had they opted to run the press release and infographics on a service like PR Newswire or even just sent one email the night before embargoed until 6:00 a.m.

The underlying issue, though, is that those 13 articles only generated two unique data points. When I Google “ThingsWeStart,” I get headlines from a bunch of different sites, but they’re all pretty much the same story. If I’ve read one, I’ve read them all, and if that one story doesn’t grab me, neither will the other nine that say the same thing. Ten unique stories, on the other hand, will offer ten unique angles on your product or service.

In general, I think it’s fair to say that research, reports, rankings, infographics, etc. will outperform product or launch announcements because they can generate a greater number of unique narratives, which can in turn run in a greater number of unique publications. Using the materials you folks generated for ThingsWeStart as an example, each of the infographics could be pitched by its title, i.e., “Top 10 Kickstarter Cities in America,” but they can also be pitched by the individual cities and their rankings, i.e., “Chicago #3 City for Crowdfunding.” Push out the same information under multiple, location- or subject-specific headlines to increase visibility for reporters covering those places or topics.

Trulia is particularly good at producing this kind of third-party research and analysis on the real estate market for its Trulia Trends blog.

You can also be effective by staying on top of the news cycle and pushing out releases offering expert analysis/reaction to big or breaking stories that intersect with the space you work in. Again, using the ThingsWeStart example, if Kickstarter makes a big announcement, I have to post something on it, but so does everyone else who got the press release, and we’re likely to have very similar headlines and stories: “Kickstarter Launches [X].” But I want something more newsy so my story stands out. You, as an expert on the platform, can give me that something. Now my headline is: “Expert Says Kickstarter’s New [X] Will Change [Y] and [Z].”

Some practical tips:

Don’t spam reporters with multiple form emails. The three emails from the article were worse than the average press release because they were both too informal and at the same time clearly not personal. Why should I write a story about your company if you couldn’t even spare 3 minutes to bang out an email to ask me? Aim for conversational but professional in terms of tone.

Don’t try to write the story for us. We know how to do our job a lot better than you do. We know what people read and how to present the narrative in the most effective way possible. You can give hints or suggestions, but all we really want is straight information. When you try to write the story for us, you also run the risk of missing out on a much better story the reporter could have written by bringing their area expertise to bear, putting your project in a larger context or analyzing why and how it’s important and who it will affect.

Send press kits as attachments. But include the 300-400 word press release and couple paragraphs of background on our company in the body of the email. PDFs for documents, high-res .jpgs or .pngs (300dpi) for images and graphics. It’s more professional and easier to work with. And by making me open up a new tab to read and retrieve your info, you’re giving me one more (tiny) step to do, which is one more opportunity for me to not do it. Attachments get your materials in front of their eyeballs.

Let’s Hangout

Big thanks to Adam for his post, and for the follow-up Google Hangout he did we with answering everyone’s questions about getting press. Watch it here: What I learned about Hacking Press.

Also, join the Customer Dev Labs experiment – subscribe via Email or RSS. Our next post will be…How to Interview Customers!

First time to Customer Development Labs?

Check out our most popular experiments:

  1. The Hacker’s Guide to Getting Press
  2. Interviewing 100 customers in 4 hours with MTurk
  3. Finding Customers to Interview

How to Find Customers to Interview

We know we need to “get out of the building”, but where do we go? From personal experience, finding customers who are willing to be interviewed is daunting.

Turns out, that’s one of my favorite things about interviewing customers!

The harder customers are to interview, the harder they’ll be to monetize

The process of finding customers to interview is a preview of what it’ll take to sell to our customers. Will we need to stand out on the street, do cold calls, create meetups? Just getting customer interviews is a test in-and-of-itself!

With that in mind, Customer Discovery Hack #2 is all about finding customers to interview, whether you’re B2B or B2C. This video, in partnership with Startup Weekend NEXT, will explain it all but the text version is below:


Before I get into the hacks, let me say introductions are almost always the quickest way to get customers. If you can, get introductions for the first couple interviews. Once you run out of introductions, give these a try.

B2B: The Webinar Honey Pot

The idea here is simple:

Solve customers’ hypothetical problems with a webinar. Then hit ‘um up for interview.

Building a service to help small businesses with online marketing? Put together an SEO webinar.
Selling accounts receivable software? Hold a Google Hangout on the Top 5 SaaS Invoicing tools.
Building a Social Media Analytics tool? Host a webinar devoted to the right times of the day to tweet.

Keys to this technique:

  • If it’s easy to get people to show up – you’re solving a problem. If it’s not…you’re not.
  • Know what you’re talking about and blow attendees away with your knowledge of the space, and the generosity of your time.
  • Make sure you get attendees’ names and email addresses. Don’t use LiveStream, YouTube, etc.
  • Don’t pitch a product, try to solicit feedback, etc. This is entirely about you earning trust by providing value – free of charge.

Once you’ve impressed the pants off your potential customers, send them a personalized email a couple days later:

Hi Susan,

Thanks for attending our Facebook for Photographers webinar. Your question about getting permission before sharing pics was really great – spawned an interesting discussion.

My partner and I are thinking about building a service to help Photographers share their photos online (<– note: vague) and we’re hoping to get your input.  Do you have half and hour to chat next week?

We’re available at 10:30 am Wed, and 2:00 pm Thursday if either of those work for you.

Thanks again for attending, and please let us know if we can help you at all with your Facebook page.

All the best,
Justin & Steven

I’ve done this before it worked well. In addition to getting attendee interviews, because I’d earned the trust of the people who attended the webinar, when I ask for referrals to their peers to interview, I almost always got them.

The downside of the Webinar Honey Pot is simply that it takes time. Time to know the space, time to get the word out about your webinar, etc. That said, everything in a B2B play takes time, so it’s good to get used to it now before you bet the farm.

B2C: Mechanical Turk Interviews

If you’re a new reader of the blog (welcome!), this is the hack that put us on the map: How to Interview 100 Customers (in 4 Hours).

Read it. It’ll change your business.

Bonus Hack: Cold Emails

I’m too scared to do cold calls (tips anyone?), but cold emails I can do…and I love doing them.

Why? because they’re an indicator as to whether I might be solving a problem.  I once sent out a set of 10 cold emails asking for meetings and as a result, got 5 meetings (that’s a better conversion rate than birthday party RSVPs).

Cold email tips:

  • SPAM Warning: if your domain gets associated with spamming, it’ll haunt you for the rest of your life. Don’t do it.
  • Personalize each email with a specific comment about the company, the person’s twitter profile, etc.
  • Highlight the problem you’re trying to solve quickly (2nd sentence) but keep it vague
  • Keep it short (4 sentence max)

For example:

Hi Susan,

I saw your picture of a train crossing a tunnel at dusk [link to pic] on Facebook and was blown away – absolutely gorgeous lighting. I shared it on on my wall. (<– don’t lie)

A friend and I are trying to help photographers share their photos, and were wondering if we could talk to you about the hardest part about doing that today.

We’re available at 10:30 am Wed, and 2:00 pm Thursday if either of those work for you.

Thanks (and thanks too for your beautiful photographs),

Justin & Steven
[Optional link to your good looking website with vague value proposition]


Finding customers to interview is a challenge, but one that will immediately tell you if you’re on the right track.

Can’t find customers willing to talk about their problems? You can’t find customers. Startup weekend customer development

Tried any of these before? Any tweaks or suggestions?

Join the experiment – subscribe via Email or RSS. Our next post will be: Everything that’s Wrong with our Press Hacking Post!

What’s Next?

Want help getting interviews? Schedule a 1-on-1 mentoring call.

This is Part 2 of our series of on Interviewing Customers. Check out the rest:

  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?

We want to Help

If you want help finding customers to interview – you’re not alone :)


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

  • Will your customers be on MTurk?
  • What’s the best way to tell businesses about your webinar?
  • How do you ask for an interview?
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Join a Customer Acquisition Team to trade tips with other founders who are actively interviewing their customers.

The New Startup Weekend NEXT

Up Global (formerly Startup Weekend) recently asked for a hand retooling content for their Startup Weekend NEXT program. Honored to help an org doing such great work, I jumped at the chance and together we shot a series videos we fondly call, “Customer Discovery Hacks.”

How to Get out of the Building

Many entrepreneurs know it’s important to get out of the building – what we have trouble with, is figuring out how:

  • Which segment should you start with?
  • How do you ask for an interview?
  • What should you ask during an interview?
  • What do you do with their answers?

Our hope is the Customer Discovery Hacks series will inspire entrepreneurs with concrete examples, so they can get out of the building no matter what part of the world they’re attending Startup Weekend NEXT.

Customer Discovery Hack #1

Without further ado, here’s our first hack: Which customer segment should you start with?

The text version of this topic is available here: Giving your Customers the SPA Treatment.

If you’d like to do this hack in-person, with feedback from mentors and a cohort of other passionate entrepreneurs…definitely check out Startup Weekend NEXT.

What’s New about NEXT?

Started last year as a 5-week program dedicated to hands-on Customer Discovery training, Startup Weekend NEXT has listened to their customeres and shifted towards and an “accelerator prep” program.

The NEXT team has done a great job talking to impactful accelerators (Tech Stars, et al), understanding the skills that founders are missing when they apply to their programs (and subsequently get rejected). With that in mind, NEXT is designed to give founders:

  • An understanding of big vs small market opportunities
  • A primer on bootstraping vs angel vs VC funding
  • Pitch coaching
  • And marketing strategies

…in addition to the hands-on Customer Discovery mentoring they’re known for.

Of course NEXT is eating their own dog food, so there may be (should be!) changes as they continue to give the course, but I think it’s a solid program and wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who wants to learn Customer Discovery by doing it.

You don’t learn customer development by reading about it…you learn by doing it @SWNext Startup weekend customer development

Join the experiment – subscribe via Email or RSS. Our next post will be Customer Discovery Hack #2: Asking Customers for an Interview.

First time to Customer Development Labs?

Check out our most popular experiments:

  1. Interviewing 100 customers in 4 hours with MTurk
  2. The Hacker’s Guide to Getting Press
  3. You’ve interviewed customers. Now what?