The art of product

Getting from ideas to delighted customers

How to interview customers badly


Have you ever been interviewed yourself for being a potential customer? I was last week. It went badly to say the least and made me reflect on what mistakes not to make when trying to get insight from talking to customers.

There were a few mistakes you should always try to avoid – and I can testify to this having been on the receiving end!

Someone was recommended to me recently as a good contact as I was looking to find a good digital marketing agency. Our company had done a good job of getting lots of sellers into our marketplace and now the time was right to spend big on digitally enticing buyers to come to the site.

At the start of the call, I was told that this agency was new and they were still defining their service catalog. In plain English, this meant that they were still doing research into which customer problems they wanted to solve, and how they would solve them. It also meant that they were as eager to learn from me and my feedback as much as selling me their services. So I was about to be “customer developed” and I actually quite enjoy it – so how did we get on?

Not well.

Let me list the mistakes that were made.

2. Sticking to the script

It might seem like a good idea to have a script of questions that you ask and I used to be an advocate of approaching interviews this way. If I interviewed 20 people and 17 said that something was important, that means 85% of customers interviewed thought it was important and I took pride in turning interviews into data this way.

The problem is that the best choice of question to ask depends on previous answers. If the customer says “this is the biggest pain point that I have”, then you have to dig further. Alternatively if they say “our company has not yet started its marketing campaigns”, it sounds silly to ask “what are the top three problems did you have with previous marketing campaigns” – exactly the kind of situation I had on my call. I really felt not listened to and frustrated that someone was asking me a question that I already told them was not appropriate. If in a real conversation with a friend, you demonstrated constantly that you were not listening – most likely your friend will be really disappointed in you – so bear that principle in mind.

There is one exception – demographics. I love to collect information about the customer’s demographics so when I have the 4 or 5 customers that really loved it, I can look at what traits they all have in common. Note that asking someone ‘how many people work for your company’ or ‘what is your monthly marketing budget’ are fact-based questions and people don’t have to think too hard about these. So collecting demographics can be at the beginning or end and shouldn’t be stressful to ask.


3. Not having a conversation

As an alternative to fact-based questions, subjective questions can be “heavy” questions to ask and can require some serious mental thinking on behalf of the customer. If you ask a question like “what three things can help your company grow”, the customer probably has some ideas in their head on this, but they probably have to think and formulate an answer. Verbalizing such sentiments out loud in a sentence may never have happened before.

So you may be able to get away with a quick-fire round of fact-based questions, but if you fire subjective questions at the customer really quickly, you’ll emotionally tire them out. Conversations are meant to flow not be like a game of tennis where you maneuver the opponent from one side of the court to another.

Imagine being asked ‘how did you feel when your parents died’ and talking for 5 minutes then being asked ‘were you bullied at school’ and again talking for 5 minutes and then being asked ‘what have you done about being overweight’. This is more like an excerpt from Clockwork Orange than a customer interview. If you are going to ask deep subjective questions, show some empathy towards the responses and let them recover, especially if they take time to formulate an answer. Doing a little bit of talking in this case is not a bad thing.


4. Interviewing Non-Customers

Imagine the following conversation:

-‘Do you eat chocolate?’

-‘No, I don’t’

-‘What are the top 3 things that you look for in a good chocolate’

-‘Taste and packaging’

What happened here? The customer says “I am not a customer for you”, yet you took their insight and presumably now you’re going to use it in your research (else why ask).

You need to find out who are your likely customers and then find out what they think. I don’t play video games so if I tell you about what makes good video games – it’s irrelevant at best and misleading at worst. So end interviews if someone indicates they are not (and would never be) a customer of yours.


4. Not talking about the past

The worst scenario is where you have the perfect potential customer in front of you and you don’t get them to talk about their past or “the last time that something happened”. This is the ultimate question that removes bias from interviews and gives you data you can trust rather than future non-committal answers. If someone gives you something that you should “dig” into, the wording you use to dig should be personal and use some of the context they gave you rather than being a scripted question. But if there are dig moments, it doesn’t matter if your digging question is on your interview script or not, ask it! This is the ultimate source of learning for you.


In summary, I spoke about asking questions from a script, asking questions that do not make sense, not showing empathy and interviewing non-customers and not talking about the past. If you can avoid all these errors in your customer development, you are off to a great start.





About Patrick O'Malley