customer interviewing techniques

Customer Interviewing Techniques to Help Your Startup Thrive

Interviewing customers helps establish a target audience and learn important information about their buying habits and behaviors. However, you must know the proper techniques to get the most out of your conversations. That will help your startup business thrive.

The value of customer interviews

Customer interviews are valuable because the company that knows the customer best has an immediate advantage over its competitors. You might think you already have a product or service people need, but the market isn’t that simple. That mentality only leads you to understand a customer’s attitude. You must also understand their behavior. Consumers often don’t behave consistently with their attitudes and you must notice the difference.

Sitting down with potential customers and getting face-to-face interaction lets you closely examine the nuances in their behavior and create a more accurate target audience. You can use these interviews to gauge interest in your product and brand or simply use feedback to solve a service issue.

Customer interviews are versatile ways to gather relevant information about potential buyers. With that in mind, here are some tips and techniques to help you get the most out of your interviews.

1. Know who you’re talking to

No two interviewees are the same. You must know what kind of person you’re conversing with to interpret their responses accurately. You should look for four types of people:

  • Advocates: People who have already bought your product or service and were happy with the experience.
  • Angry users: People who purchased from your company and were unhappy with the experience.
  • Lost users: People who bought from you in the past but did not return for unknown reasons.
  • Nonusers: People unfamiliar with your brand but might be interested in what you offer.

Most startups’ interviewee base will mainly consist of nonusers. You should use this factor to your advantage. Growing companies often have a more difficult time estimating the size of their market and rely heavily on established connections. Startups can determine their market’s size and potential obstacles by talking to nonusers.

How can you get in touch with these people? Browse social media. Go to conferences. Find the platforms that your market uses and start with basic interactions there. Don’t pitch yourself — just insert yourself into the conversation and identify potential interviewees.

2. Gather the right data

We all know the difference between quantifiable and qualifiable data, but you need to get more specific. You should gather four types of data from your interviews:

  • Identity data: Gather information about your interviewees’ demographics, including age, gender, ethnicity and occupation. This allows you to build an accurate target audience profile through market segmentation.
  • Engagement data: Determine how customers interact with your brand. Ask open-ended questions and present positive scenarios, then record their responses to understand the customer experience from their perspective. People are more likely to respond in positive contexts. This type of data usually comes from analytics tools, but you can still acquire it in person by asking the right questions.
  • Behavioral data: This data type is similar to engagement data, but it focuses more on buying the product than your business’s overall service. Ask the participants about their shopping habits. Find out what they look for in a product and what makes them come back to buy from other brands.
  • Attitude data: This is the most qualitative data type best suited for interviews. Let the interviewees share their stories and personal experiences. Since you will mostly be interviewing nonusers, ask them about their experiences with your competitors. You can get priceless insights into your market and things that can make your company stand out.

5 Ways E-Commerce Entrepreneurs Can Make More Data-Driven Decisions

3. Use different interview structures

Use different interview structures to gather a wide range of feedback from your group of participants. Don’t use the same question template the whole way through. You should include the following types of interviews:

  • Structured: This survey-based interview style focuses on different responses from participants and turns them into organized data sets. Structured interviews are often quick and seamless, enabling you to perform many of them in succession. However, they’re limited in scope and the data might be accurate but not detailed enough for you to draw conclusions.
  • Semi-structured: This guided conversation between the two parties allows you to change the interview’s direction based on the participant’s behavior. You still write the questions beforehand but can present them differently for each participant and thus collect reliable qualitative data. Still, comparing answers becomes more difficult as the interviews branch in different directions.
  • Unstructured: This is a normal conversation with an underlying subject but no clear format or guidelines. This relaxed environment is the most effective way to gather truthful information from participants. However, the interviewer must work twice as hard to keep the conversation on track and establish rapport within an appropriate time frame.

Startups should utilize all three interview structures to accommodate all personalities. Some people want to get the interview over with and prefer a straightforward, structured approach. Others are happy to talk and might have great stories to share, so a semi-structured or unstructured interview would work better for them. You must adjust your process to make them comfortable and willing to provide honest feedback.

4. Interview in pairs

One-on-one interviews between strangers are naturally tense. Panel interviews can also put undue pressure on the participant because they might feel singled out. Paired interviews strike a happy medium.

A second interviewer lightens the tension between you and the participant, and you can perform different tasks during interviews. One person asks the questions while the other records responses. This dynamic allows the interviewer to keep the conversation going and read the participant’s reactions without rushing or pausing.

Nonverbal communication is just as important as the words you speak. You must pay attention to facial expressions, body language and other ticks that might indicate a customer’s true attitude or behavior. A two-person interview style allows you to notice these things and record all relevant information without missing a beat.

5. Avoid the “do you think” questions

Many companies inadvertently turn their interviews into sales pitches. One of the ways they make this mistake is by asking “do you think” questions. You should avoid the following questions during your interviews:

  • “What do you think about our breakthrough product or service?”
  • “Do you think our product is too expensive?”
  • “Do you think this product will be relevant in X years?”
  • “Do you think this product would help you in your daily life?”

These questions put the interviewee in a difficult position and pressure them to give a favorable answer about your business. If you want to get honest feedback, ask them genuine questions. Use this information as a guide to tailor your product closer to their needs. People are 91% more likely to buy from a business when it accommodates their requirements with special offers.

6. Ask for specifics

Don’t be afraid to prod the interviewee for specifics whenever you get a generalized response to a question. For example, if the participant says, “Yes, I had that problem before,” push them to provide more details. Ask them when, where and why the issue occurred and what your business can do to fix it.

Asking follow-up questions to vague responses is a great way to get the most out of quiet interviewees. If you don’t push them to give concrete answers, they won’t give them to you. You must go the extra mile to understand your customers and unravel the obstacles facing your startup.

7. Finish strong

At the end of each interview, you should finish with two questions:

  • “What did I not ask?” or “What is one question I should have asked you?”
  • “Who else do you suggest for an interview?”

Startups doing their first interviews can easily miss something or simply ask the wrong questions. They also need to find participants in any way they can. These questions address both problems, giving the interviewee the chance to add information and direct you to other potential customers.

You should also follow up with each interviewee by sending a friendly email thanking them for participating. This small gesture of gratitude can change the person’s entire attitude toward your business. It’s also another opportunity to ask a final question or clarify any statements the person made. The longer you stay in contact with potential customers, the more likely they will buy from you.

Launch your startup to new heights

One of a startup’s greatest obstacles is finding an audience and establishing a customer base. Customer interviewing can give your company direct insight into the minds and behaviors of potential buyers. This invaluable information will help you determine what needs to change. It could be an overarching issue like your business’s online shopping experience or a minor detail like your logo or color scheme. You won’t know until you ask.


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