What They Really Think About You: How to Structure and Conduct Customer Interviews

August 23, 2021

The best way to gain buyer insights is by conducting customer interviews. That’s certainly easier said than done. In this post, we’ll show you how to design a comprehensive customer interview guide that will help you conduct interviews as smoothly — and productively — as possible.

What’s the secret to conducting a insightful customer interview? Thoughtful preparation. Designing a comprehensive customer interview guide will help you organize all the insights to hope to gain from your customer and ensure you ask all the right questions.

3 Types of Must-Ask Customer Interview Questions

1) Validation Questions

Make sure you ask a few quick questions to verify the person as an appropriate interview subject. These questions will identify whether the company is a reasonable target and unearth what the interviewee’s involvement was in the buying process. However, keep in mind that validation questions are probably the most boring part of the interview for your subject. If you can gain the information you need through other open-ended questions throughout the interview, you do not need to ask them. If the questions have not been answered by the end of the conversation, ask them at that time.

2) Open-ended Questions

Open-ended questions encourage your subject to tell the story of their buying process for your product (or a competitor’s). For example, Adele Revella of the Buyer Persona Institute recommends opening the interview with, “Take me back to the first time you started looking for a solution to this problem. What happened?” This question is an engaging way to start the conversation, and it gives the subject an opportunity to surprise you with insights that may not have been revealed in a direct line of questioning.

3) Hypothesis Testing

Your company likely has a lot of organizational knowledge and assumptions about how your buyers operate. If these ideas are not directly covered by the interviewee during their open-ended responses, it’s important to address them directly. Typically, we list these questions after open-ended ones and will only ask them if they haven’t been answered, or if we seek a more detailed answer. For example, if all of your stakeholders listed cost as a key objection buyers typically have to your solution, but that hasn’t yet come up, you may want to interject a prompt such as, “How about cost? Is that a meaningful obstacle?”

How to Structure Your Customer Interviews

It’s important to keep in mind that very few phone interviews go exactly as planned. Inexperienced interviewers tend to overestimate the number of questions they will be able to complete in their allotted time. As a result, they may rush the subject, cutting the time for follow-up questions or open-ended responses. This may result in missing crucial information that was intended to be captured at the end of the guide.

Where to look for even more customer data?
Photo by: Oberazzi

Hint: It’s Closer Than You Think

It’s best to include no more than 10 questions per half-hour interview, most of which are fairly open-ended, while including optional follow-ups and prompts if the interviewee prefers to give short responses. You may want to add a few quantitative questions using a 1-5 or 1-10 scale just for reference purposes. When presenting results, it makes for a more interesting story when you can present some statistics or quantitative insights. In many interviews, the most relevant or surprising information comes from the buyer simply telling his or her story. Don’t feel you have to cover every specific question in your guide or offer a prompt for every question unless the subject hasn’t offered a satisfactory response during the open-ended questions. Think of the guide more as a reminder of the essential information that needs to be gathered, rather than a literal script.

Conducting Customer Interviews: When to Reach Out

Whether by phone or email, you want to catch your target at a time when they are at their desk but not too busy. Below are some tips:

  • Most experts consider late morning (approximately 10 a.m.) or mid-afternoon (approximately 3 p.m.) on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays to be the best bet for reaching target interviewees. Also, remember to pay attention to your target interviewee’s time zone.
  • Monday and Friday mornings tend to be the busiest times of the week because most planning and wrap-up meetings taking place then.
  • Avoid reaching out to people during their busy time of year, as this can drastically affect response rates. For example, tax consultants are going to be next to impossible to reach during tax season. Salespeople can be equally difficult to reach at the end of a quarter when they are trying to close out their numbers.

 4 Tips to Conduct the Best Interview Possible

Now that you actually have your interviewee on the line, what comes next? Follow these four tips for the most productive interview possible.

  1. Data Collection: Generally, it isn’t necessary to record calls if you take clear enough notes. The best way to do this is by hand or in a word processor for conversational, free-form interviews, or by entering them directly into your survey software for more structured engagements. Inputting directly into the software will make the standardization and analysis stage easier, in contrast to paper notes, which will require transcribing and are often hard to decipher. However, if you do choose to input directly into survey software, make sure to leave space for notes that don’t fit neatly into your question format.
  2. Ask for References: If the interviewees agreed to take your call, it means they either saw value in your compensation or just wanted to help out. Either way, they will probably be happy to pass you along to a peer.
  3. Follow-up Questions: For longer calls where you are offering compensation, it is usually okay to ask several follow-up questions by email if necessary. Let your interviewees know at the end of the call that you might be following up.
  4. Thanking the Interviewee: Be sure to thank them by email for their participation. This is also the time to provide a gift code or any other digital compensation. If you are offering a physical gift, be sure to get their address at the end of your call, and in your thank you e-mail let them know that you have mailed the gift.

Now that you’re ready to take on customer interviews, subscribe to OpenView’s weekly newsletter to get SaaS insights delivered directly to your inbox.

Chief Business Officer at UserTesting

Tien Anh joined UserTesting in 2015 after extensive financial and strategic experiences at OpenView, where he was an investor and advisor to a global portfolio of fast-growing enterprise SaaS companies. Until 2021, he led the Finance, IT, and Business Intelligence team as CFO of UserTesting. He currently leads initiatives for long term growth investments as Chief Business Officer at UserTesting.