Interviewing your customers (or prospective customers) in one of the best ways to make sure your business is on the right path. It helps validate that there is an actual need for your product, it can inform how you build your product or service out, and of course it can help set the way for smarter, more informed marketing.
Before you get started, you’ll want to figure out if customer interviews are in fact the way to go, rather than other customer research approaches. And, if it is, you’ll need a systemic way to get started and begin collecting your data.
WHY DO CUSTOMER INTERVIEWS (AND NOT SURVEYS)
As we’ve written about in the past, performing customer research, whether it’s one-on-one interviews, surveys, or even secret shopper visits is a critical step in developing a brand and moving forward with marketing efforts in a structured, strategic way. Without these inputs, you won’t know if selected messaging or value propositions will resonate with your audience, nor will you even know which marketing tactics will be the best for reaching your end customer. In fact, it’s a critical first step in the strategic marketing framework!
Now, you will need to decide if it’s customer interviews that are the best course of action as opposed to surveys, pulling secondary research, or some other data collection approach. When making this decision, a good place to start is answering the question, “How much don’t I know?”
This is a crucial question because the more you don’t know, the more you’ll want to do interviews over any other approach. Consider it this way: if you can write clear cut survey questions with answer choices, then you likely have a decent sense for your customer and have some inclinations about what to ask them. If you’re struggling to even write those questions, then you probably don’t know enough about your customer to draft them up. Hence, you need a more open-ended data collection approach that will let you get those early understandings of your end customer. This is where customer interviews come in.
When you need to get a beginning grasp of who your customer is, what they look like, and what drives them, you’re best off using customer interviews. This lets you ask broad questions and lets your customers guide your understanding of who they are.
GETTING THE INTERVIEW PROCESS SET UP
Before you even get started, you’ll want to make sure you’re squared away on a few things first:
Objectives: At the onset, make sure everyone in your organization agrees on your interview objectives. You’ll often be able to tackle 3-4 main objectives during your interview sessions. If your team has more than four, get together and pair them down. Find the four most critical issues you’re trying to answer. It’ only be being focused on a few key objectives that you’ll be able to get the most out of your interviews.
Respondent Profile: Be crystal clear about who you want to talk to. Is it current customers? Prospective customers? Competitor customers? Or maybe it’s people in a related space that you’re considering entering. Usually your objectives will help guide exactly who it makes sense to talk to.
Number of Interviews: You’ll also need to know how many interviews you want to run. Too few and you won’t see trends. Too many and you’re wasting time and money. We generally say you need a minimum of five interviews before you see a topic repeated once or twice. Getting to eight-to-ten interviews lets you have a bit more confidence that those repeated topics are in fact trends.
HOW TO DEVELOP YOUR B2B CUSTOMER INTERVIEWS
Your customer interviews are an opportunity to ask broad but structured questions. You’ll want to include prompts that help guide your research so that you can see consistent trends as you perform more and more interviews. But, you’ll want to keep them open-ended enough that it’s the customers themselves presenting those trends.
When it comes to B2B customer interviews, we find that the following series questions is a great starting point to understand customers:
What Are Their Core Job Responsibilities? These questions help you get a feel for the day-to-day work your customers do. What are the big things and little things that take up their day.
How Is Their Performance Measured? Knowing what key metrics or KPIs are used to assess their performance is a great way to get to the heart of your customers really care about. They may have told you they have five key responsibilities…but if they’re only measure on one or two of them, you know what really matters.
What Are The Main Challenges/Barriers To Doing Their Job? These questions help you understand what makes your customers' jobs harder. They are ideal for starting to get to the heart of how your product or service can align with an existing need your customers have.
What Does Their Organizational Hierarchy Look Like? No one works in a bubble. Knowing about your customers’ boss and boss’s boss, as well as their direct reports, helps build a broader picture of their job environment, who is responsible for what, and who is accountable to whom.
How Do They Go About Investigating A New Product Or Service? Presumably you want to sell something to this customer. To do so successfully, you’ll need to know how they might want to evaluate your product or service. Do they just need a product overview? Will they need a free trial or proof-of-concept? Understanding their investigation process will let you create an internal process for giving them the necessary pieces to evaluate you.
What Does The Purchasing Process Look Like? Now we’re back to that bubble issue. In B2B settings, there are usually multiple people involved in a purchase. It can include everyone from a boss and colleagues to a procurement team in larger, enterprise settings. Knowing the number of people involved, and how long each step in the purchasing cycle takes, will help tell you who you’ll have to convince and how long you should expect the process to take.
Where Do They Go To Learn & Be Better Professionals? This series of questions helps you determine where to place your products or services so that prospective customers will find you. Maybe there are go-to digital publications everyone reads. Or, perhaps there’s an annual conference no one misses. Knowing where your customers go to learn and improve helps you direct where to put your limited funds.
What Are The Biggest Short/Long-Term Trends They See Impacting Their Business? These questions will help you see what bigger issues behind short-term projects or metrics are on your customers’ minds. Again, these are a great way to see how to begin positioning your product in a way that will resonate well with where your customers’ heads are at.
WHERE TO SOURCE YOUR INTERVIEW RESPONDENTS
Once you know what you want to ask, you’ll have to find a group of people you can interview. When it comes to B2B customer interviews, you can usually source interviewees from a few different places:
Customer Database: If you are already selling a product and have a sizable database of customers, this is a great place to start. Other than an interview incentive (usually an Amazon gift card), you generally won’t have to pay to interview this group. The only downside is that they might be a biased sample; because they are already customers, they may represent only a subset of a larger customer base that happened to find your product or service.
Survey Sampling Organizations: There are major organizations that will help you source respondents…for a price. This includes companies like Qualtrics or ResearchNow that have access to very large contact databases. By asking a series of screener questions, they can source people who meet your prospective customer criteria. The major downside is cost. B2B interview sampling can often cost $100+ just to recruit a respondents, and that’s before an interview incentive.
LinkedIn: If you know the type of person you want to interview (e.g. company, industry, job title), you can connect with them on LinkedIn and request an interview. It’s certainly a great way to reach an unbiased sample. However, this is an extremely time-intensive process since doing cold outreaches can take a very, very long time.
Long story short, there’s no right or wrong answer about where to sample your interviewees. Ideally, you can get a mix of customers and prospective customers to remove any concerns about bias. However, your budget will often determine where you’ll have to do your sourcing.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO RE-JIGGER
Of course, once you get started interviewing, you might find that new questions pop up. Don’t be afraid to adjust your questions or interview structure! Those first few interviews are for you to get the ball rolling as much as they are for you to do fact finding. If the initial information you hear pulls you in a slightly different direction, feel free to adapt your questions, or add an extra question or two in, and keep plugging away.