Customer Interview Best Practices To Nail Early Product Development

Strong Product Development

At a time when purchasing behaviors have drastically changed, many businesses are re-looking at their existing products or services and considering if they need to pivot their focus, or evolve their current offerings. And, even younger companies who perhaps haven’t even closed their first customer are wondering if the product they’ve built is going to cut it or if they need to revamp some things.

How do you know if product shifts and evolutions are even the right move? You ask, that’s how!

Driving smart product development hinges on gaining direct feedback from current or prospective customers to fully assess how existing service offerings are meeting needs and what customers really want. It’s the upfront work you need to validate that you’re moving in the right direction…or realize that you’re on the wrong path so you can cut your losses.

GETTING THE CUSTOMER INTERVIEW STRATEGY SET UP FIRST

While it’s tempting to jump right into talking to people, doing a little research strategy upfront will help focus your attention and ensure that the entire process helps solve your core goals. Before doing any actual interviews, let alone developing your interview guide, sit down and draft out the following:

  • Research Objectives: We frequently ask clients the following question at the beginning of any project, “If you could only answer one question when we’re done, what would it be?” It’s a forcing function question that requires the entire team to rally around 2-3 core research goals. By having a few hyper-focused objectives at the onset, you’ll have clear guidelines to determine who you talk to and what you ask them.

  • Respondent Profiles: You’ll also need to clearly define exactly who you want to recruit as part of your interview research. Is it current customers or prospective customers? Maybe it’s individuals using competitive products. Perhaps someone else entirely. This decision should be strongly driven by your research objectives to ensure that the people you speak with help you answer those key business questions.

Sure, you can have more than 2-3 research objectives. And yes, you can certainly speak with different types of respondents. However, keep in mind that the more objectives you have and the more respondent profiles you want to cover, the more people you’ll need to speak with. Limiting these early keeps your research manageable and ensures actionable data in a reasonable time frame.

HOW TO SOURCE YOUR INTERVIEW RESPONDENTS

Once you know who you want to talk to, and what you’re going to ask them, you’ll of course need to actually find the people you’ll be speaking with. Depending on how robust your existing customer base is today or how robust your network is, you’ll have a few different options to turn to.

  1. Customer Database: Of course we have to start with trying to source from your customer database first. You know they are a user of products in your category because, well, they’re a customer! On top of that, other than a modest incentive to thank them for their time, you generally don’t have to spend any money to speak with them. Of course, speaking to existing customers alone can be limiting. They are naturally a biased sample since they are existing customer, meaning you may be missing insights by just limiting them in your conversations.

  2. Outreach Via LinkedIn Sales Manager: If you know the type of person that is most likely to use your product, you can use LinkedIn to find them. Searching by company, job title, functional area, or other relevant criteria, you can identify potential interviewees and message them directly for a conversation. This is an extremely time intensive method since it’s based on cold outreaches so it can take quite some time to hit your interviewee quota. And, of course, this is better for B2B categories since it’s centers on identifying prospects based on professional criteria.

  3. Survey Sampling Organizations: This category represents large organizations that can help you source both B2C and B2B respondents, and includes companies like Qualtrics and Dynata who actively build and maintain contact databases. By asking a series of upfront questions to prospective respondents, they can help you successfully identify people who meet your interviewee criteria. Unsurprisingly, the major downside of this option is cost. Sourcing interviewees from these guys doesn’t come cheap.

  4. Personal Networks & Social Media Outreach: Last but not least, you can always try the “cattle call” route, inviting people you know to be interviewed, or asking them to share the message that you are looking for interviewees. It’s a cheap and easy option, but you can’t be sure how many respondents it will yield. Also, because it’s relying on close social relationships, you could be getting a biased sample.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, there is no option that lets you find respondents that are unbiased and that will cost you zero dollars. As a result, you’ll have to prioritize whether it’s budget or sample cleanliness that really matters, then choose your sourcing option from there.

HOW TO DEVELOP YOUR CUSTOMER RESEARCH INTERVIEW GUIDE

Most interview guides will follow a general structure that helps glean necessary insights while not asking too much time of your interviewees. They generally start with asking respondents a bit about themselves and their backgrounds, followed by learning more about their product and category usage. Last but not least, the guides hone in on experiences with your product and competitive products, as well as probing on potentially new features and services.

Here’s a general sampling of the types of questions you’ll generally see when using customer interviews to inform product development:

Tell me a little about your day-to-day life. Where does this product fall into that?

Whether your product is sold directly to consumers or other businesses, it’s used within a certain context. Understanding the broader context lets you identify where users are fitting you into their need set while also letting you identify if there are situations where users aren’t considering your product, but should!

Tell me about what got you thinking about using a product like this? Were you trying to tackle a particular problem or challenge?

This type of question is particularly helpful when talking to existing customers or users of competitive products. Again it helps ground your category within a particular context and lets your organization better understand customer pain points and how they’re trying to solve them.

Did you check out other products in the [CATEGORY NAME] space? If so, which ones? What did you like/not like about them?

A little competitive intelligence never hurts! While you may think your product is superior than anything else that’s out there, asking this question will let you quickly identify if much-liked features and capabilities are missing from your offering. Relatedly, by identifying poor-performing capabilities, you’ll have some warning about what not to do within your own product.

Think about a [SOFTWARE/SERVICE/PRODUCT] that you recently started using that has drastically improved how to address a task or responsibility. What about it makes it so exceptional?

We often zero in on competitors or related categories to identify best-in-class activities. However, innovation is happening everywhere. This question lets you see the forest from the trees so you don’t miss any ideas that may come from outside of your core category.

What are two or three thing in [THIS CATEGORY] that are still taking you a lot of time to do?

New products and services need to help customers in some way. Whether it’s making meal-time easier to pull together or helping small business owners tackling accounting needs faster, good products effectively solve existing customer pain points. By asking this question, you can identify where your product may be falling flat on existing features or where you have an opportunity to add in incremental but fully aligned capabilities.

Imagine if our product [INSERT FEATURE OR CAPABILITY]. Would that be something that would be of interest to you? Why or Why not?

Most teams have a lengthy list of items they’re considering for their product roadmap, many of which are corroborated by the answers to the questions above. This last question helps further narrow those options down so that you prioritize the right sets of incremental features.

Take a look at this [MOCKUP/PROTOTYPE/SCREEN]. What are your initial impressions? What’s the first thing you’d try and do?

This questions works if you’ve gone as far as developing mockups or early prototypes. It’s a great way to see if the ideas your team has had internally are resonating with potential users (or not!) as well as identify ways you may want to adjust the user experience to encourage certain behaviors.

BE FLEXIBLE DURING THE CUSTOMER INTERVIEW PROCESS

As your interviews get going, it’s not uncommon for you to realize some questions should be on your questionnaire guide, but aren’t. That’s okay. While the first batch of interviews are certainly meant to gather actionable feedback, they also afford you the chance to review your questions and evolve your overall structure.

Don’t forget those original objectives you outlined at the beginning of the research process. Those objectives are intended to guide your decisions and are benchmarks that you can use to determine if adding additional questions will help you better achieve those goals. If it looks like some re-jiggering will help hit those objectives you should feel confident in making those adjustments.