Product Managers: 12 Great Customer Interview Questions

 

As product managers we all know to talk with our customers more – but it’s never quite enough.

You can improve the quality of the insights by asking the right questions. In fact, a few well-phrased questions can yield fantastic customer insights.

In October 2015 I presented at ProductCamp SoCal where I reviewed several tips and awesome questions that product managers can ask customers.

Here are some characteristics of great questions:

  • They are open ended.
  • They uncover value, pain, or motivation
  • They challenge your previously held assumptions

 

Here are 12 questions that I’ve used to gain better insight for products and features:

1. “Why?”

This is by far the most important question to include in your arsenal. Unfortunately this questions isn’t used often enough. I’ve heard customer interviews where customer provides an answer to a question, and the product manager takes that answer at face value. It’s a missed opportunity.

Product managers should think like investigators. They should be trying to figure out the real reason for an answer – Why did a customer say yes? Why did they really want a particular feature?

For those of you familiar with the lean startup methodology, you may have heard of the Five Whys. It’s a great technique for getting to the underlying reason, the real reason, behind a customer’s motivation.

Make sure to ask Why after the following 11 questions…

2. “How do you do that today?”

Asking this question works well if a customer asks for specific features or capabilities. Or if they are using competitive products. In particular it’s fantastic for in-person interviews for learning a job to be done.

An extreme example is Intuit’s Follow Me Home program where product managers watch customers in their homes using the software. In the early days the founder Scott Cook would pay for the software for customers in the store in exchange for letting him follow them home.

Understanding how they accomplish a task today is quite important.

3. “How do you know you’ve had a successful (day, month, year)?”

This is a great question for understanding motivation because it may be different than you expect. Often these metrics apply to the business world, but could also work well in the consumer world.

This is a fantastic question to ask the business owner who ultimately would be purchasing the software product. Sometimes the success metrics may be financial, or they might be lifestyle such as more time with family.

4. “How do you feel about…your current solution? …a feature? …the price?”

I try to be empathetic when I’m asking questions and try to get inside the head of my customer. Asking how they feel about their current solution, the price, or  whatever is a great way to open up some insights. Of course this is not a question that you simply ask right off the bat, but is rather after you’ve established rapport. And how you listen to the answer is just as important.

5. “What’s the most frustrating thing about…the current solution …a feature …your day.”

Trying to understand what is most frustrating to customers will often elicit some great responses. You can also ask this about other products if you’re considering displacing a competitive or alternative product or feature.

Answers to this question may help you hone in on potentially differentiating features. I used this question extensively when I validated GoToMeeting.

6. “What do you wish you could do with (a product, a task, a feature) that you can’t do today?”

This question is similar to the “what if you could wave a magic wand” question. It’s a fairly standard product management question. You want to try to understand how things might be different with a particular product or a job function. Then following up with “why” is a great way to get more insight into the value that this capability might bring your customer.


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7. “How would your (day, job, task) be different if you had this?”

This question is a good one for understanding the before and after scenarios.  You want to understand how your customer’s life will be different if they adopt a particular feature or product.  Are they going to save time? Are they going to make money? Are they going to be happier? Now of course if a customer can’t answer this question,  you should probably wonder why you’re introducing the feature or product to begin with. The feature should make a difference in some way.

8. “If you solve that problem, how much money will you save or make?”

Of course, this question doesn’t always have to focus on money; it could be time saved or hassle avoided.  If you are introducing a new product or feature, you want to understand how it’s going to make money, or save time, or relieve pain.

9. “Can you give me an example?”

If a customer asks you for a specific feature or capability, asking  for an example is a good way to shed light on what they really want. At ProductPlan, we regularly ask for examples because it helps us better design our visual product roadmap software.

10. “If this were available today would you buy/use it?”

This question is one of my favorites for new product development. Of course, as with most of product management, there is never a black and white answer. Rather, answers from customers are often nuanced and biased.

But this question is still a good one to ask. If you are proposing a new product or new premium feature and ask whether they would buy it near the end of the conversation. Then sit back and wait for the answer. And let there be some uncomfortable silence.

11. “Why would you recommend our solution to others?”

This is similar to the ultimate question (for those familiar with Net Promoter Score) and a good for win/loss interviews. You can also ask the inverse of this: Why wouldn’t you recommend our product?

12. “Where does solving this problem fall on your priority list?”

I have always found that when you are proposing a new product or feature, customers are often excited about it. You’re giving them the vision, and people tend to get on board and want to support you. This question helps you understand their likelihood of actually taking action based on that excitement.

If solving the particular problem is number 4 or 5, you’re probably okay. If it’s further down on the list (or not on the list), you might have some challenges ahead of you.

Ultimately, asking the right questions is the fastest way to discovering the right features to include on your product roadmap.

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8 Comments

  • Magnus Billgren October 28, 2015 at 1:24 am

    This was a great post with concrete advice in improving existing work. The discussion between the Product manager and the Customers is critical for gaining insights. The product Managers must never build there market insights via sales process.

    • Jim Semick October 28, 2015 at 10:10 am

      Thanks Magnus! We agree that sales input is only a part of the mix. Getting evidence directly from customers is ideal.

  • Barb Calhoun November 5, 2015 at 11:46 am

    Excellent article, Jim! Thank you for writing this up.

    One other question I like to ask is, “What are your key office/organization goals for the next year or so?” Our customers are institutions of higher education, and often they will have a big growth goal that requires the user/leader to think differently or to realize they need better tools to reach the goal. For example, an institution might have a goal of growing their incoming class by 5%, which presents different challenges (and therefore functional needs) then maintaining and focusing on who are the best students among their applicants.

    • Jim Semick November 5, 2015 at 12:14 pm

      Thanks Barb! Asking about goals is a great question, and gets to their success metrics. Success metrics in turn can drive product features and align your product better with customers.
      Jim

  • anand mooley November 22, 2015 at 6:16 am

    Nice article Jim. For a new PM like me, it has got my thoughts moving. I think this is going to help me.

    • Jim Semick November 30, 2015 at 9:02 am

      Thanks Anand! I’m glad it helped.

  • Ruth Chris January 5, 2016 at 7:25 am

    This is a fantastic article. Thanks for posting it. Definitely helpful to gather market insights directly from customers.

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