Successful products solve customer problems. The key to product success, then, is simply to understand those problems, and the obvious way to do that is to talk to customers, right?
Well…no. There are all kinds of ways to make mistakes when seeking input from customers:
- You can talk to the wrong ones.
- You can talk to too few.
- You can talk to too many.
- They won’t talk to you at all.
- You can have unclear objectives.
- You can ask the wrong questions.
- You can ask the right questions the wrong way.
- You can draw the wrong conclusions.
- You can choose not to listen to them.
Looking at all the ways that customer interviews can go wrong, you may be wondering, “Is it worth it? Can’t I just use my knowledge of the customer’s domain to create create solutions to their problems?” You may also be thinking, “But Steve Jobs said he didn’t talk to customers, and Apple created some of the coolest products out there under his leadership.” The thing is, that’s not actually what Jobs said. Here’s his quote:
“Some people say give the customers what they want, but that’s not my approach. Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do. I think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I’d ask customers what they wanted, they would’ve told me a faster horse.’ People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page.”
What Jobs and Ford both understood is that asking customers what they want, asking them for the solution itself, can lead you down the wrong path. The key is to understand why they need new solutions. To do that well, you have to ask them questions to understand what their problems are and why those problems are important. With that understanding, you can work with the professionals – the designers and technologists who excel at envisioning and building solutions to problems – to help you create the solutions your customers never imagined.
The vast majority of customers aren’t designers, and they usually don’t have the technical expertise to know what’s feasible to implement so why would you expect them to define the best solution to their problem? What customers do understand are the problems they are faced with every day and what those problems mean either to their business or job function. Unless your goal is to get feedback on a solution your team has already created based on a deep understanding of the customer’s needs, keeping the discussion problem-oriented will make the answer to the “why bother?” question obvious.
Where to begin?
Conducting a successful customer interview starts with creating a plan. This plan needs to answer a few key questions:
- Objective: What is your research goal? Why do you want to talk to customers? What are you trying to understand, or what hypotheses are you looking to prove or disprove?
- Target interviewees: What are the characteristics of the people you want to talk to? Are they the users or the buyers of your product? These are typically very different people with very different problems and motivations in B2B environments. Are they your biggest customers or your best customers? Are they new customers or those who have had your product for a while? Where will you find them? How will you convince them to talk to you?
- Methodology: Will these be actual live interviews, or will you be “interviewing” a larger number of customers using a survey? (For the rest of this article, we’ll assume the former.) What questions will you ask? Where will you conduct the interviews? Who from your company will participate? How will you take notes? How will you analyze the results?
Finding someone to talk to
Let’s assume that you have established a clear research objective, either an area of inquiry related to your customers’ domain where you’d like to develop some differentiation or a hypothesis you have developed about how your product could improve based on some sort of customer feedback. The next steps are (1) to figure out who you want to talk to and (2) where you can find those people.
Defining the target interviewee is the easy part because that’s completely under your control. The key is to be clear and precise with your definitions, even if the defined segment is broad in scope:
- Financial controllers at companies with revenue between $1 million and $10 million
- Software engineers working with blockchain
- Marketing executives at professional sports organizations
- People who used our product once and then stopped (more on this one later)
You’ll know your definition is ready when you can say with certainty for any individual whether they are in your target group or not. Having this clarity is important because you’ll gain nothing by gathering an understanding of the problems of people who are not in your target market. The only exception is if you are looking broadly for new product opportunities and haven’t yet defined your target market. Even in that context, though, it would be highly unusual to cast a net so wide that you haven’t even picked an area of focus, such as a specific industry or job function.
Once you have defined the characteristics of the people you want to talk to, the next step is to find people who fit the profile so you can invite them to an interview. There are a variety of options. Which works best for you will depend on your specific interviewee’s definition.
If you are looking to learn from people who are already using your product, look no further than your customer records: CRM, product analytics data, sales renewal records, customer support archives, or whatever data you may have that will produce a list of companies or specific users whose problems you want to understand.
In the B2B world, the search and filtering functions on LinkedIn are a great way to find individuals and companies who fit your profile. You’ll probably need more than the standard free account to leverage these results fully, but the cost may be worth it. Additionally, LinkedIn Groups can also be a good source of interview candidates. Remember to check the group rules on posting before putting out a call for participants, and contact the group admin if you have any questions. You don’t want to get yourself booted from the group for a post that is considered spam.
Other online affinity groups and forums
In addition to LinkedIn groups, you can find people who self-identify into your target profile among members of Facebook groups, Meetups, Quora, Slack, and niche websites. You could even mine Twitter for individuals who post about your topic or interact with competitive companies.
Self-service user research websites
Companies like user interviews, UserTesting, and UsabilityHub offer solutions that allow you to define the characteristics of the people you want to talk to, pulling from the pool of individuals who have signed up on their platform to participate in studies for a fee. These specific solutions may lean a bit toward B2C scenarios, and UsabilityHub is oriented more toward putting prototypes or other designs in front of users for a reaction. Still, there are many of these types of services out there to choose from.
Professional user research recruiters
Another option is to outsource the whole recruiting process to another organization. Companies like NewtonX, Zintro, and Expert B2B Research will do the heavy lifting for you, not just helping you find the individuals you want to talk to but also helping you execute the entire process. Be careful, though. Don’t outsource too much. You must be directly involved in the customer conversation to hear what they say for yourself, not filtered through a third party.
Getting Them Talking
Once you’ve decided where to look for interviewees, you must craft your pitch. Your invitation to participate in an interview has three important elements:
- How do you ask them to talk to you
- What you ask them to do
- What will they get in return
The tone and language of the invitation to be interviewed are important. For instance, you may get a better response if you invite them to “chat with you” rather than to “be interviewed.” You may also want to use a friendly, less formal tone that sets them at ease about talking to you, or perhaps your target customer will respond better if approached very professionally. The point is – to think about these considerations and be deliberate about how you craft the message. Oh, and keep it brief. A long-winded invitation can be an immediate red flag that this request will be a burden.
Type of B2B customer interview
Next, be specific about what you are asking for. Is this a face-to-face interview, either online or in person? Or do you want to talk to them on the phone? How long will it take? Is there any preparation they need to do (ideally, no)? Your potential interviewees need to understand what you are asking of them.
Finally, you must be clear about what you offer respondents in return for their time. Specifically, what incentive are you offering for them to speak with you? How are you going to motivate them to participate? Broadly speaking, you have two basic options. You can appeal to either their intrinsic or extrinsic motivation. Or both. Both is good.
Intrinsic motivation involves tapping into someone’s internal desire to help or the good feelings they will get from participating. Incentives that appeal to intrinsic motives may involve calls to “help make the product better for everyone” or to become a member of an exclusive group, such as a customer advisory board. Intrinsic motivation has the benefit of not costing you anything out of pocket. It also has the challenge of limited effectiveness unless you are particularly good at this sort of appeal or have a target group that is already very intrinsically motivated to contribute to their community.
More likely, you will need to tap into funds that allow some sort of extrinsic motivation, a tangible, typically financial, benefit. Again, you have options.
Cold, hard cash
An amount ranging from $25 to as much as $250 per respondent or more, depending on the interview length and the type of person you are targeting. This can come in the form of actual cash or a gift card.
A chance at cold, hard cash
Suppose you are looking to speak with a larger number of people and don’t have the budget to pay everyone a reasonable amount. In that case, you may consider an incentive that involves randomly picking a small number of respondents to receive a financial reward like a gift card. “A chance to win one of three $25 gift cards” may be more compelling for some people than being guaranteed $5, or whatever the small amount would be if you spread your budget evenly across all participants.
Another option to consider is some sort of a discount or credit toward your product license fees. This one can be a bit tricky in B2B, though. Depending on who you want to talk to, it might not be very motivating to an individual for their company to get a financial benefit in exchange for their time. Or you may run into other financial implications you haven’t considered. If you are thinking of going down this path, be sure to consult the finance professionals at your organization to make sure they are on board and that you understand the details of how an incentive like this needs to work.
Typically, appealing to a combination of intrinsic and extrinsic motivations will produce a pool of respondents. It may take you a bit of practice and refinement to get the pitch right, so one tactic to consider is, to begin with, an invitation to a subset of the group you want to target. That way, you can evaluate results to decide if you need to make changes when you reach out to the next group to get a better response.
Speaking from personal experience, one group that may be particularly difficult to attract is those who briefly tried your product and decided it wasn’t for them. Understanding why people choose not to use your product can be incredibly valuable, but this group may be reluctant to speak to you. They may want to avoid what they view as a potential confrontation or they may see no reason to spend time on something they have decided that they don’t want, regardless of a financial incentive. Tapping into this group can offer a gold mine of information if you can figure out how to do it, though.
Asking the right questions
Once you know who you want to talk to and have lined up a group of people to talk to, the final step is to make sure you are asking the right questions in the right way. That full topic is beyond the scope of this article, but there are a few key points to keep in mind.
- Ask open-ended questions
- Don’t ask leading questions
- ALWAYS ask why. Don’t be content with customers saying they do or don’t like something. Ask why – several times if necessary – to get to a full understanding of what they are telling you
- Don’t be afraid to go off script if you come across an insight that warrants more exploration
- Make it a conversation. Don’t make your interviewee feel like they are being interrogated
A well-planned, well-executed set of customer interviews can offer a wealth of insight for a product team to leverage for solution design. Taking the time to learn how to do interviews right is well worth the investment.