Customer Interviews: Why and How.

Customer interviews are foundational to developing a robust B2B value proposition.  Discovering the difference you can make in solving your customer’s problems lies, well…. with the customer.  So, talking to them is not a step you can skip. If you don’t speak to your customer, you are really just talking to yourself. There are well-documented pitfalls to groupthink (Bay of Pigs Invasion, New Coke) that remind us of the need for an outside perspective. Customer interviews ensure you are getting a more objective and accurate understanding of your customer – from their perspective.

We have done over 100 customer and prospect interviews for various clients in the last year alone and this is what we have learned:

Customer meetings are not customer interviews. Some of my clients want to skip the customer interview step because they feel they are in touch with their customers all the time. While this is true, a customer meeting (purpose = sell/execute product service) is different from a customer interview (purpose = understand customer’s broader business challenges) and the interview will yield very different and often surprising information. In addition, using customer meetings to form your value prop, runs the very real risk of recency bias – e.g. thinking your last two weeks of customer meetings represent all customers. You need a full and complete picture over a longer period of time. The perspective from the customer interview will drive your full understanding of your customer – personas, trends, customer language, and how they buy and sell in your category. As such, you need to interview a variety of customers and prospects – not draw conclusions from your most recent interactions.

Using customer meetings to form your value prop, runs the very real risk of recency bias – e.g. thinking your last two weeks of customer meetings represent all customers. You need a full and complete picture over a longer period of time.

Your customers and prospects want to talk. Many of our clients are concerned that customers /prospects don’t want to talk. We have rarely had this happen.  When you think about it, it makes sense… Imagine you have some obscure job, like designing HR management tools.  None of your friends do this job, your parents don’t understand what you do, your kids don’t care. Spouses and partners pretend to listen.  So, now, someone calls you and wants to talk to you, about your big picture problems, needs, experiences and desires related to the thing you do, all day, every day at least 5 days a week.  “Why yes, thank you! Someone actually values my opinion and appreciates my experience and I can be helpful!”. Whether or not they have had a good, bad or any experience with your business, people want to share their wisdom and be helpful.

Be strategic and agile in your interview. You need to go in with a well-documented working hypothesis before the interview, but also be able to tune in to listen for how your customer’s experiences may not align. You need to be ready to change your line of questioning to both garner the new information and also understand why your hypothesis may not be true. Each interview you do will be a build on your overall customer understanding and you are adjusting your approach in each interview in order to build on or fill in knowledge gaps left by the previous interviews. Use our interview guide to prepare and get the most out of your interviews.

Put your best people on the case. The interview needs to be a conversation, not a checklist. The person must be more than a quick thinker. It needs to be someone who can listen intently and with empathy in order to further the conversation. Almost like a therapist, they must set themselves and their needs, ego, and insecurities aside in order for the focus to be on the customer and their perspective, guiding the conversation based on both the customer’s responses and your information needs. Customers and prospects will be more open and willing to share their frustrations or challenges about your product or service with a third party. In the absence of a third party, your chosen interviewer must be neutral in tone and approach, such that the customer almost forgets that the interviewer is from your company.

Almost like a therapist, the interviewer must set themselves and their needs, ego, and insecurities aside in order for the focus to be on the customer and their perspective, guiding the conversation based on both the customer’s responses and your information needs.

NEVER SELL in a customer or prospect interview.  Do not talk about your features and benefits.  Do not talk about how you can help.  Do not ever ask for a meeting.  Do not be like the teacher who says this pop quiz “isn’t for marks”, then marks the quiz. In fact, you may receive some tough feedback.  Squeeze your stress ball, listen hard, ask more questions to understand, and express gratitude.

Space the interviews to allow time to reflect. Each interview is another piece of the puzzle.  You need time to integrate what you just learned with what you have learned to date.

  • What is common and what is different across the interviews?

  • What new piece of information from the most recent interview confirms or contradicts some of our running hypotheses?

Do not book interviews back to back. Your next interview, though still objective and customer-focused, is also shaped by what has been previously learned. You need time for that learning to sink in.

You will have a pivotal moment.  McDonald’s thought their milkshake was the ultimate sweet treat for their customers, but when they watched and spoke to people who bought their milkshake, they learned that they were actually selling a cool, filling, delicious 30-minute companion for the morning commute (?!). Daniel Nilsson talks about the type of shift in thinking that talking to customers can provide in our latest podcast. Most companies have a shared understanding across departments of the value of their product/service, based on their features and benefits. There is an internal feedback loop that sustains this view – internal departments talking to one another, with sales or customer success providing feedback on the product/service as the proxy voice of the customer. After talking to your customers about their needs and challenges, without your features and benefits clouding the conversation, there will be a moment…when you truly see what you offer through an entirely different lens…a Copernican shift.

Seize that moment to break down silos across your teams.  There is no greater unifying voice than the voice of the customer. It trumps opinions, history, and company politics.  When you have that pivotal moment, seize it, and use that customer perspective to bridge and unite your team to focus on what matters most to drive sales and the success of your business.

For more perspective on customer interviews or if you are looking at a value prop for your business, contact me at… [email protected]

 PETER MEYERS

PETER MEYERS

Peter is an executive advisor, consultant, and facilitator who happily lives and breathes sales strategy and customer experience. With a razor-sharp focus on making sales teams more effective, he combines his creativity, collaborative style, and relentless drive for results. Before Portage, he held VP roles in sales, marketing, and product innovation at LoyaltyOne, Epsilon, The Toronto Region Board of Trade, and Engage People. When he’s not exploring new sales strategies, he’s taking in the great outdoors.

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