Tips for Interviewing Customers, Partners, and Stakeholders

How to Most Effectively Find Out what Customers Want and Need

December 20, 2012

In over 25 years of interviewing customers, we have some insights to share about what makes an interview valuable. This report provides tips and techniques on identifying who to interview, what questions to ask, how to analyze and communicate the results, and how to engage with customers you are interviewing.

NETTING IT OUT

Effective interview questions and interviewing techniques are valuable tools for soliciting the insights of partners and customers. This report looks at who should be interviewed—project leaders/stakeholders, partners, and customers; what should be asked of each constituency; and provides tips on how to create a congenial atmosphere for the interview.

The most important things to remember are to ask open-ended questions so that the customers really can express their views, to capture what they say as close to verbatim as possible, and to listen and analyze the patterns identifying what matters to customers in particular contexts.

EFFECTIVE INTERVIEWING

Over the years, in the course of our consulting engagements, we have developed strong techniques for interviewing stakeholders and customers that will add value to any initiative. Whether your goal is to collect Voice of the Customer (VOC) input, to innovate new offerings, to improve your customer experience, to streamline your operations, and/or to grow your business, you’ll gain invaluable insights by including the Voice of your Customers in the process.

If you’re planning to run a Customer Co-Design Session, you’ll want to start with these kinds of interviews. But no matter what your project or your approach, interviewing customers, partners, and stakeholders is a foundational building block that should take place at the beginning of any important initiative.

Why Interviews? Unlike surveys, individual interviews allow you to get to the underlying reasons an answer is given. Asking to rate something on a scale of 1 to 10 doesn’t bring the insights or the learning that comes from asking customers specifically what they were trying to accomplish, what worked for them, what didn’t work, and why.

Interviewing Project Leaders/Sponsors

Before you start talking to customers about how they would like to do business with you, you need to understand what your company is trying to achieve—what customer-impacting projects are being worked on, and what is already budgeted for and in the works.

It’s usually easy to find colleagues who would like help in improving the customer experience or designing new products and services that meet customer needs. But it isn’t always that easy to find someone or some group willing to sponsor and devote the time to conducting formal customer interviews. There are resources required to identify the right stakeholders/customers to interview, create an effective interview questionnaire, schedule and conduct the interviews, and analyze the results.

A good way to help get a sponsor on board is to help her gather the ammunition she needs to get support from top executives to engage with customers as part of her project. And, as with anyone, the best way to find out what someone wants is to ask them. Here are some questions that you can use to start the dialogue between you and your sponsor.

  1. What are the key customer-impacting issues you want to address in this project/initiative? Typically, what you are looking to find out are the major customer complaint areas and/or what mandate from above has the project leader been given (e.g., reduce customer defection by 5%).
  2. What would you like to find out from your customers/partners? This question really primes the pump for the next question. (Note that partners are included when appropriate. Resellers, for example, often have a more direct understanding of customer issues than do manufacturers.)
  3. What are you afraid they’ll ask about? This is a goldmine question. Your subsequent customer interviews should touch on these fears, getting real answers to often unasked questions. Questions 2 and 3 will help craft the customer interview questionnaire. Whether the fears are eventually validated or assuaged, it is important to get at the underlying concerns of the project sponsor.
  4. What do you think are their key issues? The company has statistics on complaints, defection, etc. But what does the sponsor believe are the most important issues—both positive and negative—for customers.
  5. What ammunition/information do you need the most? All the brilliant interviews in the world won’t matter if the project doesn’t happen. Be sure to ask exactly what the sponsor needs to make his or her business case to address the issues. This will also help you craft the right customer interview questions.

Note that the focus of these interviews (except for question 5) is the customer, not about the company. The customer should always be top of mind in all Voice of the Customer interviewing.

Interviewing Partners

Once you have the focus from the sponsor, you are ready to create a questionnaire for partners. Partners, for example, might be part of the organization, such as another business unit, but are more typically people who work for separate companies such as resellers, distributors, manufacturers, or brokers. In a lot of scenarios—the ones where your customers interact with your partners as much if not more than they do directly with your company—it is extremely valuable to include representative partners in the interviewing process to get their perspectives on customer needs.

Questions to ask partners include:

  1. What is the hardest thing for your customers to do (around this topic)?
  2. What frustrates your customers the most?
  3. What would they like?
  4. How do you deal with those customer issues?
  5. What would make it easier for your customers to do business with you?
  6. What’s the hardest thing for you to help customers with?
  7. What can the company do to make it easier for you to support your customers?

Again, most of the questions are about the customers. However, the responses are often about the relationship between the partner and your company, even before you get to the last question. You will get valuable responses such as, “If you make this process easier for me, I can make it easier for the customer,” or “If customers could self-serve to get the answers they need, and I didn’t have to spend all of my time dealing with these quality/service/administrative issues, I would have time to sell more products.” Now that’s a win/win/win situation (for customers, partners, and you).

Interviewing Customers

The most direct and most effective way to figure out what matters most to your customers is to ask them. Oh, you can’t just ask, “so, what Customer Scenarios are important to you?” They wouldn’t understand. You ask them about what they are trying to do, what are their pain points, and how, ideally, they would like things to work.

SELECTING CUSTOMERS TO INTERVIEW. Unlike statistical surveys, you don’t need large numbers of customers to interview to get valuable insight into the customer experience enhancements you should be making or the new services you could be offering. But you do need the right customers to talk to. You are looking for a representative number of customers from the key customer segments in the area you are addressing.

You see, not all customers will be able to think outside of the horrors of how hard things may be today. And some customers are simply too polite to really get into what they don’t like about you.

The steps to identifying customers to interview are as follows…


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5 comments


  • Matthew
    Matthew Lees on November 1, 2012 at 9:54 a.m.
    A classic article! With all the attention (lip service?) given to customer experience / customer centricity, I'm still amazed at the number of business people who try to keep customers at arm's length. Now that I'm in a product management role, I see many other product managers try to avoid connecting with customers, and when they do, the conversations are rather vague and devolve into complaint sessions. This article should be required reading...particularly the section on "Moving from Pain to Pleasure."
  • drbooks
    David Riverstone on October 1, 2014 at 3:25 p.m.
    Where are the steps for customer interview questions?  I just signed up as instructed, and they aren't there.
  • drbooks
    David Riverstone on October 1, 2014 at 3:30 p.m.

    Oh, I see. It told me "sign in to download the full article" and then when I did, and clicked "Download", it told me I had to pay $95 to do so.

    That was pretty deceptive.

    I was able to download a different article, so I'm assuming that this wasn't intentional. But I'm sure a lot of other people would think it was.

  • hbarresi
    Hector Barresi on January 27, 2015 at 2:45 a.m.
    Deceptive indeed.
  • Patty_author
    Patricia Seybold on February 25, 2015 at 9:55 a.m.

    Ok, let me explain. Obviously you guys are correct. If we include a link to an article in a forum post, we should let you know if it's behind a paywall. Duly noted. 

    If you are logged in our site (which you need to be to post a comment), you have one of three levels of article download rights.

    Many articles are free. Some articles are only available for download to members of Customers.com Strategies, which costs $95/year for ALL our CC Strategies articles. Some articles are only available to members of Customers.com Technology Strategies--that is usually an enterprise license for a group of folks in a company. 

    From now on, we will try to be more explicit, when including links to articles that require one of those two membership/subscriptions. 

    Thanks for holding our feet to the proverbial fire!

    Patty

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