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Customer Interviews are Strategy Goldmines


One of the greatest risks of strategy work is myopia. It makes sense. For most companies, it’s a chance to turn inward and chart a collective vision and path forward.

But if your strategy creation is only an internal exercise, you’re not getting input from the group most important to your success: your customers.

Your customers will draw you a map: here’s where you’re at, here’s where we want you to be. Note the gap. That’s your opportunity to create a competitive advantage in the marketplace. The real home runs come when you discover an unmet need your competitors don't even know about that you can fulfill.

And yet, it’s very common for companies to make a lot of assumptions about their customers or take an all-things-to-all-people approach, which is about the least strategic thing you can do.

When we ask our clients when they last had in-depth conversations with their customers, almost none have.

That means they often don’t know who their most profitable clients are, never mind those that are breaking even or, worse, losing them money.

In most organizations, there’s received wisdom about customer choice, and it’s almost always wrong.

Often, customer interviews are not part of an organization’s workflow or processes. But there are other reasons, too. There may be a reluctance to “bother” customers. “I don’t want to waste their time,” they say. “They’re busy. I don't want to annoy them.”

In my team’s extensive experience with customer interviews, not only will the vast majority not resent it, they’ll welcome the chance to share their feedback. Whenever I’ve done customer interviews on behalf of clients, the No. 1 thing I hear is, “Wow, thank you for asking! Nobody else ever has.”

I can’t overstate how much people value being heard, especially if they've been frustrated in the past.

Top 10 Tips for Customer Interviews

  1. Not a sales call. Do not try to sell anything; this is not the time for promotion. This is all about listening, getting their perspective on their relationship with your organization, and the choice factors they most value. We’ve found that customers will open up and share stuff they never would in a sales call. The less it feels like one, the more likely they are to feel relaxed, valued, and open. Don’t squander that by going into pitch mode.

  2. Don’t argue. If your customer says something you want to correct, resist the urge to refute it. This is not the time to overcome objections. It’s time to listen. Suspend judgment. Don’t be defensive or try to set anyone right.

  3. Listen. Hard. For the majority of the conversation, you’re going to be listening. If you find you are talking anywhere near as much as your customer, you’re not listening enough. Ask one simple question (see below for a list of sample questions), then listen. Listen deeply and empathetically to their actual answers and actively listen for non-literal cues, including tone, hesitations, and word choice.

  4. Consider Outsourcing. There are benefits to hiring an outside firm to conduct customer interviews with you. Sometimes, the customer might tell us things they won't share with your internal people. Conversely, there are things that they'll say to you directly that they won't to outsiders. A combination of internal and consultant-led interviews often works best.

  5. Record it. Focusing on an interview is tough if you’re madly taking notes. Record it using voice transcription software, the voice memo app on your phone or computer, or the recording function on your video conferencing. Of course, ask your customer for permission to record. And assure them that it is only for internal use and will not be shared. They need to feel comfortable sharing their thoughts openly knowing their comments won’t be made public.

  6. Look for themes. Once you’ve done a few customer interviews, you’ll probably notice specific scenarios, patterns, problems, and even words cropping up repeatedly. Pay attention to these; they are gold.

  7. Talk to former and potential customers. Don’t limit yourself to existing customers. If you’ve lost a customer, find out what caused them to go to somebody else. If they’re a potential customer, who is their current provider? Why do they buy from the competition and not you? What might change that?

  8. Articulate your goal. What do you want to learn from your customers? It’s good to have a general focus. It may be a new product or service or ways to streamline or improve existing client-facing processes. Shape your goal and line of questions around the priorities emerging from your strategy pre-planning work.

  9. Prepare a list of questions. Don’t wing it. A list of 10 good questions will get you started. Use open-ended questions, as opposed to those that can be answered with a single yes/no.

  10. Ask for permission to follow up. Your interviews will inevitably raise new questions. Leave the door open to come back to your subjects with additional queries.

Below are some sample questions for customer interviews. Tweak or add to them based on your business goals and early strategy work.

Ten Standard Customer Interview Questions

  1. What problem were you trying to solve when you bought/chose our product/service?

  2. What does that look like in your business? Can you give me an example of how that was showing up in your day-to-day operations?

  3. What are the impacts or costs of this problem? What risks does it pose to your business?

  4. What factors were most important in choosing a product/service to address your problem? Could you list 1-3 in order of priority?

  5. How did you make your selection? Who was involved?

  6. What other products or services were you considering?

  7. What other products or services have you tried in the past? What was your experience with them?

  8. What do other suppliers do that you value highly?

  9. If you didn’t choose our product/service, what would you have done?

  10. What else would you value that no one is doing today?

And finally, ask if there is anything else they’d like to share. It’s amazing how often this final question yields surprising answers.

I’d love to hear about your customer interview experience. Let me know how the conversations are helping you create a stronger strategy.

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