5 Crucial Steps for Conducting an Effective Customer Interview

May 26, 2015
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When focusing on customer experience, we all know that we need to truly understand our customer if we expect to provide them with an enjoyable experience. In an effort to do so, organizations often jump right to a survey to identify their customers’ needs and wants. While surveys are a great first step to understanding customers, they’re not the only step. The most you should expect from a well-crafted survey is detailed knowledge in the form of hard data indicating where to conduct further research. It’s at this point that these other steps become imperative.

Customer interviews are essential for really getting to know and understand your customer. They provide you with invaluable insight into the specific questions you bring to the table, but they also provide you with opportunity to learn something you perhaps didn’t even know was an issue. Further, customer interviews provide you insight into non-verbal cues which can be even more informative than the written or spoken responses captured from a survey.

Anyone who has conducted a customer interview can tell you that if you go in unprepared, the interview could become difficult, nerve-wracking, or even downright painful, especially if you are interviewing a defensive customer on a sensitive topic. If you’re not expecting this, these challenges can result in little more than a waste of both your and your customer’s time. In order to prevent such an unfortunate occurrence from happening, we’ve found the following steps crucial to conducting an effective customer interview for both you and your interviewee.

Step 1: Articulate the Primary Goals and Specific Questions You Want Answered

If you are working with a team, everyone on your team should have a clear understanding of the goals and questions before you walk into the interview. To develop this cohesive understanding, set your scope early on and ensure that all interview questions fall within that scope. Don’t be afraid to cut out any questions that do not address your primary goals even if they are really good questions.

Step 2: Establish Logistics Ahead of Time

Thinking through the interview logistics ahead of time will free up your time and energy so that you may allow the conversation to flow naturally. You should give equal consideration to the following:

  • Length: How much time do you need with each customer? Once you set a timeframe, stick to it. Your customer may very well become annoyed and unresponsive if the interview runs too long. To identify how much time you’ll need overall, determine how much time you’ll need for each question and add some wiggle room to allow you flexibility should a good discussion arise from an unexpected area. Lastly, if applicable, allocate some extra time to discuss any systems/resources that may impact your interview subject. Your customers may even provide you with some great ideas for future innovation!
  • Mode: How will you conduct your interview? In person, over the phone, virtually? Be sure you have all technical pieces (i.e., room reservations, building clearances, conference call availability, network connections, etc.) worked out ahead of time so you don’t have to worry about technical mishaps during the interview itself.
  • Roles: Who is responsible for what? When working with a team, it’s helpful to bring at least one other person to the interview so that one of you can take notes while the other conducts the interview. Be sure to decide on these roles beforehand so each team member knows exactly what is required of them before you interact with your customer.

Step 3: Structure the Interview

It may be helpful to think of an interview as its own project needing a project plan. As part of the project plan, you’ll want to set a structure that is well-defined, yet flexible should you need to adapt to any unexpected twists and turns.

When structuring the interview, always start with introductions and provide your customer with an overview. Clearly lay out the purpose of the interview, the agenda, and the interview length and number of questions you’ll be asking. Save enough time at the end of the interview to wrap up and answer any questions the customer may have.

Before diving into questions, allow participants the opportunity to ask any questions of their own with regards to the interview structure. If they are preoccupied with their own questions throughout the interview, you risk getting incomplete or disoriented responses to some of your questions.

During the interview itself, ask the interviewees to tell you stories about the subject – encourage them to give you at least one positive story and one negative story. This is a great way to get meaningful information from your interviewee without them even realizing how forthcoming they are being.

At the end of the interview, ask the interviewee to provide suggestions/opportunities for improvement. This is another great to get honest and valuable feedback.

Step 4: Keep the Conversation Open for Follow-up or Future Dialogue

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Always end an interview on a positive note with an open dialogue for the future. Simply asking, “Is it alright if I reach out to you again in the future with follow-up questions?” is a great way to stay in touch with your interviewee. By asking to keep this door open, you also subtly convey the importance and value of their response (you wouldn’t want to reach back out to someone if their responses were useless, would you?).

Step 5: Debrief with Internal Team to Ensure Thoughts Captured and Themes Identified

After each and every interview, you should always debrief with your team. Even if you only have time for a 10 minute chat while walking back from an interview session, it’s important to circle back to identify themes. This will also help you identify areas needing further clarification and next steps, if any. If you conducted an interview by yourself, take some time right after the interview to review your notes and share them with colleagues, if possible.

At GSA, we follow these steps when preparing for customer interviews, which we use to follow-up with customers after an experience journey mapping exercise, to obtain specific and detailed information around noticeable trends in the journey map. For instance, when we developed a customer experience journey map around GSA’s new hire onboarding process, we used these interview techniques to help us identify and further explore specific pain points in the onboarding process, resulting in more targeted process improvement projects.

Victoria McFadden is the Deputy Chief Customer Officer and Anahita Reilly is the Customer Advocate Executive in the Office of Customer Experience at GSA.