How to Structure Customer Development Interviews to Get Valuable Insights

For each hour of customer development interviews, businesses tend to save 5 to 10 to 20 hours of wasted development time.Cindy Alvarez, Lean Customer Development Author

The biggest challenge when you’re starting out is making sure you’re getting valid data consistently to learn and, eventually, transition from customer discovery to confirmation and validation.

For this process, the real goal is learning, not sales or revenue.

You want to create a structure and a script to capture consistent information around your key assumptions.

Your goals with the first series of customer development interviews are to:

  • Understand the problem space;
  • Validate the existence of the problem;
  • Evaluate the target segment.

As a rule of thumb — and this will depend on how talkative your prospects are — you can usually squeeze in three to five divergent questions in a 20-30 minute interview.

For this reason, it’s really important to always know what your top 3 questions are.

For the first generative interviews, they might be:

  • What are your top three challenges?
  • How much do you feel this problem is costing you/your company?
  • Within the organization, who’s responsible specifically for [specific problem]?

But we’ll get back to those…

How to Structure Customer Development Interviews

You’ll want to plan for a structure like this:

  1. Greetings (two minutes): Greetings are exchanged and the prospect is made comfortable through shared context.
  2. Qualification (three minutes): You ask questions to understand the role and situation of your prospect.
  3. Open-ended questions (20 minutes): The bulk of the time allotted to the interview falls in this stage. Your goal is to understand and prioritize the problems of your prospects.
  4. Closing (five minutes): To move the relationship forward, you try to close a prospect on another meeting.
  5. Note review (ten minutes): After the meeting (and without the prospect), review your notes to make sure you’re not losing information and to be able to quickly adjust to the feedback.

Prior to the discussion, you’ll want to research the prospect thoroughly. This shows respect, and can keep you from asking questions that could have simply been answered by a Google search.

The Greeting Phase

The greetings phase should last about two minutes.

In this phase, you’ll want to make small talk. This will help you (and them) feel more comfortable.

You can ask a question about their home city, a hobby, a mutual acquaintance, a blog post, or anything else that helps establish rapport.

You can then transition to a simple intro:

Thanks for taking the time to meet/speak with us.

We’re a young company working on [value proposition]. We’re currently exploring a few product alternatives.

We’d like to understand your needs and reality to avoid building the wrong thing.

I have roughly 10 questions for you today.

Before we begin, I’d like to stress that we don’t have a finished product yet and our objective is to learn from you — not to sell or pitch to you.

Does that make sense?

From there, you can move on to qualification for about 3 minutes:

There, you’ll ask questions to understand their role and situation within the organization.

This will allow you to establish patterns between roles, business dynamics, and the problems you’ll uncover.

Don’t feel like you need to talk or fill the silence.

Sample customer interview questions:

  • How would you describe your role as [role]?
  • What does success look like for you?

Then follows the meatiest part of the discussion: Open-ended questions.

Exploring the Problem Space

The bulk of the time allotted to the interview falls in this stage. Your goal is to understand and prioritize the problems of your prospects.

Ask open questions, follow emotion, encourage complaints, ask follow-up questions, and don’t forget to empathize.

Sample customer interview questions:

  • Can you tell me how you deal with [general problem space] (e.g. recruitment, growth, finance, etc.)?
  • What’s preventing you from [specific problem] (e.g. acquiring customers, recruiting talented staff, etc.)?
  • What have you done to fix [specific problem]?
  • When was the last time you tried to solve that problem?
  • Why hasn’t it completely worked?
  • How much do you feel this problem is costing you/your company?

It’s often a good idea to use the first question to abstract your problem hypothesis by a level to explore more broadly.

For example, if you’re exploring social media recruitment, you can ask about “recruitment.” Starting with a general, “Tell me about how you deal with recruitment?” will help broaden the discussion.

Follow that up with 60 seconds of silence to set the tone. Let the interviewee talk.

For this phase, other core questions will be “How much is this problem costing you?” or “What are the implications of that?”

This helps you differentiate a problem they’ll want to pay to resolve and something that’s just somewhat annoying.

Closing Out the Interview

The last phase is about closing. Plan for five minutes there:

The core question will be:

Within the organization, who’s responsible specifically for [specific problem]?

This question helps home in on the existence (or absence) of the problem within the organization:

  • If they’re responsible for the problem, jackpot! 👍
  • If it’s ‘no one’, the problem either doesn’t exist or it’s not a priority at the moment;
  • If they say ‘someone else’, ask to speak to that person.

Don’t try to sell. Don’t tell them what you’re going to do.

That said, you want to close them on:

  • A new meeting to explore the problem further;
  • Referrals to confirm the existence of the market and have more discussions with prospects.

As you go through the series of interviews, it’s important to have a script and stick to it.

It’s okay to adjust the phrasing or add questions, but being able to compare the data points is a key part of the customer development process.

Get Started Fast – Download my Latest B2B Customer Interview Script for Free

The Code of Conduct for Customer Development Interviews

As you’re conducting the interviews, I strongly suggest recording the discussion.

You can use your phone, your computer, or a recorder (if they are still around).

Make sure the prospect agrees to being recorded (you need to ask) and communicate that the recording will only be used for internal reference.

I prefer re-listening to interviews than interrupting the flow and holding back the discussion by taking notes.

The reality is you’ll miss 50% of what’s being said during the interview if you’re trying to take notes.

Record, take notes, and re-listen to the interviews with as much objectivity as possible.

Sometimes it will make sense to bring a partner in for the interviews.

In those situations, one person can lead the discussion while the other takes notes.

It might make your team appear more credible and will definitely accelerate share back with the team. Any more than two interviewers typically intimidate participants.

Don’t judge. Make sure you smile during the interviews, even when it’s just over the phone.

Being non-judgmental, empathic, and friendly helps prospects open up and feel more comfortable sharing truths.

Keep the discussion casual, and don’t forget that you’re building relationships.

Whenever the person starts to complain, listen. People will be more specific with complaints than praise. Specific examples will really help you learn about the problems and reality.

You can repeat the answers back to your prospect for further clarifications and to validate your understanding. Do this by saying, “So what you’re saying is…”

Keep an eye out for body language: strong reactions, posture, body positioning, language, tone variations, and eye movements can tell you a lot. Do they seem nervous? Tentative? Bored?

Try to restore your rapport and reassure them (“This is very helpful”). You can also ask what made them roll their eyes, sigh, laugh, frown, smirk, etc.

A Few Things to Keep in Mind

Prospects who are leaning forward, asking a lot of questions and who really get involved in the discussion give signs of interest. Prospects who are easily distracted, look through their emails or messages, slouch and talk without answering the questions are typically disinterested.

If you’re meeting face-to-face, have a look at your surroundings. Office walls and sticky notes can be gold. They can tell you about what truly matters to your prospects.

Watch out for compliments. Compliments can be very misleading and derail your interview process.

Focus on facts and what people actually do.

Unless you try to close someone, it’s hard to really know if the meeting went well, so make sure you close on referrals or a followup meeting first.

More on Customer Development Interviews

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