Many startup veterans & marketers will argue that one of THE most important things you can do as an entrepreneur is customer interviews.
Talking to your potential and current customers to validate and improve your business idea is crucial in creating a sustainable and successful business model.
If you get customer interviews right: it can save you MONTHS or even YEARS of time because you’ll be building a product or service that people actually WANT.
Brendan is an expert in launching new SaaS (software as a service) products. He has led the creation of numerous banking applications and led multiple product teams. He is an expert in customer interviews as well as the entrepreneurial process.
It’s also worth noting that he’s a former Startup Weekend: Makers Edition Winner where in one weekend he co-led a team of entrepreneurs in the creation of a functioning wireless leash for children with yours truly.
I highly recommend checking out Brendan’s full training here:
So, why is interviewing customers important anyway?
Conducting customer interviews isn’t something you should only do before you launch a business or right at the early stages of your company. It’s something that you should continually do as you look to add on new products or services to your business and as the competitive landscape ever changes.
Interviewing customers not only validates your business idea or establishes your target market, but it also teaches you how your potential customers talk about their problems that you’re trying to solve.
It shows you their pain points and helps you understand if you are on the right track to solving them.
Here are Brendan’s tips on how to get started with customer interviews:
1. Choose 2 or 3 BIG questions you want to know the answer to
In a perfect world, you could interview a handful of customers and have them answer every single question you have circling around in your head. The reality, however, is that you only have a limited amount of time and questions with your customers and you need to hone in on answering the most important questions your business needs answered.
Pick 2-3 of the most important strategic questions you need to answer at any time (as you gain insights, these key strategic questions may evolve)
Your top questions might be:
- Does this potential customer truly have a pain point your product or service can solve?
- Will they pay for what you’re selling?
- What do they hate about your current competitors?
- What channel should you use to market your business?
When asking your interview questions, you shouldn’t necessarily ask these questions directly because you may not get clear answers. You can, however, ask multiple related questions that ultimately answer your bigger strategic questions.
For example, when attempting to answer the question “What channels should you use to market your business?” you can ask potential customers about what social media they spend the most time on, what platforms are they more likely to follow company accounts or click on ads, etc.
2. You should be picky with who you interview & keep your interviews short
The number one rule when conducting customer interviews is DO NOT talk to your mom! Your mom loves you, and therefore, she is only going to tell you the things you want to hear. (Check out the fantastic book The Mom Test by Rob Fitzpatrick about customer interviews.) In a similar vein, also do not interview other members of your family, your friends, or anyone else who may hold back on telling you the absolute truth.
You should interview people who you think would actually be paying customers. Ideally, these people don’t even know what your business idea is because as soon as they do, their answers may change to things they think you want to hear.
Also try to keep interviews short, 10-15 minutes, and informal.
These interviews don’t even necessarily need to be formal. When at a networking event or striking up a conversation at a bar (well, once the pandemic is over…) and you notice someone could be a great interviewee, have the conversation then and there rather than scheduling something formal in the future.
3. How to ask questions
One of the main goals of these customer interviews is to discover if your current solution solves a problem and if not, then understand how you need to pivot in order to solve the problem.
When conducting interviews, all of your questions should be focused on their (potential) problem, not your solution.
Ask questions that will tell you how important, pressing or impactful the problem you’re trying to solve is.
Other things to keep in mind when asking questions:
- Don’t ask ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions and drill down on answers when the interviewee only provides a generality.
- Do not ask leading questions!
- Search for a ‘no’ rather than a ‘yes’. Find all of the reasons someone isn’t going to buy from you and then overcome those objections because they’re going to go through all of those reasons before giving you their credit card.
- Bad news is still news. If the problem you’re trying to solve turns out to be not much of a problem, that is still incredibly valuable information to know and will help you figure out how to pivot.
- Similarly, don’t seek validation. Acknowledge when your idea isn’t resonating. The goal of the customer interviews isn’t to sell but to find answers.
4. There are a handful of questions you should never skip
There are a few questions you should never skip in a customer interview.
These questions provide your interviewee with the opportunity to provide additional information or details that they may not have had the chance to provide throughout the interview.
Here are a few examples of must-ask questions:
- Was there anything else you thought to say or we should have spent more time on that you want to bring up now?
- What haven’t I asked about X that I should have or you wish I had asked? OR What else should I know about X?
- Who else do you know that I should talk to? OR Could you introduce me to 3-4 people in your industry to talk to about this?
5. How to know when to be done conducting customer interviews
Short answer: Never.
Long answer: You should never truly be done conducting customer interviews. It is so important to constantly be in touch with your target customers. However, you will be done finding an answer to your big questions (refer to step 1) when you stop getting new information. This typically happens after conducting 5-10 interviews because you will begin hearing the same answers over and over and you will have a true answer to those big questions.
So what happens if you’ve conducted over 15 interviews and you still can’t answer your big questions? Then you need to either shrink your target market, segment your market, consider whether your question(s) are too vague, or you have to be honest with yourself… do you have an answer but it’s not what you wanted to hear?
YAY! You answered your big questions! Now what? Choose 2-3 new big questions and start again!
Seriously though, you should talk to at least 50 potential customers before you truly begin investing in something.
Customer interviews can be intimidating, but they are an incredibly important part of the entrepreneurial journey. Validating your idea with the people who will actually keep your business afloat is crucial to know whether or not you are on the right track.