Improve Your Product, Interview Your Customers

Collect useful information from your customers before you start improving your product

Interviewing customer
Interviewing customer

One way or channel through which you can collect useful information before you jump into improving your product is by interviewing your existing users and customers (interview your customers). In my opinion, interviewing your customers can help to understand how the customers use your product, and what is their pain on a daily basis using your product but in their daily working routine as well. This should help you to know how to pivot and tweak the existing solution to fit customers’ needs (fit the market).The

SCENARIO: When you already have a product that has users and customers, and you feel that you miss the target (not having a good fit with the market), one of the next steps is to collect some useful information from your users and customers, before you jump into making decisions about what and how you should improve your product.

One way to go is to make identify the unsatisfied customers and make interviews primarily with them. That will help you to identify which parts of the product can be improved, but at the same time, you will show interest to help the customer to minimize his pain and improve his efficiency as well. This way you could mitigate the risk of a customer stopping using your product.

Different Types of Interviews

There are 4 different types of interviews that could help collect some useful information. They could be combined while your interviewing a customer in one meeting/session.

  1. Exploratory Interview
  2. Validation Interview
  3. Satisfaction-Oriented Interview
  4. Efficiency Interview
4 types of interviews - perspective vs orientation
Perspective vs Orientation

NOTE: The example questions in the following sub-headings are for a software product that helps in collecting and processing faculties students’ feedback.

Exploratory Interview (Freeform Interview)

GOAL: Identify the customer’s pain

Try to understand what is the customer’s pain. Talk about his working day (identify a person that uses your product), and how he uses your product. Have open-ended questions (avoid questions that will lead to yes/no answers). Make the customer talk to you and explain as much as he can.

Example Exploratory Questions:

  1. What’s the worst part of the Product that you used and why?
    This example question is fishing some type of pain that should give you an idea of the problems that they have in a certain context (workflow and the app feature(s) that the customer uses).
  2. What are you doing when you can’t close the feedback cycle?
    Fishing about what the customer usually does when he cannot close the feedback cycle. (Assuming that the feedback cycle is a workflow in which Actor A must process feedback given by Actor B). These questions should help understand the customer’s workflow for this specific scenario and identify a potentially missing link in a chain (read a product feature or functionality), or identify existing features/functionality that could be improved.

Validation Interview

GOAL: Test a theory and/or a hypothesis

This type aims to prove/validate a hypothesis/theory that you have. This should be suitable for collecting helpful information for the concrete features that you designed. But this type of interview is susceptible to bias. It’s really hard to get a relevant answer if you ask somebody do they like this feature that I worked on. You may get misleading answers because the person may want to be good to you.

So, try not to introduce your idea directly until the very end. First of all try to talk around the problem that your feature should solve, and try to confirm/understand in a way the problem of the customer first. And when you introduce the idea about the feature (or concrete design – conceptual design of course), don’t get in love with the idea. Don’t get hyped about the idea. Don’t try to defend the idea but just try to simply present it and try to collect some useful information. (Do not try to sell the idea/feature but try to collect the customer’s feedback and his behavior after you explain the idea.)

While you are doing the interview respect the customer’s feedback and show him that his input and thoughts are really important to you. If a customer smell that you are trying to bias his answers and that you want to sell, the interview will go in the wrong direction, and you get even misleading information which is not good. Try not to speak too much, and guide him/her to talk.

Satisfaction-Oriented Interview

GOAL: Identify customer satisfaction with the usage of the product

Those interviews are about what the customer like and don’t like about the product (read what parts of a product work for the customer and what parts don’t. This approach is to get some general comments and directions for the product. The important aspect here is to ask why. If they pinpoint that some part of the product doesn’t work, you should go with Why? Also, if there is a part that works for them well, it is also good to collect some additional information by which you can understand why it is good and get the context. Understanding the context and the way a customer works can open other dimensions for potential improvements and new product features and functionalities as well.

Example Satisfaction-oriented Questions:

  1. What we should stop doing? 
    With this open-ended question for instance you should collect some useful information about the features or the workflow stimulated/defined by the product that doesn’t work for the customer.
  2. What are one or two things thing that product could do better for you? 
    If the customer has something as a need, he should bring it in front of you. This is a good one for identifying some priorities as well.

Efficiency Interview

GOAL: Identify inefficiencies in using the product but also in the user workflows

This is more for improving things and specific features. It is good to understand how the customer uses some of the features. In some scenarios, you can be surprised how they use some of the features, which can give you an idea of how those can be tweaked to increase the customer’s efficiency even more.

Example Efficiency Questions:

  1. How easy is it for you to use feature A?
    The idea is to understand if it is easy enough to use the feature for the customer. Does the customer enjoy using it?
  2. How would you do this with the product if you want to do this and that? 
    This should help you to understand how they use it and where they do something wrong or maybe you can figure out something which is wrong that needs attention from the product side.

Workflow For Interview Your Customers

The standard steps when you need to interview a customer are the following:

  1. Identify who has to be targeted (target group to be interviewed)
  2. Find the candidates that represent the target group
  3. Get the customer to talk
  4. Run a customer interview (Interview the customer)

STEP 1: Identify Who Has To Be Targeted

It will be very useful to collect positive feedback and what the customers really like about your product. That could be valuable information, especially for the marketing and sales processes. But if you would like to improve the product that should fit the market, it will be better to collect some negative feedback. So, try to identify the customers who are not so satisfied with the product. Try to identify the customers who still feel more pain than joy using your product.

STEP 2: Find The Candidates That Represent The Target Group

Search for champions (power users) or suitable person that is already engaged and onboarded with the tool. Those who are enthusiastic or interested or have some issues with the product. People that already invested their time and effort to use the product. Somebody that uses the tool already with whom you could have a quality interview.

If you want to validate an idea for a concrete feature or get some feedback for an existing product feature, search for the users that need or already use that specific feature. In this context, it is better to talk with somebody that uses the feature than with a manager or the department (organizational unit) that uses your product.

You can take the demographic approach, and identify representatives of different target groups by their age, habits, culture, and gender – basic demographic data.

If your product is already popular and has a significant list of users and customers, you can try to find if some of them (their representatives) had engaged in public forums, comments under your blog posts (if you have it), posts, and comments on social networks. Those people could promise a quality interview and useful information for you for further improvement of your product.

STEP 3: Get The Customer To Talk

This step is very interesting and important because it is not easy to get someone to an interview to give you feedback.

According to my opinion, there are 3 principles that in general can help in making the users and customers talk to you and share some useful information.

  1. Be short and try not to overkill things while asking the customers for an interview and while interviewing your customers as well (less complexity and keep it simple so that your request will be easy to digest). If you try to contact the customer via email or even verbally, try to articulate your request in 4-6 sentences.
  2. Personalize your approach. Try to put yourself in the customer’s shoes. For instance, how would you act if you get an email or a call from somebody with a general approach, especially if it’s written communication, and especially if you didn’t meet the person previously? If you already have a good relationship with the customer’s representative it could be easier but in general, it’s better to personalize the communication.
  3. Make them valuable. Try to find a way to identify what can be valuable for the customer. Explain to him that his feedback is very important and try to convince him that his feedback will have an impact on what you do (make him feel that they have an effect on the product improvement).

Two Useful Hints

💡 HINT 1: You are not a salesman! With your approach try to convince the customer that you are more open to listening than talking/selling. Even when you try to validate a hypothesis or a prototype for a solution, don’t sound like you are in love with your new feature, and don’t sound like a salesman. Be more open to listening and collecting information and the customer’s experience and opinion.

💡 HINT 2: VIP treatment. Make the customer feel special. Explain to him that his feedback and contribution are the ones that you can’t get easier than from anybody else. Show some extra respect to a customer’s representative. Make him/her feel like an expert, and accent his/her feedback as helpful and valuable. I think that especially the engaged, enthusiastic people and the Power Users will know to recognize that and provide quality feedback.

STEP 4: How To Run An Interview (Some Good Practices To Interview Your Customers)

General Context

  1. Make sure to create a comfortable environment for talking. Don’t jump immediately with some questions related to the topic, try to make it a bit more comfortable atmosphere. Try to be interested in their personality outside of the interview – that usually helps to set up the mentioned environment.
  2. Don’t force the conversation. Try more to facilitate and guide it.
  3. Don’t ask uncomfortable questions – questions that they can’t answer or it will be really hard for them to answer.
  4. Don’t ask questions that might make the customer’s representative lie. Too many private questions, or questions that could lead to the scenario in which they have to confirm that they did something wrong. This could lead the interview in a direction in which you will collect junk data/information that even can misguide you in your decisions.
  5. When the customer gives negative feedback don’t try to defend. Don’t react like a boxer with a guard. Be open, and flexible, and respond in a relaxed, neutral, and not judgmental way. Be ready to get more from him/her. Ask why. (try to find the root cause – 5 whys). This chilling reaction from your side will help the interview to go in the right direction. I would expect the customer’s representative to be even more open to giving quality and honest feedback, which we/you want. They should get a feeling that it’s OK if they give negative feedback and tell the truth which is really what we/you want.
  6. Don’t ask leading questions (for example: Do you want to save some money? Do you want to reduce XX% of the expenses? Do you want to speed up the process? There is no person in the World who will have another answer than yes! 😊. Those questions are glaring examples of bad questions.

Exploratory Context

  1. Even though you may take a free-form approach, don’t forget that this is an interview with the customer, not a discussion.
  2. Ask open-ended questions. Don’t ask binary questions (Questions that lead to answers such as yes or no).
  3. You avoid discussion of your solutions. Discuss their problems.
  4. Don’t forget to ask Why.
  5. Customers usually don’t know what they want, but they know what they need. Discuss with them what they need. (Everybody can talk about the problems it has)
  6. Don’t talk about your opinion. Just drop a question that should lead to the customer answering the question and touching different segments with it. Make them talk.
  7. Don’t try to be direct. Let the customer talk even at a certain point their discussion gets off-point/topic.

Validation Context

  1. Don’t ask hypothetical questions. Ask questions that are more down to Earth.

Conversation Elements

Interviewing customers requires some communication and verbal skills. If you didn’t check my article about the 4 different personality styles, I will recommend you read it before you start interviewing your customers because you can get some knowledge about communication and conversation elements and attributes defined by Aristotle and Albert Mehrabian.

About Vasil Buraliev 19 Articles
Consultant for project management and software development with a background in bespoke software development and 22+ years of professional experience in designing software systems and managing IT projects mainly for the public sector. Seeking to use analytic and management skills as a consultant in large-scale IT projects.

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