The Art and Science of Customer Interviews

By Brian Lischer

How well do you know your customers? If you're like most business owners and executives, your answer is probably "well enough." But as the owner of a branding firm that specializes in customer research, I'm here to tell you the odds are you're wrong.

The fact is, you can never know your customers "well enough." There are few things more valuable than insight into the people you serve, and there's always more to learn. You may know the age, gender and geographic location of your customers, but do you truly understand their needs, motivations and behaviors?

Customer interviews give you this understanding. They're designed to uncover how customers experience your brand. Customer interviews can be conducted one-on-one or with a small group of individuals from the same customer segment. The insight you can glean from speaking directly to your customers is critical, not just for effective branding and marketing, but for nearly every aspect of your business.

We conducted interviews for an established healthcare company, and it turns out, many of their customers were completely unaware of one of their key offerings. Other customers told us they highly valued the industry insights our client provided because they were based on massive amounts of data that no other company had access to. Both of these revelations led to substantive changes in the brand's positioning and an uptick in revenue as a result.

While there are certain interviewing skills that can take years to master, the fundamental process is straightforward and replicable.

1. Recruit Interview Participants

Be purposeful when recruiting customers for your interviews. The goal is to find people who are interested and engaged. You also want to find individuals who are as close to an archetypal representation of your target customer segments as possible.

It's usually sufficient to interview five participants per customer segment. The amount of unique insights you can glean from any one customer segment drops off considerably after five interview participants. It may be tempting to go beyond this limit, but any feedback you might get from additional interviewees tends to be just different versions of statements you've already heard.

Interviewees should include active customers, potential customers and lost customers. The outlier groups are often a source of valuable insight into blind spots for your company. Oftentimes, it helps to incentivize participants with gift cards in order to secure participation. Twenty dollars is usually a sufficient gesture for most participants, though many people just appreciate the idea that their opinion is valuable.

2. Draft Questions for Your Interviews

When drafting interview questions, it's important to use clear, concise, and easy-to-understand language. Avoid technical speak and industry jargon as well as suggestive or leading language. The more plain and objective your questioning, the more genuine -- and therefore, valuable -- the responses will be. Ask participants to reflect on how they came to make a decision, and ask for examples and anecdotes. Request that interviewees clarify their answers. These extra inquiries are often where profound insights emerge.

The interviews we did for a client in the health and wellness space revealed that customers were put off by the word "institute" in the brand name. It stood for everything these customers didn't want: namely rigid and dogmatic values. These insights led the company to rename and restructure the brand architecture -- two significant moves that wouldn't have been made otherwise.

Here are some interview questions I've found to be valuable:

  • What challenges did you have when you sought the products or services of [company]?

  • What made you choose [company] instead of one of its competitors?

  • Do you feel [company] has delivered on its brand promise? Why?

  • What could be done to improve your experience with [company]?
  • 3. Interview Your Participants

    Conducting the actual interviews is where a bit of instinct and intuition can be useful. These skills can take years to master, though, so I won't delve into a comprehensive how-to guide here. Instead, I'll offer a few tricks of the trade.

    First, it's hugely advantageous to conduct interviews in person whenever possible. Face-to-face conversations have a natural flow with instinctual turn-taking and fewer unintentional interruptions. Plus, you can't pick up on subtle non-verbal cues when you are interviewing someone over the phone. But no matter how you choose to conduct them, it helps to ask the most important questions first. Participants' interest and attention begin to fade the further into the interview you get.

    4. Analyze Data from Your Interviews

    Analyzing qualitative data from customer interviews is centered around coding. Coding includes combing your data for keywords, phrases, categories and themes and making note of similarities so you can return for further analysis. The goal is to identify meaningful patterns amongst the answers from all of your participants. Which words are commonly used to describe the company or one of its offerings? What themes emerge from the sentiments of your subjects?

    It's also important to read between the lines when it comes to your interviewees' responses. Differences between answers are equally as instructive as similarities. Inconsistent responses can be a marker of a fragmented brand experience. Look for unexpected and surprising statements--these are often where you can glean the most profound insights.

    During interviews we conducted for a financial services firm, it came to light that the partners' young age, generally assumed to be a detriment to the brand, was actually a valuable asset. Youth, in fact, became a central theme in the brand's positioning, including the color palette, photography, and tone of voice. The visual and verbal identities were highly differentiated because they were unconventional for the industry.

    At the end of the day, a company's goal is to better serve its customers. But how can you hope to serve your customers unless you have an intimate understanding of who they are, what they need and what drives them? Customer interviews give you that understanding, and with it, a powerful mechanism for advancing your brand.

    Brian Lischer is the founder and CEO of Ignyte.