The skill of asking questions for customer interviewing


The skill of asking questions for customer interviewing


8 practical guidelines to prepare for a customer interview

By Mary Cronin - Cartier Women's Initiative Awards coach and CEO of Thousand Seeds

"Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers." Voltaire
Asking and framing questions is a skill. There are many benefits derived from good questioning techniques. By asking the right questions we can gather the maximum amount of information in a shorter timeframe and assess what is going on more effectively. As part of developing our business and doing customer development we want to understand customer problems and needs as opposed to pitching "our" solutions'.

When preparing for a customer interview prepare about 5 questions. The estimated interview time should be about 30-40 minutes. Be clear about the purpose before you start i.e. is it a problem assessing or a solution interview? Here are 8 guidelines.

1. Ask open-ended questions
Open questions deliberately look for longer answers. They require the customer to think, reflect and give opinions. 'What' questions are more effective and less intrusive when you need to ask a series of questions. 'What', 'how', 'describe' helps us to probe and understand the problem in more depth. Keep questions short and unbiased. Don't embed the answer into your question e.g.:
- What are the main challenges you face?
- Describe the first time you became aware of this problem?
A closed question can be answered with a single word, short phrase e.g.:
- Did you like our product? Answer could be yes or no
- How is our product working out? An answer could be 'fine'
Avoid these, as you are not getting any valuable information. They also can make your customer feel as if they are being interrogated.

2. Practice active-listening
To sit in the seat of our customers and understand their problems, we need to actively listen: the customer should be doing 90% of the talking. In customer interviews we want to listen, which is a difficult task as opposed to pitching our ideas or solutions. Listen and observe what people don't say.

3. Avoid telling, counseling or interrupting
Avoid saying to your customers "Have you tried?" or "Let me tell you?". More than likely they have tried the obvious solutions. A simple, open question, that gathers information example is "What have you tried to solve this problem?"

4. Understand the power of silence
Silence is a great communicator. It gives both people time to think. Don't rush to fill the space. This is a valuable skill that can be learned. By listening and being present as opposed to thinking about what you want to say next, you're in a better position to understand. Get comfortable with silence.

5. Ask follow-up questions
Drill down and follow up comments with "tell me or "describe". Often you don't get to the real challenges or the root cause of issues until you drill down. This is also known as the 'Five Why's'. This is one of the Toyota techniques now used in Lean Startup. Asking 'why' five times. A better way is to see it as a learning opportunity. Avoid the temptation to comment on everything.

6. Be specific in your questions
General questions can lack context, hence they are not met with the same energy. Make questions more specific. Focus on examples and a more recent time frame and you will get more valuable actionable information that you can derive insight from. A characteristic of better questions is specificity. By moving from general to specific, you generate a higher level of engagement with the listener. Specific questions often cause more thoughtful and detailed responses which is necessary to gain the INSIGHT you are hoping to get.

7. Be aware that people may not tell you their information in a sequential way
They may jump around so you will have to piece it together later.

8. Discerning Information and Knowledge to gain customer Insights
Information is just many bits of data.
Knowledge is putting all the data together.
Wisdom is transcending this information and knowledge to gain INSIGHTS. As well as the information and knowledge from the interview we want to gain INSIGHT – have "aha" moments.
To do this you need ask incisive questions, use active listening skills and read between the lines. If you don't, you can be led into a false sense that your product or service is doing a good job. By digging deep for specific examples of satisfaction and frustration you can determine the real standards you are being measured against and then you can develop a strategy to meet those.
Your customers are a great source of information. They can help you improve your business, gain a better understanding of your market and the competition, and bring you referrals. If you already talk to your customers, that's great. That's smart. If not, you need to.
Are you asking insightful questions to your customers?

If you would like to know more email me on or keep in touch through twitter @marylcronin @thousandseeds.

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