Winning hearts and minds: using customer interviews to learn about your customers

At Automattic we use customer research to help improve our offering. We employ a variety of different methods to study and learn from our customers so we can build better products for them. Some of the approaches we use include conducting customer interviews, running surveys and polls, doing user tests, and offering customer support.

In this post, I’m going to focus on one of my favorite methods: the ol’ customer interview. They have become a great source of inspiration and understanding since I started using them. Talking with our customers has given me a valuable perspective that helps me work on things that are good for them and our company.

Get closer than ever to your customer. So close that you tell them what they need before they even realize it themselves — Steve Jobs.

What is a customer interview?

There is no better way to learn from your customers than to speak to them directly. You need to make people comfortable if you want them to open up and be honest with you. That’s why I believe it’s better to treat it more as a conversation than an interview. Keep that in mind when you’re thinking about the logistics of your interview.

Recruiting customers

I find that people generally like to speak about themselves and their experiences — all you have to do is ask. You can recruit people to sign up in emails, surveys, or prompts throughout your product. Once people sign up then you have to schedule a time with them. This can get tricky if you’re doing it over email. I have used to make it easy for people to pick a time that works for them without any back and forth.

Some companies offer incentives like gift cards or money to get people to participate. That can lead to people signing up just for the reward. I try not offering one if I can get away from it. With that said, I still like to give people something as a thank you for their time and feedback. The gesture is always very much appreciated, especially when it’s unexpected.

Running an interview

Going into an interview with a plan will make it easier for you. I like to start by clarifying my goals, drafting a script, and then figuring out the logistics. My script is a list of of speaking points and open ended questions designed to elicit rich answers with lots of details. I get familiar with the script so I don’t have to read from it during the interview — remember how we want this to feel like a conversation.

Lots of time can be wasted trying to get technology to co-operate for a remote call or finding a place to sit in a busy coffee shop for an in person interview. Both these things have happened to me. Whether you’re doing it in person or online, make sure that you have a suitable location secured and that you test all your equipment. I like to show up a couple minutes early to get setup and bring refreshments for my guests because it makes them feel more at ease.

At Automattic we run our interviews remotely with a video technology called Zoom. This allows us to speak to our customers right from their own home and it also gives us access to more people because we’re not constrained by a physical location. You can read more about the tools we use to do remote user research in this post from my colleague Maria Scarpello.

Getting the most from your interviews

When you’re talking with your customers, the most important thing you can do is listen. Considering how much speaking we do, it’s surprising how hard it is to do. At times I don’t give my full attention if I’m thinking about what I’m going to say next or taking notes. That’s why I started recording my interviews. At Automattic we buddy up and take notes for each other so the person leading the interview can focus on the conversation.

Take some time after the interview to analyse your notes. Share your research and findings with your colleagues — their perspective can help uncover key insights that you might have not noticed. Work together with them to identify actionable tasks that can be taken to improve your product. Test any changes you make and then talk to your customers all over again to see what they think.

5 thoughts on “Winning hearts and minds: using customer interviews to learn about your customers

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