Creating frequent touch points with customers is one of the core tenets of continuous discovery. I’ve often said that I believe interviewing customers frequently and consistently is a keystone habit. Once product trios begin to do this, they are much more likely to pick up all the other continuous discovery habits like rapid prototyping and experimenting more often. They get better at connecting what they’re learning from their research activities to the product decisions they’re making.
Most people understand why I advocate this approach, but I get a lot of questions about who exactly I’m referring to when I say “customers” and whether different types of customers should be treated differently. This article will explore who you should interview and a few guiding principles to keep in mind when selecting interview participants. Let’s dive in!
Question: When you talk to customers on a weekly basis, who should you be talking to?
For teams that are just getting started, I would recommend talking to any customer. If you have never talked to a customer, you could talk to a complete outlier and you’re still going to learn great things. As you build your interviewing muscle and you start talking to customers regularly, I encourage you to interview for variation. You want to talk to power users. You want to talk to first-time users. You want to talk to really active users. You want to talk to some of your disengaged users. You want to talk to people that use every feature, people that only use one or two things.
For teams that are just getting started with continuous interviewing, I would recommend talking to any customer. – Tweet This
When I say “customers,” I mean anybody who matches your target customer profile. So that could be a current customer. It could be a churned customer. It could be a prospect. It could be somebody who’s never even heard of your company, so they’re not even a prospect yet.
If you’ve never talked to a customer, I don’t want you to worry about optimizing who to talk to. I want you to talk to whoever it’s easiest to talk to. One of the things we teach in our interviewing course and in our coaching is to help teams automate the recruiting process. In the early days of doing that, you may not have a lot of control over who’s coming into your interviews.
If you’ve never talked to a customer, I don’t want you to worry about optimizing who to talk to. I want you to talk to whoever it’s easiest to talk to. – Tweet This
But with time, I want you to start to think about how to increase the variation. What do I mean by variation? Don’t just talk to small companies if your products serve small, medium, and large companies. Don’t just talk to super engaged customers if you also have customers that are not that engaged. We’re looking at variation in behavior. We’re looking at variation in demographics. We’re looking at variation in things like socioeconomic status, or level of engagement, or even gender and ethnicity. So with time, you want to interview for variation.
And then for your specific team, the types of customers you want to talk to are going to be based on your outcome. So if my outcome is around new customer acquisition, I’m probably talking to a lot of prospects. But if my outcome is around retention, I’m probably talking to current customers. I’m probably talking to people that have stuck around for a long time—so I can figure out why they’re staying—but maybe also people that have churned so I can learn what the problem is.
Don’t Worry About Annoying Your Customers
People often worry about reaching out to customers too often. Won’t this erode their goodwill or annoy them? First of all, I don’t recommend speaking to the same customer every week. Remember: Your goal is to interview for variation.
But if you have a smaller pool of customers, you might be concerned about reaching out to them too often. It all comes down to how you approach your interviews. If you go to your customers and say, “Look at all my great ideas. What do you think about this? And what do you think about that?” If your interviews follow this format and they’re all about your product, then yes, you’re going to burn out your participants, and you’re going to have a hard time recruiting people to participate.
But this doesn’t have to be the case. One of the things I talk about in my book is the story-based interviewing technique. With story-based interviewing, you’re rarely talking about your product. Instead, you’re spending most of the time in the interview collecting your customer’s story.
If you do that in your interview, your customer is actually going to really love the experience. As humans, we rarely have someone truly listen to us. And we love talking about our own experiences.
As humans, we rarely have someone truly listen to us. And we love talking about our own experiences. – Tweet This
If you make the interview all about your customer, their experience, and what they’re trying to do, the vast majority of time, they’re going to end the interview with, “Wow, when can we do this again?” So the key is to change your interview to be more about your customer and less about your product.
Additionally, if you automate your recruiting process and let customers opt in to your interviews, your customers can choose how often they want to engage with you.
Throw Out the Idea of Getting a Representative Sample
People often worry how you can get a representative sample when interviewing customers this way. The first thing to understand about qualitative research like story-based interviews is that we can throw out this idea of a representative sample.
The concept of a representative sample comes from quantitative research, where we’re using a small percentage of the population to predict the behavior of the larger population. We see this method with election polls. We’re polling 1,000 people, trying to understand the behavior of 100,000 people. When we do that, it’s really important that that sample is representative so we make sure that our predictions are reliable.
With interviewing, we cannot possibly interview enough people to have a representative sample. So the equivalent with qualitative research is we’re interviewing for variation. We’re not suggesting that this interview pool is going to predict the behavior of our overall population.
With interviewing, we cannot possibly interview enough people to have a representative sample. So instead we should focus on interviewing for variation. – Tweet This
Instead, what we’re doing is saying we’re trying to uncover as much of the experience as possible. And the way that we’re doing that is we’re selecting for variation.
It’s a little bit of a different mindset. Don’t think about it quantitatively, because this is not quantitative research. It’s really about working to increase the variation of people that you talk to.
There are lots of ways to do this. If you’re recruiting from within your product, you can change where you show the ask to get variation. You can use screeners to figure out who’s who, and only book interviews with people that meet certain criteria. But the key is really to try to uncover as much variation as possible.
Interviewing B2B Customers: What You Need to Know
What about B2B customers? Can you really find people who are willing to take time out of their days to talk with you?
As I mentioned earlier, you have to shift your interviews from being about your product to being about your customer. Make sure you frame it that way.
You can simply say something like, “I’m looking to talk to customers who are experiencing this need.” Most of the time—and especially in a B2B context—you’re not even going to need an incentive. If that need is real, customers will be excited to have the opportunity to discuss it with you.
I’ll share a personal example. I run online courses. Right now, our course platform is Teachable. One of the major problems we have with Teachable is they don’t generate EU-compliant receipts. And as a result, if you’re in the EU and you buy one of our courses, we have to generate a custom receipt for you. On our side, the administrative work is a nightmare. And if Teachable emailed me and said, “We’d love to talk to you about pain points you’re having around receipts for people in the EU,” I would take that call in a heartbeat because I desperately want that problem solved.
So when you shift the ask to be about a problem or pain point that your customer is experiencing, they’re much more likely to opt in.
When you shift the ask to be about a problem or pain point that your customer is experiencing, they’re much more likely to opt in to being interviewed. – Tweet This
It does require having at least an initial understanding of those pain points. So earlier in the process when you don’t know that, you might need to offer an incentive.
In a B2C world, the incentive is usually cash or a gift card. In a B2B world, that is rarely going to work. Most companies have policies that prevent employees from accepting gifts. So you’re going to have to think about an incentive that creates value in a different way. It could be access to an exclusive white paper. It could be access to a webinar. It could be a discount on their next month of service. You want to think about what’s valuable to the customer, but reasonably inexpensive for you to offer.
There’s Always a Way
Anytime I introduce the concept of weekly interviews, I get a lot of questions and pushback about specific types of customers. It’s very common for people to think that their customers are particularly rare or overbooked and therefore there’s no way to interview them weekly.
What I say in those cases is that you need to meet those customers where they are. No matter how busy someone is, they will have some downtime in their schedules. There will be times when they’re waiting in line at the supermarket or waiting to board a flight. You need to seek out those pockets of downtime and find ways to speak with your customers then.
Here’s an example: I worked with one company whose customers were car salespeople. They would consistently schedule interviews and not show up for them, because anytime a customer walked into the car dealership, the salesperson would speak with the customer. There’s no way they were going to miss out on a potential sale just to participate in an interview. But car dealerships aren’t always full of customers. There’s plenty of time during the day when salespeople could hop on a call. So what the product team started doing was asking the car salespeople to text them when they had 15 minutes to talk. They found a way to make regular interviews easy for their customers.
I’d encourage you to take the same approach. Instead of focusing on reasons why this can’t or won’t work for your team or customers, look for ways to make it work. Be curious and thoughtful about your customers. Use what you learn to come up with creative solutions. You just might surprise yourself!
Instead of focusing on reasons why continuous interviewing can’t or won’t work for your team or customers, look for ways to make it work. – Tweet This
And finally, I always recommend taking a continuous improvement approach. Don’t expect to get everything right when you first start. It’s much more important (and realistic) to start somewhere and iterate over time.
We discuss questions like this in our community devoted to putting the continuous discovery habits in practice. You should join us!