Step 3: Learn exactly what to ask

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Okay, so now we’ve arrived at the conversation itself, the part where we figure out what we need to know and then, well, ask it.

Keep in mind our goal here isn’t to validate any products or ideas while the conversation is actually happening. Put that aside, as we’ll evaluate it later. Instead, your objective is to study your customer’s environment, so relax, listen and really learn.

Our main goals will be to learn about the customer’s current reality, and then the ideal state. We want to investigate the gap between “current reality” and “ideal state”. Imagine building a bridge for your customers that takes them from their current reality to their ideal state — that’s the whole point of this research.

So, our conversation is going to explore their current reality and contrast that with their ideal state. Now, here’s a helpful way to think of the questions over time:

Picture your questions as a funnel – they start broad, and then become more narrow. The more broad questions will get the customer talking and allow you to collect as much information up front as possible before you drill down with more specific questions.

exploring current reality

We’ll begin each conversation with questions that will encourage the customer to describe her current reality, and we’ll learn as much about it as possible with follow up questions. Here are some examples to help investigate the current reality:

Current reality questions:

  • What’s frustrating / annoying / difficult about X?
  • Can you give me an example?
  • What, exactly, was difficult about that?
  • How long has this been frustrating for you?
  • Have you tried anything in order to solve the problem? If so, what did you try? What wasn’t great about that solution?

These are big questions we’re asking, and they deserve some follow up in order to squeeze out the good insights under the surface.

Think of each question as its own iceberg. You start with just the tip of the iceberg, the rest is hidden, and each question reveals more and more of the iceberg. The truth is, people rarely reveal the whole picture with their first response, but there’s more under the surface.

Shifting to Ideal State

Okay, so after gaining a clear understanding of where the customer currently stands, we can shift to encouraging him to define a more ideal state.

Again, we’re contrasting their CURRENT reality with their IDEAL reality. Your business is going to bridge the gap for them.

Ideal state questions:

  • If you could wave a magic wand, how do you wish it worked?
  • In an ideal world, what would be different?
  • How would things change for you if this problem were solved?

Your potential customer is not going to have all the answers about how to solve this problem — that’s where you’re going to come in later, when you make your thing. You can, however, get a sense of what the customer’s ideal outcome is, and that’s exactly what you’ll want to seek to deliver with your product or service.

Powerful followup questions

I want to share some simple tools to uncover more of the iceberg, revealing the whole story in your conversation. Try at least a couple of these simple follow up questions before moving on to your next big question:

  • “Why?”
  • “What was important to you about that?”
  • “What did that feel like?”
  • “That’s really interesting — can you tell me more?”
  • “What else should I know about that?”

These open-ended follow up questions are really powerful, so be sure you take note of them. You might be surprised at just how much additional information is lying underneath the surface — sometimes you just need to give someone permission to fully explore the thought.

Action time: craft your question outline

Now that we know how to explore the customer’s current reality and ideal state, it’s time to craft a question outline. The Customer Conversation Builder Template will help you pick and choose the rough script that makes sense for you.

Remember, we’re not putting together a hundred questions to throw at them. Instead, we’re anticipating a lot of followup questions, where more and more of the iceberg will be revealed naturally. But you do want to make sure your questions get to the heart of the problem you’re exploring and don’t leave gaps in the story you’ll regret later on.

So please create your question outline now, and when you’re ready, we’ll move on to some tactical tips for conducting the interview.