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3 Common Customer Interview Mistakes

“I just don’t understand,” she sighed, visibly frustrated. “I did what ‘the experts’ say to do: I validated my idea. I built this product based on customer research. And yet, when I launched… nothing… crickets. What gives?”

Just a few months ago, I was having this exact conversation with a good friend over coffee.

I knew she had been working on a top secret project for years, and I knew she had hired a developer to build software for an idea she had.

I patiently waited to learn the details of her new app, and in the meantime urged her to do exactly one thing: have real conversations with potential customers before building the thing.

Inside Fizzle and on The Fizzle Show, you’ve probably heard this message:

…conduct customer research before you waste a bunch of time and money running down the wrong path.

…You might genuinely believe you have the ultimate solution to your customers’ biggest problem, but there’s danger in making assumptions about your business without challenging them.

For us, the saying goes “treat every business idea as a hypothesis.”

Perhaps the biggest mistake in customer conversations is to not have them at all. But what about those of us who do talk to customers, only to find it didn’t really work?

Watch the video:

If you talk to customers, you will be tempted to make these mistakes

These three mistakes might surprise you, and they might even challenge how you’ve interviewed customers in the past. They are not obvious and may even seem counter-intuitive.

examine your motivation (it could be a trap)

Before calling people up and asking them if they would be willing to answer a few questions for you, ask yourself why you are doing customer interviews in the first place.

Your answer might sound something like, “to validate my product or business idea.” While this language certainly gets a lot of positive play in the online entrepreneurial advice arena, what does it really mean?

For many of us, perhaps subconsciously, we seek validation because we want to know whether people like our thing. The dream is to hear customers say “That’s an awesome idea!” or “Wow, I would totally buy that.”

Instead, here’s a new motive for you to consider: the goal of a customer conversation should be to learn about the customer — her reality, her struggles, her dreams and how she wishes things could work differently.

Keeping the focus on true customer research and away from our [very human] need for validation is trickier than it sounds, which is why these three mistakes are so common. Knowing they exist is half the battle, so without further adieu, here are the three biggest missteps business builders make when talking to their customers.

Mistake #1: Talking directly about your idea

Back to my coffee date with a frustrated friend, I asked her to tell me more about her customer research process. I wanted to know exactly what she asked, how she asked it, and how people responded.

Her answer? “I sat down with a few people who I thought would be a good fit for my product. I walked them through the concept and asked them if this is something they would use and, if so, how much they would pay for it.”

On the surface, this thought process seems completely natural — we want to validate our idea. So why wouldn’t we ask people what they think of it and how much they would pay to get some feedback?

First of all, talking about your idea puts you right into sales mode. Of course you want the potential customer sitting in front of you to like your thing, so you’ll probably start feeling this impulse to convince him. It’s difficult, and perhaps impossible, to focus on learning about the customer when your focus inevitably shifts to selling your idea.

At the same time, your customer might start to see what you’re looking for and, in an effort to be friendly and helpful, tell you what you want to hear. Being completely honest isn’t everyone’s favorite past time, so it’s not terribly likely this person will tell you they wouldn’t buy your thing. You could easily end up interpreting a “sure, that seems pretty cool” as validation without a shred of evidence that this person would actually pay up.

When you talk directly about your idea, everybody feels the pressure; you feel pressure to sell your idea, the customer feels pressure to be helpful and avoid letting you down.

Here’s a simple trick for dissolving that tension: make the interviews about your customers. This should be about their ideas, their feelings and their real problems, not about your idea. Remember, you’re a researcher seeking to learn about real problems, not a salesperson trying to win people over.

Mistake #2: Asking leading questions

Similar to talking about your idea, asking questions designed to lead someone to a certain answer will muddle the results of your conversation.

Keep in mind that most of us are naturally people pleasers who derive satisfaction from feeling like we helped out. If we sense we will get the answer “right” by going in a certain direction, most of us are probably going to do that, even if it’s unintentional.

If you lead your customers, you might be inadvertently steering them towards the answer you’re looking for. While hearing what we want certainly feels good, it’s not the purpose of these interviews. We need real, honest conversations with people so we can truly challenge our business assumptions and make our idea so much stronger by building upon customer realities.

So instead of asking leading questions, design open-ended questions that allow the customers to steer. Place yourself in discovery mode by staying objective and curious about the person on the other end of the interview.

Mistake #3: A mile wide, an inch deep

When you have an ideal member of your target audience sitting in front of you, it’s going to feel like a golden opportunity to grill them for the answers to all of your burning questions. However, it’s critical to keep in mind that this is a conversation, not a game of twenty questions.

These interviews aren’t about covering as much ground as possible with each customer, so you don’t need to have a million questions lined up in order to walk away with great insight.

What we’re really looking for is depth. The person you’re chatting with can help you see what it’s like to live in your ideal customer’s skin, but you don’t need to pepper him with questions in order to get the picture.

Simple yet thought provoking follow-up questions designed to put him at ease and open up help you get a glimpse of the whole story. These questions aren’t complicated — you’ll be amazed at how much more you’ll learn by asking questions like, “Why?” “How did that feel?” and “What else can you tell me?”

While these mistakes might feel like natural parts of conducting an interview, all three of them interrupt our ability to act as unbiased researchers challenging our own beliefs. It may feel counter-intuitive, but if you avoid them you’ll see how much you can relax into the conversation and learn.

course on customer conversations for business insights

We’ve made a whole course on winning business insights from customer conversations. You can take the course in a free trial of Fizzle, no contracts or payment or anything, if you’d like. Check out the video »

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