Have a brilliant idea for a great (tech) product that will have a huge impact on the market? That’s great. Now, all you have to do before you and your team get into implementing your full-featured product, is to bridge the gap between your idea and reality. That includes the customers that will use your product. And how’s that feasible, you may ask? Well, with customer interviews.

Customer interviews: when, why and how

Customer interviews are part of the Problem/Solution Fit, the first pillar of Customer Development. And then, Customer Development methodologies are designed to give you real data and valuable feedback regarding your initial assumptions. Using this feedback, you’ll be able to find out if your idea— yet to be implemented, we hope— will be of value to potential customers out there. And, overall, they help you reduce your risk and minimize waste.

From our point of view, we do try to make the best out of these methodologies, helping our portfolio startups do the same with their companies. For that reason, and while trying not to reinvent the wheel, we have prepared a short introductory guide, as an overview for customer discovery interviews.

The four pillars of customer development

So, here’s how it goes: once you have shaped your hypotheses — your initial ideas regarding the problem your customers face and that your great product will solve — it’s now time for testing, reality checks and pivots.

Customer interviews: a short guide

Problem interviews

The first part of your customer discovery interviews incorporates problem interviews that help you find out whether there is a real/tangible problem to solve, as you have assumed or not. Remember that your customers won’t buy your product for the features it has, but for the problems it solves. The problems that really exist, will only be confirmed/validated (or not) once you conduct your customer interviews and assess your results. For that reason, you’ll need to start by making a short introduction, explaining what you plan to create. Then, let your customers give you all the details you need. Your questions need to be open ended, so that you don’t drive their answers. Let them give you all the information that will prove valuable toward a viable outcome.

Solution interviews

It’s the second part of customer discovery interviews. With solution interviews you’ll find out whether your solution matches a (potential) customer’s problem or not. To conduct this type of interviews successfully, you’ll at least need to have some proof-of-concept. In particular, a prototype or, even better, a demo to show to your interviewees is a must-have. And though we don’t recommend it, in case you don’t have a demo or anything of substance on stand-by, try to describe it as concisely as possible. Perhaps with an animated video with voice-over description. And then ask questions to get a grasp of their understanding towards your solution. But, before that, you need to introduce them to your concept. So, first, you need to tell them a story explaining the whole concept, the reasons why you’re doing this. And then show them your demo or prototype.

Customers need to see to “believe” — or understand, to be more accurate. Though you may have a clear picture of where you’re going and what you’re about to build (yet to be validated), it’s difficult for them to shape a picture of your solution in their minds; and that’s OK. It’s up to you to make it easier for them to wrap their heads around the whole idea. And then ask questions; the right questions. If you’re wondering what are the right questions, here are some do’s and don’ts you can use.

The Dos and Don’ts during an interview

First of all, you’ll need to be well prepared. Try to write down as many questions — pertinent to your interview — that will give you most of the information you need, if not all of it. Prioritize these questions and make them into a piece of great storytelling. Don’t forget to include those points that offer you the answer to key questions. The last thing you need, is regretting not asking the right questions. There will be no going-back and starting from scratch. That’s because starting from scratch will just give you biased answers from an interviewee that has already got wind of the whole concept. And that’s why you should give it your best shot the first time round. Below, we’ve gathered a few additional tips to keep in mind when conducting your interviews:

Don’t try to elicit the answers you need.

Don’t elicit any response at all. And recalling Steve Blank’s pertinent words once again: “Cheating on customer discovery interviews is like cheating in your parachute packing class.” And that, of course, is also true throughout the whole customer development process. Cooking up answers, in order to make your outcomes suit your assumptions, is like planning for your own disaster.

Don’t try to bring them into your world

You should go into theirs. And as we have previously discussed in our blog, though within a different context, we all tend to interpret reality around us based on our personal map. We constantly make assumptions about how others see the world. And though analyzed within an irrelevant topic to this one, it does makes sense for customers interviews, too. Stay alert! And stay genuinely curious!

Use their language

Going to your interviewees’ world, also means you need to adapt the language you use. This will help you develop a deep understanding of their problems.

Listen, listen, listen

If we wanted to give you one single advice, it would be “just listen”. The whole purpose of Customer interviews is to help you understand what your customers need. For that reason, they only need to listen to a brief description of your solution to get into the concept and then all you’ve got to do is use your ears and listen. Besides, being a good listener means that you approach customers the agile way as we hope you do you with your product’s development.

One more tip: you might also need to stay silent in order to adjust to their response frequency.

Develop empathy

Keep in mind that though you might already be prepared for the whole interview process, as you’re trying to get some answers that are crucial for product (and your future) the whole interview process is probably something unusual for your customers. They may not be familiar with the way an interview is conducted, let alone the reasons why you’re doing it or how you see it from your product’s perspective. Try to be alert and guide them through the entire process.

Develop rapport

People react better to people they know and like. Creating the prerequisites to build a situation where people want to communicate their story to you, yields far better results than them just answering a few cold questions. There is a tipping point during your interview — you’ll know it when you get there — where people will just open up and tell you their story. This is when the most valuable information is shared, free of any bias.

Where do I find them (the interviewees)?

Your first batches of interviewees should come from the network you already have. Some of the best candidates might be family members, relatives, people from your social networks or any other resource you can think of.

In your selection (filtering) process you’ll need, of course, to choose only those that are relevant to your product. They are the ones that will (hopefully) give you valid feedback. A tip to get you started on more efficient filtering is to be on the look out for people that are initially interested — or thrilled even – to talk to you about your solution to their problem(s). Having people that are disinterested in your batch, just for the sake of numbers, will only serve to misguide you during your analysis, later.

The B2B paradigm

If for example you’re building a software solution for insurers, try to find contacts that work as insurance agents or have some relative experience or background. Customers involved in that specific professional field you’re targeting, are the ones you’re looking for. That’s valid for B2B products.

The B2C paradigm

Respectively, for B2C products you’ll need to select those contacts that are more likely to match the consumer profile for which you’re building the product. They’re the ones that will use your solutions and give you all the feedback you need, in the long run.

Think of them as “seed”

In any case, use these contacts as “seed” that will also help you get in touch with additional interviewees, valuable for your experiments-interviews. To do that, at the end of each interview, always remember to ask your interviewees for any referrals they can think of. This is your chance to also ask them if they would be willing to make a warm introduction to these referrals. This will give you a better chance at starting these interviews with a higher level of trust.

A “burning” question to ask when conducting customer discovery interviews

Once you have validated that your interviewees do have the problem you’ve assumed they have (the problem interview part was successful) you need to validate if your solution is the one they’ve been looking for. That, of course, won’t be validated through compliments and praises. Borrowing one of our guest speaker’s words: “beyond a founder’s visionary hypothesis or an investor’s insightful opinion, it is a paying customer that indicates this product clearly covers a need”. Thus, listening to your interviewees say nice things about your solution, the one you have just described, is of course flattering. But intention is just intention; and they might just want to be nice.

Especially if you gave them some incentive to come in for the interview; perhaps an Amazon coupon, or something similar. Just ask yourself: Are your customers really eager to buy your product? That’s exactly what you need to know. And you’re going to get this life-changing “yes” or “no” only by directly asking them at the end of your solution-interview part. “If our product was available in x price would you buy it?” Although this question might only work for you if you had a functional product, one the interviewee has already tried altogether, go for it!

Here’s an additional tip:

If you don’t have a production-ready product to show for your efforts, make sure you’ve described it sufficiently, so that people can effectively compare it to existing solutions they’ve tried, homegrown solutions they’ve devised themselves or temporary workarounds they use until they find one. That way, you get validation for the problem; it does exists and it does pain them. You also get their intention to solve it. The only thing you need to know is “at what cost?”. It helps if you know the amount of money they’re losing annually, because of that problem, as compared to the cost of your solution, on an annual subscription plan.

What warrants caution when evaluating responses?

Equally weighted answers

Don’t judge your outcomes only by a few answers you get. If one (or just a few) of your interviewees makes a claim, it doesn’t mean that it’s also true for the majority of your customers. It might be tempting to stick to one of your customers’ perspective, especially if it sounds logical to you. That’s because if that validates your assumption, you’re prone to consolidating this opinion as a validated assumption. Remember what we mentioned above about the parachute packing class? Well, the same goes here. So, be objective.

Conduct (and evaluate) customer interviews as if it were for someone else’s product

Yes, you should be that objective. As Steve Portigal says, “check your worldview at the door”. And you should keep this attitude till the end. At least, till you have your final results. You can get back to your own role and feel disappointment or excitement, later. Before that, don’t let feelings (positive or negative) get in the way of reality.

Long story short

With customer discovery being only the first of four pillars to customer development, there is much work to be done before you find yourself with a viable business model. If you manage to stay impartial throughout the entire process, chances are you’ll manage to get there faster. Having said that, you shouldn’t underestimate the complexity and nuances of interviewing users. Stay conscious about what people find normal, how you can help them (and yourself alike) navigate through this new situation, and stay curious and interested in their worldview instead of yours. You should do just fine!

Konstantina Ferentinou Konstantina Ferentinou

The Starttech Ventures Content Marketing Writer. Studied Computer Engineering and Informatics at the University of Patras. She has working experience in technical writing, sales and support related roles. She now focuses on content creation. Channeling her creativity into writing, she hones her ability to communicate the right message through various content types.