Meeting with customers during the early stages of an entrepreneurial journey provides huge value in terms of understanding of the underlying needs, opinions, and motivations behind their behaviour.
Meeting with customers validates assumptions about the problems you are willing to solve with your business idea and informs a value proposition. At the same time, you have the chance to develop additional ideas or hypotheses to be tested with successive quantitative research.
Customer interviews help early stage entrepreneurs develop a deep understanding of the context before taking any other action. Having 40+ hours of interviews is not like sitting at a research agency de-brief reviewing a bunch of PowerPoint slides. We usually come back from the experience with real faces in our minds, we’re reminded of people’s words whenever we need insights to make a difficult decision.
However, as with most of the valuable things in life, conducting interviews is not easy. Interviews take a lot of practice, and at the end of the day we might feel exhausted. They don’t cost much money, but do require some time to recruit the right people, organise the agenda to accommodate them, and run the actual sessions.
Here are ten tips we put together on how to conduct customer development interviews based on our experience with hundreds of entrepreneurs.
1. Come prepared, have it clear in your mind what you want and how to get it. We don’t do improvisation, it might waste the opportunity and we might end up not knowing what we originally wanted to know. Instead, we usually prepare a script, which forces us to focus in advance on our objectives and find the right way to achieve them during the session.
2. Smile and be kind, interviews contribute to make the whole process more human. People are generally happy to help and talk about their frustrations if they feel that someone is going to find a solution and they are going to be part of the process. Sometimes they are also driven by the curiosity to see how a new product is developed. So we try to be kind and open with them, it’s our opportunity to learn and we are really grateful for it. Besides, we might end up meeting with someone with an interesting story to tell, it’s a nice way to spend an hour at work.
3. Create a connection when meeting customers. We usually thank them for taking the time to meet us, and we offer them something to drink. If we are meeting in an office, we choose a cosy and comfortable room, better if there are sofas rather than board tables. And we try to spend the first minutes to create a connection with them on an emotional level. The more comfortable they feel with us, the more they will open up. The entire session shouldn’t feel like an interview. It has to be more like have a conversation with a friend about the problems in their daily lives.
4. Keep in mind that it’s an opportunity to learn, not to sell. We resist from talking about our ideas all the time, about why what we are doing is cool and why they should love it. A customer interview is not the right place to do it, we are there to learn not to sell. We try to keep the conversation focused on customers problems, that’s the place to start. If they keep suggesting new features or what we should do – some people just can’t help it – we gently take them back to the problem side: what is their frustration and how do they solve it today? That’s what matters the most at this stage. We make it clear and explicit from the very beginning of the session: ‘we are not here to sell, but to learn from you‘.
5. Don’t overdo or overcrowd it. Interviews can be exhausting, with all the emotional connection we have to create and the stress to facilitate the conversation around the areas of our interest. We don’t do more than three or four sessions per day, with one customer per session. And we try not to scare the customer with a crowded room. It’s good to bring team members with us to meet with customers. It will increase their understanding of underlying needs behind the product. But two of us is more than enough: one speaks, the other takes notes.