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Customer interviews for startups

There's a big advantage that non-technical founders have on other people. It's much harder for them to get lost in code for months, trying to turn an opinion into a product. They spend much more time talking to people and getting feedback on their idea.

Interviews are one of the most powerful tools for startups. You'll save time and money, get free consulting, and might turn people into advocates.

You could spend an entire week crafting your message by yourself, or you could ask 10 people to describe the problem you're tackling. You could build your MVP in 3 months and see if people use it, or you could throw a keynote together and ask people if they'd pay for it.

Customer interviews are fuel for your business. And you should never run out of fuel. (if you have a suitable renewable energy metaphor, please let me know 😒)

Here are a few tips to help you prepare and run interviews.

Who should you be talking to?

There are 4 types of people you will want to talk to regularly.

Advocates πŸ˜€

They're your fans. They're often the buyer, but they can also be champions that really love your platform.

You want to talk to them to understand a couple of things:

  • Why did they pick you? You need to know what they love about your product, and make sure that you keep them happy.
  • Where can you find other people like them? Figure out their profile, and see if you can find more people out there for whom your product is going to be a great fit.

Advocates are generally easy to talk to because they're excited about your business and want to help you. But it's a double-edged sword. If you only speak to the people that adore you, you might be under the false illusion that your business is doing well. The bigger picture could be less flattering.

If you only talk to your fans, it's hard to know your true situation.

That's why you need to zoom out by talking to other types of customers.

Angry users 😑

People can be using your product every day, and still be fairly unhappy about it. So make sure you do not take activity as a proxy for satisfaction. It's a common situation in B2B where one buyer picks a solution for hundreds of people. But it can also happen in B2C when you have an active community -- Twitter gets a lot of criticism, but the strength of the network keeps people on it.

You want to reach out to your angry users to understand how you can improve the solution for them. Switching costs are lowering every year, so it's a dangerous tactic to only rely on the champion buyer to keep your business around.

Finding angry users is tricky. Sometimes people are so upset that they're happy to be able to vent about your product. Other times they'll be just fed up and won't trust that their feedback will have an impact. Spend some time building trust, acknowledge your mistake, and you'll have an easier time to get them on your side.

The great thing about angry users is that if you manage to turn them around, they usually become some of the best advocates for your company.

Lost users πŸ’€

Losing a user is not always negative. Sometimes it happens naturally due to the nature of your product, but other times it's because you were missing a core capability.

Talking to lost users will help you monitor movements in your market. Perhaps there's a new competitor that you should know about? Perhaps the technology or practice you banked on is becoming obsolete?

People disappearing after having used your product for months is a strong sign. They seemed happy, and now they're gone. You need to figure out why.

Non-users πŸ‘»

When you're getting started, most if not all of the people you're talking to are non-users. They do not know your product or your business, and you have to pitch them to get a step in. But as you grow, it's often easy for product teams to forget to talk to non-users.

The issue with that is that if you only talk to people that know you, it's hard to get a sense of how big your market is. You quickly get a warped view based on your direct connections.

Do you know how big your market truly is?

Go to conferences, hang out in forums, on Twitter, in Slack communities. Figure out a way to talk to people that are using competing solutions and listen. Don't pitch yourself -- just get a clear understanding of what they love and what they'd like to see improved.

The goal is not to sell. It is to understand how big of an opportunity you're missing on, and what you can do about it.

How often?

We try our best to have at least one interview per week. One trick that I've used in the past is to keep track of our weekly cadence with a Seinfeld calendar.

Create a table with 52 rows for each week of the year. Then put a check for each week where you successfully spoke to a user, lead or prospect.

Week Interviews?
1 βœ…
2 βœ…
3 ❌
... βœ…

The objective is to keep the chain of checks as long as possible. This visual cue is a simple way to see how long it's been since the last time you got feedback.

Scheduling interviews

I live in Australia, and the other half of the company (Bryan) is in Portland.

Our customers are spread across 6 continents, and I've had to quickly learn how to schedule meetings efficiently.

Meetingbird (or Calendly)

Meetingbird is a great scheduling tool that syncs with your calendar and allows people to pick a day and time at their convenience.

Zoom

Zoom is a video communication tool that just works. Honestly, I'm super impressed by the quality of the audio and video and it's 100x more reliable than any other solution that I've tried.

Now here a few things that I've done:

  • I have a Meetingbird calendar that has a few options that people can pick (15mins, 30mins, 1 hour). It's easier than having 3 separate links to send in different situations. I usually suggest a duration as part of my email.
  • I have a 4 hours advance notice which prevents surprise meetings to pop up in my calendar. It gives me at least 4 hours to prepare.
  • Not all of my calendar is available. I have set up some recurring blocks of work so that no one (not even Bryan) can interrupt me.
  • My Zoom account and Meetingbird accounts are connected so that it automatically adds a Zoom link to events.

I have never tried Calendly but I'm sure you can do the same with it.

Preparation

You need an anchor point for every interview. So before you get on a call with someone, know what problem you'd like to explore, and have a list of topics you'd like to address.

I'm saying topics rather than questions as you should let the conversation flow around a theme. You'll learn way more from asking "tell me how you order food online" than "do you order burgers via Uber?". The former will take through the journey of the person you're interviewing, and the latter is merely trying to map your solution to a person you just met.

Another thing that will save you time is to prepare a page where you can take notes in an organized way. Here's the template that I use most times.


Metadata

  • Company name + founded date
  • Industry
  • Who is interviewed
  • Who is doing the interview + Role
  • team size / company size
  • Reached out via
  • Previous interviews

Quotes

One to three quotes from the interview (real words always have a great impact on people).

Key takeaways

  • Takeaway: what have we learned?
  • Supporting data
  • Opportunity: what could we do?

Notes

The actual notes from the interview, also organized in sections. It varies depending on the problem, but I usually have:

  • What's their workflow? (to get a general understanding of how they match other customers)
  • What tools do they use?
  • How do they currently solve the problem?
  • What's working for them?
  • What would they like to see improved?

Demo feedback (if relevant)

I only do demos at the very end of a discussion. During the demos, I try to capture 3 things:

  • What was their sentiment? (how did they react emotionally to the product)
  • What do they like?
  • What could be improved?

This template lives in our Wiki (Confluence), and we duplicate it for each interview.

Running the interview

I've been doing hundreds of interviews, and I still struggle to do it right. The basic principle is to drive the conversation with themes and open questions as much as possible. And it's only at the end that you can ask specific questions about a product or solution.

If you do it the other way around, you'll be (1) just validating your opinion and (2) going to miss on discovering unknown unknows. Here are some tips to help.

Don't

  • Don't ask questions with binary answers (yes/no). Interviews should be an opportunity to explore and learn new things. Yes/no questions are surveys.
  • Don't complete sentences. If the interviewee is struggling to answer that's a signal (unless your question was unclear).
  • Avoid being suggestive and remove sentiment. Anything that starts with "Don't you..." or "Do you like..." already drives the conversation in a positive light.
  • Don't approve/disapprove of something. It gives away the answers you're expecting, and people will adjust based on that. (unless you're selling, then yeah, show some emotions πŸ˜…)
  • Don't promise anything. There will be great interviews where people give you wonderful ideas. Say thank you, but do not shoot yourself in the foot by stating that it'll get on the roadmap (even if you genuinely believe it will).
  • Never give deadlines.

Do

  • Start by getting context. Ask about their team size, business, workflows. This will help you later when you start comparing feedback. A 5,000 public company and a 12 person startup have different issues.
  • Do shut up. It's super hard to stay quiet when talking about a topic you care about, but anything you say will influence the feedback.
  • Start with open-ended questions "Tell me about...", "What do you think of...", "How do you feel about...", "Could you describe...", "What about..."
  • Avoid naming companies/brands as much as you can. Let it come naturally to the person.
  • Ask the pricing question if you're validating an opportunity. Way too often we're scared of asking people to put a price tag on things, but that's usually the most valuable takeaway.
  • Follow up with a thank you email, and a few notes showing that it was worth their time. Show that you paid attention and that you got actionable feedback.

Taking notes & recording

Our brains are beautiful machines that like to trick us. Mine will eliminate all negative feedback after a couple of weeks if I don't write it down.

The best thing to do is to bring a team member with you to do the note-taking (not always the same person!). First, it will help you focus on the conversation. Second, it's an easy way to spread knowledge and build trust with your team. Third, it will keep you honest.

Ask for permission to record the interview, and take 5-10 minutes after the conversation to complete them. There are always a few things that we forget to write down, and having an audio recording will let you fill in the blanks.

Connecting opportunities

It usually takes 4-5 interviews on a topic to start seeing patterns emerging. When they do, it's good to go back to your notes and begin outlining the opportunities and link interviews together (see Key Takeaways section in the template above).

Be careful not to mistake opportunities for commitments. Don't jump the gun as soon as you see something that looks cool. You already have a roadmap, and your team is busy delivering stuff. Present your findings at the next team meeting and figure out together if you need to change your priorities.

Sharing insights

As I said in the introduction, customer interviews are fuel for your team. It's essential that you share the quotes, notes and feedback with your team.

"If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine." - Jim Barksdale

Sharing knowledge is the best way to build trust. It creates a shared understanding based on real feedback rather than opinions. The more data you can get, quantitative and qualitative, the easier discussions can flow.

Customer feedback is a great way to keep the team engaged. A simple quote from a happy customer can do wonder. It gives meaning to the tough discussions, the debates, the hard work. It makes the product development process more human.

What's next?

I'd be super happy to know how you schedule and manage interviews in your company. So, what are your best tips for customer interviews?

You can follow me on Twitter @stenpittet for more tips on building product and teamwork.