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Tips for Interviewing Customers


We often hear from companies that are looking to gather more candid insight from their customers. Of course, carefully crafted customer satisfaction surveys with open-ended questions (where respondents can type unstructured feedback) is one option.

But what should you do to dig deeper into customer sentiment?

For companies that are seeking even more granular, highly focused customer feedback (especially from customers that have recently defected), we recommend one-on-one phone-based interviews with key decision makers and influencers. These are broadly known as qualitative interviews.

Types of Qualitative Customer Interviews

Before you embark on gathering more candid feedback from key customers, it’s important to first understand the three types of customer interviews: structured, semi-structured, and unstructured. Each requires different skills, preparation, and technique:

1. Structured Interviews

A structured interview is performed by asking a series of pre-determined questions, and all the interviewees are asked the same questions, generally in the same order. Additionally, they do not generate a significant amount of conversation.

Often these questions are based on a rating scale, or another type of measurement scale. For example, you might ask, “Overall how satisfied or dissatisfied are you with the team at XYZ Company?”

Because there is so much standardization involved, structured interviews tend to sound like phone surveys. As you might expect, these interviews can be resource-intensive, though very useful, particularly as a means of gathering feedback from customers who didn’t respond to your original customer satisfaction survey.

2. Semi-Structured Interviews

Semi-structured interviews promote open, two-way communication between the two parties, follow a general framework, and are mostly consistent between interviewees. This is the most common approach used in conducting qualitative interviews.

The semi-structured interview requires the development of an interview guide, or a list of open-questions and relevant topics, prior to conducting the interview. This allows for the interviewer to stay on track and focus on collecting valuable customer feedback. The questions do not need to be asked in order, allowing for a more conversational atmosphere.

3. Unstructured Interviews

With unstructured interviews, interviewers do not follow a strict series of pre-determined questions that need to be asked in a particular order. Rather, they ask any pertinent questions that come to mind.

While unstructured interviews lack consistency from interview to interview, they allow for an open discussion of what is relevant and interesting at the time and provide the opportunity to develop new ideas.

One-on-One Interviews with Customers

Now that you have an idea of the different approaches for interviewing customers, the next consideration is who is best positioned to interview your customers?

According to Harvard University, a successful interviewer must be clear-spoken, gentle, open, sensitive, balanced, and ethical. Put another way, the interviewer must possess a high level of emotional intelligence.

If you’re planning to conduct qualitative customer interviews using a member of your team, identify the person who possesses the ability to recognize and appreciate the emotions of those around them and is naturally adept at engaging appropriately.

Just keep in mind that you want to avoid bringing in someone who is too closely associated with the project, which is why a third-party partner (such as Satrix Solutions) is often a preferred approach to ensure respondents feel comfortable sharing candid feedback.

How to Find Customers to Interview

Successful qualitative interviewing also involves selecting the right person to interview. If you’re the interviewer attempting to collect valuable information from customers, you should aim to speak with one of the decision-makers. A decision maker is an individual with the greatest level of influence over the engagement. If you are not able to speak with that person, an influencer, or someone who has the capability to influence the engagement is a good choice too.

Why? First, their role within their organization provides an overall view and a forward-thinking perspective. Second, top-level executives are likely either the decision maker or have a heavy influence. Therefore, their opinion of your customer experience, and your organization’s commitment to continual improvement, is of utmost importance.

Customer Interviewing Techniques

Once you’ve identified which customer contacts you’d like to interview, let’s review 4 important tips to help you prepare for the customer interview:

1. Getting Customers to Participate

As an interviewer, you are asking other professionals to take at least 30 minutes out of their schedule to provide candid feedback. Be sure you’ve granted permission to conduct the interview and always call them on time.
Sometimes, it might be appropriate to offer an incentive for participating in the interview, but you will need to make sure that this makes sense for the audience you are interviewing.

Lastly, sometimes offering the ability to redact the names of individuals or teams provides a safe environment and allows the interviewee to provide truly candid feedback.

2. Discussing Sensitive Subjects

If the interview topic surrounds a sensitive subject, you want to avoid making the customer feel defensive.

The purpose of the interview is to learn. Be careful not to agree or disagree, not to take blame or credit on behalf of the company, and always stay unbiased – don’t get caught up in their emotions.

3. When to Probe Further

Often, you would like more information than the interviewee has offered in response to a question or about a particular subject. Asking probing follow-up questions will help you to gather this information.

Probing questions are best developed from active listening as well as the interviewee’s solid understanding of the company’s industry and service offering. This allows you to build the rapport needed to put the customer at ease and create an environment that elicits natural conversation.

Probing questions should be phrased in a way to have the interviewee either elaborate on, or clarify, a previous statement. For example, if you receive the response, “Things have been great,” follow with a clarifying question such as, “In what way have things been great?”

Probing questions invite the personal reflection and are a great way to continue to elicit candid feedback.

4. Don’t forget to Take Detailed Notes

Keep in mind that you will want to ask follow-up questions, which will provide an avenue to probe further about a topic. The best way to know which topics require more conversation is to take notes during the interview and refer to them as you move along.

As many people soon learn, trying to conduct a customer interview while taking notes can be challenging. We recommend you read this article for more tips on interviewing and take notes at the same time.

The Importance of Qualitative Interviews

Conducting qualitative interviews with key customers is a valuable addition to any Voice of the Customer program.

When we work with our clients, we find that detailed, candid feedback – particularly on a complicated or sensitive topic –  is often uncovered in an interview rather than in a customer satisfaction survey.