Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Customer Interview and How to Ace It

In my last post, I talked about modernizing the customer case study and bringing it into the Social Web.

Even in the Social Web, prose is prologue: a story doesn’t exist until you write it down. So, in this post, I talk about the first step in creating a customer case study: the interview.

This step is crucially important. When writing a case study, you typically have only one shot at the customer, so it’s important to get it right. The interview also has residual value: for example, you can forward it to the sales team or customer service reps, who often can get great insights from the interview transcript. (Sometimes a customer will share good – or bad – comments about the product with an “impartial” interviewer that he would never share directly his sales or service rep.)

I’ve interviewed hundreds of my clients’ customers over the last 20 years. In this post and the next, I will describe some techniques for structuring a great interview and conducting a great interview.

All of this may sound like a lot of work, but it isn’t once you get it down to a system. And the payoff – in interview quality and customer relations – is huge.

The end goal is a case study that sounds organic and authentic. You’ve probably noticed that some case studies sound natural and true, while others sound unnatural and contrived. Usually it’s the interview that made the difference. Remember: today you’re writing for direct-to-consumer publication and to encourage conversation. So, naturalness is important.

How to Prepare for a Customer Interview

Tip #1 - Limit Your Questions: I once had a client send me a list of 25 questions for a 45-minute interview! This is far too many. You would not only exhaust your interviewee, but also virtually guarantee that you would run overtime. I usually plan on one question for every 5-7 minutes – particularly for B2B and more technical products. This is a comfortable pace, and it allows for branching and clarification questions – where you often get great sound bites.

Tip #2 - Always Include a Summary or Wrap-Up Question: It’s often where you get the headline for the story. For example, my standard wrap-up question is: “Please summarize our conversation or make any final statements as you wish.” You will be surprised at the gems you get by asking this question.

Tip #3 - Ask Open-Ended Questions:
Never ask a question that can be answered simply “yes” or “no” or with a single word. In general, use questions that begin with “why,” “how” or “how much.” On your personal copy of the questions, jot down prompting questions in case you have a terse customer.

Tip #4 - Forward the Questions in Advance: This sounds like “Interviewing 101,” but I include it because many interviewers don’t do this. Send your questions a few days before the interview, to allow the customer time to prepare. The result is a more relaxed customer and a better interview. The customer may also be able to gather previously published materials to answer some questions. This gives you more time to spend on questions that are more complex or difficult. Also: many customers don’t get much interviewing practice, so don’t expect them to be as efficient or practiced as a CEO or a salesman. Your questions have to work hard.

Tip #5 - Draft Your Sales Guy: My main goal in the customer interview is to get colorful sound bites from the customer: how the client’s product improved his business, made his company more competitive, got him promoted and so on. So, don’t waste your questions on the nitty-gritty of the customer relationship – for example, the configuration of the products he is using, when he became a customer, etc. Instead, draft your sales guy in advance: he usually will know the answers to a lot of these nitty-gritty questions. You can then weave this information into one validating question (if necessary) for the interview, or just include the information in the first draft of the case study.

By following these five tips, you will get the kind of information that will help you create a customer case study that meets my three E’s: easy to love, easy to find and share, and easy to talk about. You will also usually provide a more positive (and memorable) experience for the customer – one that contributes to the relationship instead of detracts from it.

No comments:

Post a Comment