Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Customer Interview and How to Ace It – Part II

How to Interview a Customer

When writing a customer case study, you typically only have one chance to interview the customer, so it’s important to get the interview right. In my last post, I talked about how to structure an interview. In this post, I will talk about how to conduct an interview.

Tip #1 - Record and Transcribe, Always: You cannot effectively take notes, ask questions, and think of your next question simultaneously – at least I can’t, even after 20+ years of interviewing customers. That’s why I record every interview and pay for transcription. With audio and text, you will have every nuance of the conversation. This helps – a lot: in fact, it usually gets me very close to a strong first draft of the case study because I can boil down the transcript. Your draft will also be more accurate, which usually means fewer customer edits and shorter approval times. A hint: Run two tape recorders, and test your setup in advance of the interview.

It pays to be paranoid: I once got a new client because the previous writer’s batteries ran out in his tape recorder, requiring the interview to be repeated. This was an important customer – and the client was fortunate that the customer was willing to repeat the interview.

The transcript also has residual value. Sales and marketing people often go back to these transcripts and mine them for customer intelligence or marketing sound bites.

Tip #2 – Watch Out for the Pile-On: Getting a customer interview is a big deal, particularly if you work for a start-up company. And it’s an important marketing event, in all companies. So, it’s not surprising that many people want to “just listen in.” Here is my general rule: just say no.

Pile-ons often cause poor interviews. Here’s why: First, having multiple people in the room or on a call may make the customer nervous; he typically will feel compelled to “perform” (by parroting the company’s marketing messages) or he may clam up from nerves or fear of giving the “wrong” answer in front of “the audience.” Second, the interview ends up being a hodge-podge of opinion and rubber-stamped company messages, instead of a natural flow. Why pay for a customer story if it’s the same information that’s in your product literature?

Instead, try to limit the interview to the customer, the interviewer and potentially one other person: usually the sales rep or relationship owner. If the rep and the customer have a good relationship, having the rep involved can provide a comfort level for the customer. Exception: It’s okay if the customer wants an assistant or secretary in the interview (the fourth person in the interview). These people tend not to interfere but they often add value quietly, by looking up information or following up for their boss after the interview.

Ask, at a few pre-arranged places in the interview, if the sales rep has anything to add or ask. Usually he won’t, but when he does, it will be valuable. At the end of the interview, ask him if he has a final question or comment – this gives him a chance to thank the customer on behalf of the company.

Tip #3 – Listen: We live an interrupt-driven society, so it’s no wonder that many interviewers have to control themselves from interrupting during an interview. Ask your question, then get out of the way! Listen to what the customer is saying, until he stops talking. Take a deep breath – count to three slowly – then ask your next question and listen while he answers that. Then repeat. During pauses, resist the temptation to jump in, until you are sure that the customer is finished with his point and is not just thinking. I find it helpful at the end of a question to say “anything else?” The customer will either say no – or sometimes comes up with a great, tight sound bite summarizing what he took the last five minutes to say.

The Take-Away: When conducting an interview, less is definitely more. By less, I mean less interruption (by you) and fewer distractions (in the form of unnecessary additional participants and intrusive technology). By following the three tips above, you can create a smooth, pleasurable and productive interview. And, in my experience, you will have come most of the way toward a strong finished first draft of your case study.

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