Best Practices for Conducting Customer Interviews

A conversational approach can help you get to know your customers better — and uncover valuable insights for your business.
man interviews woman at coffee shop
In-person conversations with customers can help you learn more than a simple survey. (Photo: Pressmaster/Shutterstock)

When running a small business — or any business, for that matter — your success depends on how well you understand your customer’s point of view.

Online surveys and response forms can be an easy way to do customer research but are limited to how much insight they can really provide. One way to overcome this information gap is by supplementing data points with more qualitative research methods, such as conversations and interviews with your clientele.

These ideas will help you use in-person and phone conversations to learn more about your customers’ needs so your small business can better serve your target market.

Diversify your research

Conducting a survey may provide you with great data points and stats that can help guide your business decisions — but numbers alone can’t provide a full picture of what your customers are really thinking, said Jonathan Fisher, co-founder and chairman of brand development firm BrandExtract.

Jonathan Fisher

“The manner in which a question is asked is critical to eliciting a response.” – Jonathan Fisher (Photo: Jonathan Fisher)

“Data by itself does not tell the entire story,” he explained. “Even the best methods of quantitative surveying can’t pursue a conversation when an unexpected insight is revealed.”

In a conversation, you are able to hear a customer’s tone and notice subtleties in inflection — which is impossible to do with multiple-choice rankings and written answers.

According to Rodger Roeser, business advisor and CEO of The Eisen Agency, combining quantitative data from survey results with good subjective information from interviews will help you draw more useful conclusions and provide a more complete picture of your customers.

Related: 5 Ways to Get Customers to Take Surveys

Establish empathy with your customer

Put your customer at ease by starting your interview with a light, personal banter or humor, advised Fisher. Keep the conversation comfortable throughout the interview, so they are more likely to open up and share their true feelings.

“The manner in which a question is asked is critical to eliciting a response,” he said. “The interviewer can imply situational understanding of the nature of the question, putting the interviewee at greater ease. This can increase their willingness to talk longer, reveal more and even share outside the direct line of questioning if they feel there is trust between parties.”

Rodger Roeser

“Drip marketing can be used effectively in virtually any marketing medium.” -Rodger Roeser (Photo: Rodger Roeser)

Showing empathy during an open and honest conversation with customers will help build rapport and demonstrate that you are willing to improve.

“When they don’t feel like a number, when they get to know the seller, and when they contribute to the process, customer loyalty will go up,” he said. “And the seller will learn in turn from the efforts in ways that no survey could ever predict.”

Pursue unexpected insights

Conversational tactics, such as open-ended questions or circling back to an unanswered question, give the interviewer the flexibility to delve deeper in the discussion and discover new insights.

“Open-ended interview methods allow the interviewer to drift off topic when necessary,” Fisher explained. “The interviewer is able to adjust phrasing where necessary to provide context to the interviewee and capture key words, phrases and tone implied by the interviewee.”

While you may start your interview with a set of questions, don’t be afraid to follow the trail if a different topic arises during the discussion. It may lead to a new and exciting discovery that has a dramatic impact on your small business.

Related: How To Project Authenticity to Customers

Take lots of notes

When conducting a customer interview, it’s essential to take lots of notes during the conversation that you can refer back to after the fact. The more details you’re able to capture about their response, the more patterns and insights you are able to discover.

Sometimes, customers will allow you to record the conversation to review later, but this approach can backfire, said Fisher. First, you must always ask permission before recording a conversation with a customer. Knowing they are being taped can also make interviewees nervous and more likely to limit their responses.

“Best to hand capture the notes and type their responses,” he advised. “Don’t be afraid to ask them to slow down or repeat something, if needed.”

You can also go a step further by outsourcing the interview to a third party, suggested Roeser. This will help ensure the customer feels his or her responses will remain confidential and remove the possibility of an emotional response to any negative feedback.

However you choose to go about conducting customer interviews for your small business, it is important that your shoppers feel as though they are heard and that their thoughts, feelings and ideas matter.

“Giving customers the ability to share their thoughts, in and of itself, is excellent public relations,” said Roeser. “In addition, getting that information can truly trigger some amazing ideas and things you could try, do or add.”

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