The Right Questions To Ask Your Customers

The strategic process requires you to interview potential customers to better understand what they need. Talking to customers is important also on an ongoing basis, to make sure you are staying in touch with the market. But what do you need to ask in these interviews? There are a few common pitfalls to avoid, so here is a quick guide.
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I often help my customers prepare for meetings with their customers and prospects. Many times, these meetings include specific questions that they want to get answers to. But when I review the list of questions they prepare in advance, I often see questions that wouldn’t really get them the information that they need, and after our preparation work, the list includes very different questions. 

I collected a few of the common mistakes people are making in customer interviews and customer research into this guide so that you can avoid them the next time you need to interview a customer. As a matter of fact, you should use this guide whenever you talk to a customer, whether your intention was to interview them or not. More about this in mistake #3 below.

Mistake #1: Unclear Goals

Everything in product management starts with the goals. Whatever you do, you should have a clear understanding of what you are trying to achieve by doing it, and customer interviews are no different. 

Unlike business goals though, goals for meetings are usually left untold and often even unthought of. When the goal of the meeting is not perfectly clear, it is very difficult to lead a discussion that would actually get you to your goals. 

In meetings where the intention is to interview a customer about a specific topic, it is very tempting to go with a general goal like “understand how they see X”. However, setting the goal this way doesn’t really help you. You want to be more specific than that. What would you be doing with this understanding? Let’s say that you now know how they see something, how is that helping you? 

Usually, if you ask the question this way you get to a more refined version of the goal. Often, this is business-related. It can be something like “understand what got them excited about the product when they first heard about it” or “understand where they were struggling before they decided to drop”. You might have a number of those combined. 

If you get to the essence of what is it that you are trying to achieve in the meeting, you will find yourself asking very different questions than the ones you would be asking without this important preparation.

Mistake #2: Leading the Witness

Even if you have a very good understanding of your goals, many people tend to ask questions that are too specific. Hint: if you are asking many yes/no questions you are doing exactly that.

Your general mission here is research, and research starts by observing. You don’t need to make any conclusions during the meeting or even immediately after it. Immerse yourself in the customer’s world for a while. Let yourself be there.

To make the interview more effective for that purpose, make sure you ask open questions. Think of your questions as the door to your customer’s world. Help them let you in. 

Even if you have a specific hypothesis that you want to validate, it is important to understand exactly what assumptions are in it. It is very tempting to ask about specific features of the product or capabilities that the customer may or may not have (for example: “are you enforcing a strict policy on X?”) but the part that you really want to validate is actually something much more essential that lies behind the scenes. Make sure you ask them about the core assumptions you have and not about the symptoms.

Mistake #3: Show and Tell

To really understand your customers, you need to listen. It might seem obvious, but if you do most of the talking in the meeting, you can’t do that. Even if you want their feedback on something, make sure you leave enough time for them to explain themselves.

You see, feedback is best received in a discussion. It’s not a one-way conversation. It is the delicate ping-pong between you and your customer that gives you the most insight because you get the opportunity to ask the questions you really care about and get to the bottom of any topic you are discussing. This discussion is the most important part of the meeting, not your presentation.

Moreover, if you really want to learn what they think and how they see things, you can’t come with an agenda to convince them of something. These simply don’t work together. To truly listen to them, you need to put your ego aside, and let them win. For example, if you want to get an answer as to whether or not a certain assumption is true – even if it is the core assumption of your entire strategy, you have to be willing to hear that you are wrong. Otherwise, what’s the point in having the meeting? You can only be convinced that you are right, even if you aren’t, so you might as well do nothing because you thought you were right in the first place. 

In fact, it is much more important to understand if you are making a mistake than it is to understand if you are right. Think about the potential damage in each, and you’ll see why it’s actually important to try to prove yourself wrong (so that if you are right, you know it’s not because of bad research).

As a general note about customer meetings, make it your guiding principle to always learn something new about the customer even if you truly come to show and tell. For example, even if the purpose of the meeting is to share your roadmap, and it makes sense that you do most of the talking, you can start it by taking the opportunity to learn something new about the customer. I used to start these meetings by setting the stage for this kind of conversation. I would suggest that we start by getting some context about the challenges they are facing so that I can share the roadmap in the proper context. They always agreed, and I always started by asking the customer what keeps them up at night – deliberately unrelated to my product. It opens up the discussion to new levels that couldn’t be reached otherwise. You get to truly learn about your customers this way, as opposed to learning about your customers only in the intersection with your product.

Remember: every time you get in front of a customer, it is a learning opportunity for you. Don’t miss it.

Mistake #4: Fear of Small Numbers

Every now and then, I meet someone who knows that they need to work with data. As such, they want to have more quantitative research, and what they usually have in mind is questionnaires. 

The problem with questionnaires is that they are one-directional and that you can only get answers to the questions you prepared in advance. It misses point #2 above. Moreover, questionnaires have a tendency to work best with closed questions, while you want to keep the questions open at this point. Questionnaires can be a good tool when you already have a solid theory that proved right in interviews, and you want to make sure it is true with a larger audience.

So how do you remain data-driven in the initial stages of your research? You go back to the roots of why you wanted to be data-driven in the first place. You wanted to make sure what you think is rooted in reality

But reality in the early stages of research doesn’t come in big numbers. You better find out if something is true in deeper research with a small number of (the right) customers. Only once you have established that you are ready to go quantitative and go big. 

Think about it this way: if you have a theory that doesn’t hold with a handful of customers that you thought would prove it right, quantitative research is not going to show you that it’s right after all, because it most likely isn’t. You need to go back to your theory and see what’s missing. Maybe the theory only holds for a different customer profile, maybe for this customer profile a slightly different theory proves right, or maybe your theory simply isn’t true no matter what. Questionnaires and big numbers aren’t going to help you unless you know exactly what hypotheses you are trying to validate, and in the example above each case leads to a different set of possible hypotheses, so what would you be asking?

One customer is too little to work with, but if that’s what you currently have it is still a lot more than nothing. Don’t be afraid to research in small numbers before you go big. It will help you tremendously, as long as you follow these guidelines and ask the right questions.

My free e-book “Speed-Up the Journey to Product-Market Fit” — an executive’s guide to strategic product management is waiting for you

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