Is interviewing customers a lost art? It needn’t be. It shouldn’t be.

B2B Marketers have always been reluctant to formally interview their customers. The main reason we have heard a lot is an underlying fear of somehow upsetting customers, or bothering them, or interfering with their busy schedules.

(Often code for, ‘I don’t know where to begin.’) The sales force is rarely supportive of interviewing their customers and routinely push back that they know all their customers already, what’s the need? (Our experience here: sales forces are highly possessive; they know what customers want, but rarely why.) Today, data more and more fill in many gaps (emphasis on what and when, less on who or why), but only so long as the data are properly collected, harvested and processed. That’s quite a “so long as.”

Even if you do have robust data; even if the sales force does know everyone’s customers: nothing at all stops you from genuinely engaging your customers in dialogue. You will find, on the contrary, that customers appreciate your caring and concern of their opinions and that they will happily share their thoughts and needs with you. It should in the long run only serve them while it helps secure their loyalty. Because without full and deep understanding of your company’s customers’ wants, motivations and needs, opportunities to seamlessly market to them go missing.

Logistics and preparation: four key steps

  1. Based on the objectives of your research, identify who you want to interview by a specific profile: e.g., new customers, longstanding customers, happy customers, troubled or lapsed customers, a mix. Contact them for their agreement to participate in an interview you will conduct and set a formal time and medium (phone, Skype, Zoom.) While this sounds basic, without a set game-plan, you’re off on the wrong foot. How many interviews? Start with 10, and if you haven’t got your answers after the first round, add another 10. How long? 30-60 minutes, depending on your question areas. This is qualitative, it is only 10-20 people; BUT it is up to 20 hours of listening to the same issues being discussed by your key target audiences. This deep immersion is the value you cannot get from data, although you can now more meaningfully check your data against their responses.
  2. Very important: Develop your questions in a formal discussion guide. There is a skill to creating a good discussion guide, so be sure to give it proper time and run it by colleagues for a “sense check”. Respect the time you have asked participants for. Start your questions generally and get more and more specific. As you need to get to their true motives and values as they relate to your brand, product or campaign, you can’t just jump to this. It is likely they don’t even know their motivations right off themselves, so help them with intelligent, thoughtful questions that allow them learn too. This is the ideal experience you are looking to achieve for you and your customers in the interview— genuine learning and new reflections on both sides.
  3. During the interviews, don’t just listen. Actively take notes, or record; (be sure to get their agreement to being recorded upfront.) Recording is fail-safe but time-consuming; our experience is that it is much more efficient to write down their responses as you go. Then, transcribe your notes. This is not a verbatim transcription, there is no need for this level of finish; but do capture the key points you heard. Don’t trust your memory, it’s not sufficient, and you can’t review and compare all the points you heard unless you’ve done due diligence and written them all down first. Good advice: do this immediately following the interview while it’s still fresh in your mind. Do NOT skip this step.
  4. Draw your conclusions, write up your results, and be ready to present them to your management and your agency. Most important, articulate what implications they hold for your marketing programs going forward and what recommendations you propose to make this happen. Unless you complete this step, you shouldn’t have bothered with interviews in the first place.

Case study:

A large, global telecoms event (remember those?) was being held in Cairo. It offered two venues: lectures and expert presentations on a wide range of topics and an exposition of latest technology and devices. My agency was charged with developing communications to send to the global participant base to encourage attendance. What to say? What to feature to attract people from around the world to travel to Cairo? What drives people to attend such an event in the first place? We honestly didn’t know.

From a list of previous global attendees of other such meetings, we completed 25 phone interviews. We heard many, predictable responses for why attendees would participate – to keep current with category trends and developments, to attach some personal travel around the event, to take the family and see a new city, to put some travel into their professional agendas. We also heard many concerns for not going, mostly involving safety and security. None of these was to the point, and of no help until finally, one person said, “I go for the coffee breaks.”

I remember clearly being caught up short: “What? You’d go to Cairo for the coffee breaks? That must be some terrific coffee!” “No,” he corrected me, “It’s about doing new business. Everybody who is anybody in the entire field will be there, and the best way to meet them is between lectures and at expositions-- over a coffee.”

This changed everything about our campaign. Our first thoughts of featuring exotic, sub-Saharan visuals to attract the “traveler” in people instantly changed to the sand and monuments specific to Cairo and Egypt, and to sophisticated business settings and meetings. The message was clear: “Premier new business opportunities await you”. Without the interviews, and the insight they provided, we would have missed this entirely.

Getting started:

  • Draft your wish-list of every important, potentially game-changing question you’d like answered about your business, your brand, your marketing efforts. Go a little crazy. 
  • There is no moratorium on engaging customers, you can have more than one set of questions. But remember: you need to identify the most relevant customers to the questions you have. It doesn’t do any good –in fact, it may backfire-- to ask meaningful questions to customers who have no connection with your issues.
  • Trial your questions with a colleague and refine them. And don’t be afraid to evolve your questions as you go. If you’re sure of responses to certain question areas, use the time to probe deeper in other areas.

We are happy to take any questions you might have. Happy interviewing!

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