Start Talking! How To Do Customer Interviews That Reveal Priceless Insights

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Have you ever poured your heart out into an online survey?

Or shared your deepest, innermost feelings while completing a customer satisfaction questionnaire?

Probably not.

There are loads of awesome qualitative research tools out there. But if you want extremely deep insight about your customers, there’s no substitute for picking up the phone and chatting with them.

As Michael Aagaard, senior conversion optimizer at Unbounce, puts it:

“In my experience nothing beats actually talking to your target audience. The insight you get is priceless, and no amount of quantitative data will let you reach the same level of understanding”.

Getting this priceless insight is far easier when you use the right approach.

I’ve done hundreds of interviews as both a marketer and a journalist. And the “trick” to getting people to share authentic, emotional stories with you essentially comes down to one thing:

Your interview should not feel like an interview at all.

It should feel like a conversation.

As with any skill, you get better at this stuff with practice. But by understanding the fundamentals on how to conduct an in-depth interview, you’ll have a better chance of uncovering the kind of raw, emotional insights that could change an entire marketing strategy.

Before I get into that, maybe you’re still wondering…

Why conduct live interviews when surveys are much, MUCH easier?

Now, don’t get me wrong: surveys are a fantastic way to learn more about your customers. A single e-mail survey can haul in piles of voice of customer data within a couple hours.

Live interviews? Not so much.

Chatting with your customers is all about quality versus quantity. Interviewing allows you to get deeper, more emotional insights that can be used to create campaign-changing test hypotheses.

People open up to people. And when you’re interviewing someone who is relaxed and feels safe enough to reveal the emotions that underlie their behavior, you can discover things that would be impossible to find anywhere else.

I’m talking about stuff like:

Plus, interviews can help provide context for other qualitative data, such as good ol’ survey results.

Using interviews to get deeper insights is as old as market research itself. But more recently, the concept of doing customer development interviews has gained steam after it was first popularized in The Lean Startup by Eric Ries (and plenty of others have written about how to do those here and here).

But interviewing specifically for digital marketing or conversion rate optimization — which is what this article will focus on — hasn’t received quite as much press. This is despite the practice bringing some epic wins.

The interview that saved Febreze

fabreze ad

The legendary marketing story of Febreze shows just how powerful interviews can be.

P&G originally tried to sell the spray as the cure for America’s foulest stenches. But that flopped.

The problem was that people got used to the odors in their homes, so they thought their houses smelled fine regardless of any lingering stench. That eliminated the “cue” to spritz Febreze (the psychology behind all of this is covered in Charles Duhigg’s genius book The Power of Habit).

So P&G hired a researcher to interview customers on how they used the product. That person spoke to one housewife — who kept an immaculately clean home — who said she sprayed Febreze as part of her room-cleaning habit.

Not as a way to combat nose-pummeling odors.

“It’s nice, you know? Spraying feels like a little mini-celebration when I’m done with a room,” she told the interviewer.

That priceless nugget of insight triggered an analysis that made P&G realize it had to position Febreze as part of an existing routine. It needed to be the reward for cleaning a room.

The company added perfume to the bottle and launched new ads showing women spritzing freshly made beds with Febreze.

Within two months, sales of the product doubled.

But even today’s data-obsessed CROs are using interviews to rack up wins.

When Moz hired Conversion Rate Experts to optimize their homepage, doing live interviews (of paying customers, free trial members and former customers) was key to getting a 52% lift in sales.

Groove did in-depth customer interviews to get a better understanding of their customers’ objections, challenges and fears. They used that feedback to re-write copy (using verbatim words and phrases from the interviews) on their website. The new copy helped boost conversions on the website from 2.3% to 4.3%.

Who should you interview? (And how to ask ‘em)

There are loads of different people you can interview in addition to current customers. Prospects, leads, customer support staff and other VOC aggregators are great for giving you a wider perspective.

But this article deals exclusively with customer interviews (those who have already converted) because that’s usually where the richest, most emotional insights can be found.

Revenue coach and veteran marketer Kristin Zhivago, author of Roadmap To Revenue, says chatting to those who have already purchased helps you “reverse engineer” a successful sale.

roadmap to revenue

“They [customers] have plenty to say about how you presented yourself, what actually happened, what they wish would have happened, what the tradeoffs were in their minds as they were considering you, why they bought from you after all, and what they are now telling others about you. Yep, that’s priceless stuff, stuff that sends you running in the RIGHT direction.”

She also points out that if you sell to different types of customers you should categorize them (by type of person, product purchased etc.) so you can better understand the buying process for each one.

And you won’t even have to bribe anyone

Some marketers avoid conducting interviews because they assume their customers won’t want to chat. After all, what’s in it for them?

But in fact, many folks often feel flattered by the request to be interviewed – if you ask the right way.

Science shows that people love to talk about themselves — even as much as they love money. It also makes them feel important to know that a brand cares about their feedback, which feeds their egos.

To set up the interview, send out an email that simply says you’re interested in interviewing them to find out about their experience with the product or service and how they felt about it.

Once they reply, be sure that you’re 100% clear on what the expectations are for the interview.

Ask them to allow for at least 30-45 minutes for the chat — you don’t want to rush the call.

How many people should you interview?

Shoot for about 5 people per customer category or persona — but no more than a dozen. After five or six interviews, you’ll likely start to see trends and themes emerging in the responses.

The questions: don’t stick to a script

This isn’t a verbal survey.

The last thing you want is to come across as a robotic telemarketer, asking one carefully crafted question after another. Instead, I recommend doing what’s called an in-depth unstructured interview.

This style of interviewing is much more like a conversation. It’s casual and relaxed.

That means you should have a list of questions handy, but don’t stick to the script. Your No.1 job as an interviewer is to listen and occasionally ask ‘probing’ questions to get more insight or to gently steer the conversation where you need it to go (we’ll get to this stuff shortly).

Back in my newspaper days, I had an old editor who often said:

“Your best question is always the one you never thought you’d ask.”

This holds true for customer interviews as well. Your questions should be fluid, always changing based on the responses you get from the customer to glean the most insight.

But having said that, you still need a starting point. Exactly what you ask should be driven by your main goals for the interview.

  • Do you want to create richer customer personas?
  • Are you looking for sticky messages that can be “swiped” and used to write copy?
  • Are you trying to get a better understanding of the customer journey?

Clarifying your goal for the interview will help you ask more useful questions.

Examples of interview-worthy questions

You can find some great sample interview questions here and here. I especially recommend checking out Alan Klement’s Jobs To Be Done interview script.

If you’re a little anxious about doing the interview, having some written-out questions will certainly help. Here are some topics you may want to cover:

  • Asking about motivations: What was going on that made you seek out our software?
  • Asking about problems & struggling moments: Tell me about when you were trying to write your business plan? What was that like?
  • Asking about the value they receive from your product: Exactly what does our software help you do?

But the most insightful responses — especially for copywriting and messaging — will often come from asking your customer how they feel.

  • What were you feeling while using the product?
  • When you found our solution, how did that make you feel?
  • What were you feeling when you decided to switch to us?

Yes, these questions do sound a bit corny. And yes, the interviewees might chuckle a little when you ask them. But they will help you get to the deeper emotional drivers behind why (and how) your customers buy.

Avoid these 2 interview question mistakes

When asking or drafting questions, make sure you’re not influencing the customer’s responses in any way.

Bias is always an issue in qualitative research. But the more aware you are of the pitfalls, the easier it will be get meaningful data.

Here are two of the most common fouls when interviewing:

1. Asking leading questions:

Don’t ask a question in a way that suggests a particular answer. This might seem like an obvious no-no, but when you’re deep into an interview it’s easy to let a leading question slip out. For example:

DON’T SAY: How angry were you when the app didn’t start up properly?

DO SAY: What were you feeling when the app didn’t start up properly?

2. Asking ‘why’:

Asking someone why they did something implies that there is a single right answer. Plus, dropping the ‘why’ bomb causes people to go into their rational mind.

As Bob Rutter at Market Research Optimized explains, “the rational mind needs to postulate an acceptable, rational good-sounding justification for their behavior, their thought or their perception.”

And that’s not what you want — you want raw insight into the emotions behind what your customers do. Not a rationalized answer.

But having said that, asking why quickly and in an unexpected way can sometimes bring out a more emotional response. But if you want to play it safe, avoid the “why” questions altogether.

3 Essential Interviewing Tips

OK, it’s time to finally pick up the phone (or head on Skype) and start chatting with your customer.

Because you want to strive for a natural, unstructured interview – I’m not going to give you a rigid step-by-step process. Interviewing isn’t an exact science — your personality and experience will have a huge influence on how you engage with people. And over time, your own interview style will develop.

So what follows is more of a rough guide for handling the chat. I ultimately want to emphasize the importance of three things:

  • Building rapport with customers (to establish trust so they open up)
  • Practicing effective listening (to really absorb what they’re saying)
  • Asking “probing questions” (to get deeper insight on what they’re thinking and feeling)

1. Build rapport and make them feel safe

build rapport make safe

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Research shows that creating rapport with your interviewee is key to getting them to be comfortable enough with you to share their feelings.

So don’t just jump into the questions — first make them feel relaxed and safe, which will also give the interview a more conversational tone.

This becomes much easier if you’re able to do a bit of research on the interviewee before you chat with them. Often I’ll just take a quick scan of their Linkedin profile, if they have one. You can also use Charlie app to get a snapshot of their social data automatically.

Here are a few tips for establishing rapport:

Make sure you’re both on the same page.

Even if they agreed to be interviewed, make sure they know exactly what’s going to happen and why. Tell them how useful their insight will be and emphasize that everything they say is 100% anonymous.

Start with easy, fact-based questions.

Doing this eases the customer into the interview. Afterwards, you can then watch for opportunities to build rapport.

I often start with asking about where they live or what they do for a living. Not only does this give you more demographic or even psychographic information, it also provides you with fodder for directing the conversion into a more casual place before getting into the meatier questions.

Interviewer: “So you live in Jackson. You’re not too far from Yellowstone right?

Customer: “It’s about a two-hour drive. So not bad. Easy enough for a weekend trip.”

Interviewer: “Ah, that’s handy. I’ve always wanted to visit. You get out there much?”

Customer: “Well, my wife and I certainly try. We love backpacking and rafting, but I always seem to end up working weekends.”

Nothing fancy. No persuasive tricks. Just a little pre-interview chit-chat.

Show genuine interest in what they have to say.

Make them feel like they are an expert and you are privileged to speak with them — which is really the truth.

Be sure to use their name as much as possible — this helps to boost their ego and self-esteem, which will make them feel more confident opening up to you. As Dale Carnegie put it in How to Win Friends & Influence People:

Remember that a person’s name is, to that person, the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

‘Match and Mirror’ how they speak.

Research shows that when you mimic the mannerisms of the person you’re speaking to, there’s a greater chance of them liking you and feeling more comfortable around you. But you have to do this in a very subtle way during an interview – match their energy level, the volume of their voice or the pace of their speech. Don’t be a total copycat.

But you need to find a balance…

As important as it is to develop rapport, you can’t spend a half-hour on it because you need to be respectful of the customer’s time. Plus, the issue of building too much rapport is a concern for some qualitative researchers.

The argument goes that if you’re too friendly with the person you’re chatting with, they might tell you what you want to hear. The customer could manufacture an answer to please you, rather than giving you the unvarnished truth.

2. Focus on listening, not questioning

focus on listening

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This actually requires a lot more discipline than people think.

The art of genuine listening means that you really strive to understand what the other person is telling you, without projecting yourself into the conversation. This helps you better absorb what the customer is saying and the context in which she’s saying it.

Here are a few tips:

Practice reflective listening:

We’ve been socially conditioned to think of “listening” as a passive act with little or no effort required by the listener. That kind of mindset won’t help you in customer interviews.

A good reflective listener will occasionally paraphrase what the customer says during the interview, which shows they are listening and making efforts to understand what the person is telling them. But be careful not to question the customer’s thoughts or introduce your own ideas when doing this.

Interviewer: So if I understand you correctly, you had a hard time choosing what to buy because Product X and Product Y seemed to have the same exact features.

Customer: Yeah, that’s right.

Control your reactions:

Sure, it might sound easy enough now. But when you’re chatting to a customer who’s complaining about a user-interface issue that was fixed three months ago, you might be tempted to jump in and correct them.

Don’t do it! (or do it once the interview is over)

Adding your two cents or “correcting” the interviewee can ruin the rapport of the interview and make them less confident in what they are saying. Next time you ask a question, they may second-guess their response.

Take note of paralanguage:

This is a tricky one. An interview is about not just what is said, but how the person is saying it.

If you’re really listening to the customer, you’ll probably notice changes in their paralanguage. This includes altering how fast they speak or suddenly raising their voice.

These subtle changes can sometimes be a cue on when to move onto another topic, request clarification or ask deeper questions.

Noticing paralanguage takes time to develop. But once you have a few interviews under your belt, you’ll find that paying attention to these cues is especially helpful for knowing when to do some probing.

And that brings us to number three…

3. Probe to get deeper insights


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Listening is important, but obviously you can’t just keep quiet the entire time.

Probing questions are essential to get at the deeper meaning behind what the person says. This is how you get insights that surveys can’t provide. The trick is to gently “probe” for more information on a topic without coming across as aggressive or pushy.

Probing is especially important when asking questions about how they feel. Often when you ask about someone’s emotions, they’ll provide a short answer: ‘I felt frustrated,’ for example.

Gentle probing helps you figure out what “frustrated” really means to that specific person in that specific context.

This allows you get to the deeper barriers, problems or motivators for your audience. For example, you might ask:

  • What makes you feel that way?
  • You mentioned that you felt frustrated. Can you help me understand that better?
  • Could you tell me more about your thinking on that?
  • What were you feeling when that happened?

There are also more subtle ways to probe for deeper insights. You might want to give these techniques a try:

Ask for more specifics:

If something the customer says stands out as unusually insightful, try to get a more specific description from them about the event. This helps ensure you’re really understanding the customer’s message. For example:

Customer: “I thought the app was really easy to use.”

Interviewer: “What specifically made it easy to use?”

Customer: “Just how the menus were always where I expected them to be. I hate wasting time trying to find what I want.”

Embrace awkward silence:

People are naturally inclined to fill long, awkward moments of silence with conversation. So they’ll start talking to relieve those awkward feelings.

But make sure you’re not the one filling the verbal void — wait out the customer. A well-timed stretch of silence, especially after an important question that gets a short response, can result in the interviewee feeling compelled to yak on. And often, they’ll share some very emotional, off-the-cuff insight with you.

But don’t go overboard with this one, or you’ll come across as a bit of a weirdo.

Use the ‘Echo Probe’:

This is a simple technique that also touches on reflective listening. Simply repeat the last thing that the person said and encourage them to continue. They’ll likely keep providing more details about the topic. It works particularly well when the interviewee is talking about a specific event or telling a story. For example:

Customer: I fired up the program, but it just crashed on me. I kept messing with it until finally calling my buddy Jimmy over to help me out. He knows this stuff better than I do.

Interviewer: Ok, so you called Jimmy over to help…

That’s it! Cue the awkward silence. If that doesn’t work (or you’ve played out the awkward silence card already), just add “and then what happened?”

A few final tips for interviews

Record the talk — don’t go crazy with notes.

Your focus should be on actively listening to your customer; not writing or typing. I suggest taking notes of only questions you’d like to ask later in the interview and then relying on tools like these to record the conversation (with the customer’s permission, of course).

Be aware of ‘interviewer bias’:

Bias is an issue for all types of qualitative data. But one that is particularly difficult to avoid when chatting to customers is interviewer bias. This is when the interviewer subconsciously influences the interviewee’s responses with her word choice, tone of voice or other factors. It’s a tough one to remedy, but it does help to be aware of the problem.

Chat not going well? Give it a “reboot”.

If you’re not getting the kind of deep insights you want, chances are you haven’t established rapport yet. So reboot the interview.

Call it quits, say thanks for your time and start talking about something else. Then circle back around and say “hey, I just thought of something else I wanted to ask you” and then restate a question in a different way. The customer will be more at ease and (hopefully) more willing to chat about the way they feel.


Interviews aren’t a substitute for surveys, user testing or other more scalable forms of qualitative research. They are simply one more (powerful) way to help optimize your marketing.

But the type of deep insights you get from talking to your customers often can’t be found anywhere else. It’s an incredibly personal, intimate way to learn about both your audience and your business overall.

And that makes interviewing something that no research tool can ever replace.

About the Author: Dustin Walker is a conversion copywriter and chief creative at Good Funnel, an agency that helps tech and info businesses understand their customers to boost sales. You should subscribe here to get more in-depth articles on customer research, persuasion and other marketing goodness.

About The Author: Dustin Walker is a copywriter who specializes in helping SaaS companies nail their messaging through in-depth customer research. Check him out at CopyGuide.

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