Interviewing customers is a fundamental skill every team of startup founders needs. Asking good interview questions can be the difference between creating something people want or wasting time building something useless.
I’ve sat in on and conducted hundreds of customer interviews over the past 3 years while working on the product team at HubSpot and as part of a two-man internal startup inside of HubSpot called Leadin. During all of those interviews, I have either heard or asked a lot of really bad questions.
When we started working on Leadin, we had no product ideas, just a target market we wanted to help. By doing those customer interviews, we were able to validate product ideas and build something that our customers love using.
At HubSpot, we have a team of researchers that can make sure we’re asking good questions, but if you’re starting out, you’ll need to learn these skills yourself. Here’s four bad interview questions I often hear asked, and what to ask instead.
What do you think of our product?
This question is bad for two reasons. One, it’s much too broad. You probably only have 30 minutes to an hour with this customer and you need to make it count. Asking really broad questions leads to really broad, meandering answers.
The second problem is that people are probably going to be too nice. You’ve taken the time to talk to them, so their probably hesitant to bash your ideas.
Ask instead: What’s your workflow like when you use our product?
This question is much better because it focuses on real situation in which someone uses your product. If you’re looking for improvements to the current product, having someone explain the steps they took to use it will help reveal the pain points. Also, it takes opinion out of the equation. Either someone was able to efficiently complete their task or they weren’t.
What features should we add?
If you ask this question, customers will always try to think of an answer, whether it’s something they actually need or not. Everyone wants to be helpful. Also, in my experience, customers are notoriously bad at determining what features your product needs. Focus on customers problems, not on the solutions they come up with to those problems.
Ask instead: What tools do you use alongside our product?
There’s going to be a good amount of jobs related to the jobs your product already does. By focusing on what customers are already doing, you don’t have to guess whether or not it’s useful.
When you add these types of features, you need to make sure that the experience of doing that job inside of you product is better than they way your customers are currently doing it. There are some jobs that are too hard to replace, like sending emails outside of Gmail for example.
How often do you do X?
When answering this question, customers will tend to tell you an idealized version of their usage patterns instead of an accurate one. They also won’t want to hurt your feelings if their usage is minimal.
Ask instead: When was the last time you did X?
The difference is subtle here, but it’s critical. Instead of having folks hyperbolize about usage, ground the answer in actual usage instead.
Would you use/buy this?
Having people hypothesize about their usage and purchasing behavior is dangerous territory. There are so many factors that go into both usage and buying decisions, it’s really hard for people to predict the outcome before they actually are faced with a real decision.
Ask instead: There’s no good way to ask this.
This is where your ability to gain insights from interviewing falls short. The only way to know if someone is going to use or buy something is to give them the ability to do so.
Customer interviews aren’t easy, but the insights you gain from them are invaluable. Interviewing is a muscle you have to strengthen over time, so keep practicing and keep these questions in mind.