The Art of Customer Interviewing — Asking the Right Questions

Raomal Perera
Feb 22, 2016 · 4 min read
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Customer interviewing is undoubtedly a skill, and there are many benefits derived from good questioning and framing techniques. Yet, so many of us find it difficult to ask the right questions when it comes to customer interviews, and to gathering meaningful insights.

“If you do not know how to ask the right questions, you discover nothing” — W. Edward Deming

It is important to remember that customer development is about understanding the customers’ problems and needs. One of the biggest challenges when it comes to customer interviews is actively listening to the interviewee. It is not an opportunity to pitch your solution, or refer back to your innovation. It is an opportunity to ask open questions, and allow the customer to do the talking. You should account for only 10% of the conversation in an interview.

So what is the difference between an open and a closed question? In short, a closed question is one which can be answered with a simple one word answer, such as the dreaded ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. An example would be “Do you like this product?” There is little scope for an interviewee to say little more than ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to such a question, and it can often feel like the Spanish Inquisition when such an approach is employed.

Knowledge is having the right answer. Intelligence is asking the right questions.

Open questions encourage dialogue and necessitate longer answers. They prompt the customer to think, reflect and give opinions. ‘What’, ‘how’ and ‘describe’ questions are often the most valuable ones to have in our arsenal, as they help us to probe without being intrusive, and to understand the problem from the customer’s perspective. For example, “What are the primary challenges and difficulties that you face?”, and “Describe the first time you became aware of this problem”.

Questions which involve ‘telling’ the customer, such as, “Have you tried…?”, should be avoided at all costs- they are not looking for a solution at this point, and this question is unlikely to yield meaningful insights for you. An alternative might be, “What have you tried to solve this problem?”, and this should bring about some insight into their current solution.

Start with a question and let that feed itself to a series of interconnected questions — let the conversation take you to your destination.

Around 5 questions is sufficient for an interview of 30–40 minutes duration. While you should have a few questions in mind you should be careful about going in with a script. Ask one question at a time and let that feed into a series of interconnected questions. It is imperative that you understand the purpose of the interview before you start i.e. is it a problem assessing interview or a solution interview? This depends on what stage of product development that you are at.

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Finally, to conclude, here are a few tips on the art of customer interviewing:

  • Reframe your questions. If a question is a little on the closed side, simply reframe it in such a way that it becomes an open question. Rather than asking “How do you find our service”, try “Can you think of an example of when our service exceeded your expectations?”
  • Make questions specific. General questions often lack context and are met with a pat answer of “it’s fine” or “I don’t know”. Specificity encourages engagement and usually causes more detailed and thought-out responses, which in turn leads to insight
  • Information and Knowledge will develop into insights. Information is just many bits of data. Knowledge is putting all the data together. Wisdom is transcending this information and knowledge to gain insights — the ‘aha’ moments
  • Find patterns, as this will bring some of your assumptions closer to facts. Use an affinity diagram to help you organise your findings and focus on the larger opportunity
  • Use discussion forums (an Internet forum, or message board). Here you will find people holding conversations in the form of posted messages
  • Clayton Christensen’s article on Milkshake Marketing talks about the importance of observation. The jobs-to-be-done point of view causes you to get into the skin of your customer and go with her as she goes about her day, observing her and always asking the question as she does something: why did she do it that way?”

A look at the development of Laser shows that, it started with information about light sources and we gained the knowledge that light is electromagnetic radiation. This knowledge provided us with the insights to develop LASER (Light Amplification of Stimulated Emission of Radiation). Today lasers have become ubiquitous, finding utility in thousands of highly varied applications in every section of modern society.

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If you would like to learn more about the art of customer interviewing, and the skill of asking and framing questions, you will find a useful piece here, in my Resources section.


Originally published at on February 22, 2016.

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