If you’re like most businesses, you’ve spent countless hours creating and refining buyer personas that represent your ideal customers. Although the exercise does have its benefits, unfortunately buyer personas almost always fall short in one critical area—they can’t respond to or answer any of your questions.

Without being able to actually speak to your customers and gain first-hand insights, you’re often left to make crucial marketing decisions based on assumptions.

Why do Customer Interviews

“Should we advertise on Facebook?” That was the question asked by the CEO of a tech consulting firm. He was targeting CIOs of Fortune 50 companies and was looking for the most effective way to build brand awareness and generate new leads.

From his perspective, Facebook was relatively inexpensive and offered a tremendous amount of potential reach. Although that’s true in general, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it applies to his specific industry and his specific customers.

Before making any decisions he identified a small group of current customers and conducted phone interviews. He asked questions such as:

“What sources do you typically use to gather industry-specific information? (industry publications, blogs, white papers, webinars, social media, etc.) Why those in particular?”

“Which types of content do you typically find most impactful? (emerging trends, data-driven research, case studies, etc.)”

“Who in your organization is typically involved in the decision-making process as it relates to new technology? Will you talk briefly about how that process works at your organization? What key factors influence your purchasing decision?”

Across the board, none of his customers used Facebook to gather industry information. In fact, because they were CIOs at large organizations and incredibly pressed for time, they typically looked to peers or LinkedIn groups to stay current. If they reviewed a white paper, it needed to be relevant to an issue they were facing at that time.

Without conducting customer interviews, the CEO of the tech consulting firm could have easily jumped on Facebook—wasting time and resources.

Beyond helping you identify the right marketing channels to reach your customers, interviews also give you direct insights into the words and phrases your customers use to describe your products and services—words and phrases you can mirror in your marketing campaigns.

Customer interviews also offer one other invaluable benefit—they can deepen relationships between your business and your customers by giving them a chance to feel “heard.”

Finding Customers to Interview

Start by identifying what you hope to learn from the customer interviews. For example, if you are the CEO of the tech consulting firm mentioned above you would likely identify 5-7 of your best clients—contacts that you think would best represent your ideal customer.

If, on the other hand, you want to learn more about new customers (their experience using your website, what terms they might Google when looking for a business like yours, or what features/benefits were most important when making a purchasing decision), then you would potentially target anyone making a purchase within the last 30 days.

The most important part of identifying customers to interview is making sure you have a large enough sample size to ensure any insights you gather are statistically meaningful. In most cases, we recommend targeting 5-7 interviews and then reassessing based on whether or not you were able to identify any trends or themes.

Questions to Ask Customers

Online customer questionnaires serve their purpose but they are no substitute for being able to have a real-time conversation with your target audience—to be able to ask follow-up questions based on their responses, hear how they react to certain questions, and clarify their answers.

As with finding customers to interview, any questions you ask should be based on what you hope to learn from the interview. What insights would be most helpful for your marketing and your business?

Although you’ll want the interview to feel more like a conversation than if you’re reading from a script, it’s helpful to have a core set of questions to help guide the call.

Open-ended questions typically work best although there can be cases where yes/no questions can also be helpful. The important thing is to avoid asking leading questions—questions that encourage a desired answer (ex. Wouldn't it be great if we offered free same-day delivery?)

Here are some topics you might want to consider when interviewing new customers:

  • What would you Google to find a business like ours?
  • Which other options, if any, did you consider before choosing us?
  • Quickly walk us through your online purchase. Did you access our mobile site? What information were you looking for? How easy was it for you to find? Did you need to call us at any point during the process?
  • When choosing a product, what features/benefits were most important to you? Least?
  • How do you typically use our product/service?
  • What’s one thing we could do to create a better online experience for you?
  • Which social media platforms do you currently use?

Make sure you start every call by letting your customers know exactly what’s going to happen, why their feedback is important, and how their information will be used. You should also assure them that everything they say on the call will be 100% anonymous—that any information they share will only be used in aggregate.

Next Steps

Don’t make assumptions about what your customers need or want—ask them! Start by clearly articulating what you hope to learn from an interview and then develop a short list of questions to help guide your conversation (typically 5-7).

Identify your target customers and reach out to them via email to invite them to participate. You might also consider offering an incentive for their participation ($15 gift card for their time).

Once you’ve completed your first round of interviews, compile all of the responses and look for any key themes or trends. You should also revisit your questions to see if you want to make any changes based on their initial answers. From there, decide how you can leverage your customer insights to improve marketing effectiveness.