Training a New Customer Development Interviewer

Customer development, by its’ very nature, is not a scalable process.  This means that those of us who practice it have an excuse to use somewhat slipshod means of scheduling and conducting interviews and analyzing results.  (Yes, I’m looking at myself.)

But “not scalable” doesn’t mean “not a repeatable process”.

Here’s what I did to bring a bit more process to our process and get more of our team doing customer interviews.

Document the questions.

If you’ve been doing interviews for awhile, you should already have a pretty good idea which questions are working in terms of effectively eliciting useful feedback.  Write them down.

Explain what you’re hoping to learn from each question.

Literally, walk through each question with your team and say “I ask [question] because I’m hoping to learn things like X and Y”.

As you go, you’ll probably remember the additional prompts you use: “Sometimes, if the interviewee isn’t sure, I ask [question] as a follow-up or give [example].”   Don’t skip this step.  These prompts are as important as your question list.

Make it easy.

I put all of our questions into a Google Form and added an extra “other” question at the end.  This way, the interviewer can call up the form and take notes directly into it.  Having the question blanks ready makes it easy to take notes if the interview jumps around instead of addressing the questions in order (which often happens).  It also serves as a reminder that the interviewer skipped a question and needs to return to it.

(Note: we do most of our interviews by phone, and our customers are other web companies, so even when we do face-to-face interviews, typing notes into a laptop is pretty much expected.  If you are doing face-to-face interviews with non-techies, I’d recommend making physical paper templates instead, printing them out, and handwriting notes.  Yes, you’ll have to transcribe them again later, which is a pain, but if your interviewee perceives you as rude for having your face in a computer, you won’t get useful feedback from them anyways.)

Create an interview request template and process.

I prefer to compose email requests individually, so they sound more personal.  So this is more of a checklist of concepts you want to be sure to include:

  • Introduce yourself
  • Talk about why you want to talk to them
  • Emphasize how helpful it will be to you
  • Put limits on what you’re asking for (“this won’t take longer than X, you don’t need to prepare”)
  • Provide a clear next step (“does one of these 4 times work for you?”, “you can schedule any time that’s convenient for you on my calendar here”)

I recently started using Tungle, which has probably resulted in a 25% increase in responses over my previous method of “pick one of these times”.  (Just saying something open-ended like “any time next week” has had very low response rates for me.)  I don’t think Tungle is perfect, and it does require the customer to do some work, but it gives them a clear next step and emphasizes the “at your convenience” part.

Do a ride-along.

I had my coworker listen in while I did the first interview with the agreed-upon list of questions.  It gave him the opportunity to see how the questions went and how I handled tangents, and practice taking notes while listening.

Review the first notes.

After my coworker did his first interview, I read his notes and then the two of us got on the phone to discuss.   This gave me the chance to point out where I would have asked a follow-up question or tried to keep the customer talking on that topic.

I also was able to ask about emotion (“what was his reaction to this? was he excited or didn’t seem to care?”) – which was a good reminder to both of us that annotations like “!” or “very excited” or “really frustrated” are as useful as the actual words the customers are saying.

The step I’m still working on is how to best collect the responses in a readable format.   The Google spreadsheet that all of our responses feeds into does a good job of keeping all the notes in one place, but it’s damned near unreadable.  For now I’m basically copying and pasting each column into its’ own Excel sheet with one super-wide column.  This is tedious.

Nonetheless, this is the most organized I’ve been about my notes in a long time, plus we’ve near-doubled our interview velocity, which is pretty exciting.

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