Interview Like A Pro – Part 1

A cup of coffee over a calendar

Today I’d like to discuss a topic that I’ve observed becoming a pitfall for many product managers. And the topic is customer interviews.

Since this post became longer than I originally anticipated – I’ll split it into 3 chapters. Today we’ll cover everything that needs to be done prior to the interview itself, including why and when you should schedule an interview. In the next chapter we’ll cover the customer questionnaire (which is important enough for a post of its own). The last part will be about how to run the interview itself. So let’s go.

Customer interviews are more relevant for companies which are not B2C, as B2C businesses, if successful, may have millions of customers and usually there are no direct relationships with these customers. It’s still crucial to gather feedback from these customers, of course, but most likely it will take the form of quantitative feedback rather than qualitative.

Alternatively, the B2C business may be ad-driven. In that case it’ll have plenty of users and several ad-networks as customers (I’ve touched on the difference between customers and users here). Ad networks are following industry best practices and are mainly programmatic – so most of the time there is no point in meeting with them as all they want from you at the end of the day are impressions and clicks. So, no matter how you look at it – for most B2C companies that I know of – there are better ways to gather feedback rather than interviews.

On the other side – when you are in the business where your company does have direct relationships with its customers then meeting with these customers should become part of your routine.

 

Why?

Talking to your customers is beneficial on more than one level. The trivial benefit is that you’ll get a list of feature requests for free. However, from my experience, the more useful benefit is to have an opportunity to uncover the pain behind the ‘ask’ (as I discussed in length here) as this is where you can find the real gems and come up with solutions that will cater to a great variety of customers and not only the one who you are talking to right now.

Also – talking to customers is a great way to validate your theses and potential ‘solutions to their pain’ that you have in mind.

Last – there is also the side benefit of providing a ‘contained’ environment for the customer to release their ‘stem’ and complaints. They will feel as if they were given a stage and were heard. And by that you buy yourself time and release the pressure from your superiors.

 

When should I reach out and talk to my customers?

There can be several reasons that may ‘trigger’ you to set up a meeting with a customer:

    1. An issue/feature request that is raised by a strategic customer. The customer has reached out to you (or your boss) with a feature request that they want to be implemented ‘soon’. Their request is unclear to you, or you want to buy yourself time and set up expectations with the customer on where they should expect it. Alternatively, your superior may request that you meet them to discuss, even if everything is clear.
    2. Learning the dynamics of the business. You’re joining a periodic meeting with the CS team or sales because you want to watch & learn (you may end up asking few questions in such meetings, but you are not leading it)
    3. Roadmap planning. The product is about to enter its next phase on the roadmap and you need to gather feedback on the latest releases and what they would like to see next.
    4. Considering a new product. You’d like to get their feedback and maybe even find design partners for the product you’re considering.
    5. Fine-tuning the ‘what’. You understand the pain and the value, but you are unsure how the solution should look like, or you have more than one option available. You’d like to avoid precious development time and want to brainstorm together with the customers directly.

There could be additional reasons, but from my experience the above are the main ones.

How many customers to meet? How to schedule?

Both of these questions (and their similar) fall under what I would call the ‘planning phase’. Yes, most interviews need to be planned. Well… what needs to be planned? Few things. Here are the main ones:

  1. Who should you meet? Can you draw a customer profile?
  2. How many you should meet?
  3. Who should attend?
  4. Where should I meet them? (F2F or Zoom)
  5. What’s the value you’d like to extract from these meetings?
  6. How to schedule these meetings?
  7. What should I ask during the meeting?

Now, in case the customer has reached out to you (#1 from above) – then most of these questions are easily answered. However, you’d still want to leverage this opportunity (a customer is willing to talk) to extract the value you need and not only what the customer wants to talk about.

If it’s a periodic meeting you’re joining – then it’s mainly about listening, though I’d still plan for an agenda, just in case an opportunity will arise.

As for the rest of the cases – let’s tackle these questions quickly and effectively.

Who should you meet?

Now, in case you are considering a new product or working on the next stage of your roadmap – then you’d like to meet a variety of customers who will be the most affected by this new product or roadmap. I’d aim to have both small and big customers in the designated group.

If the product/roadmap addresses issues raised by some customers in the past – make sure to include them as well. They will probably provide you with great feedback.

If you’re unsure about a specific solution (#5 above) then I’d gather the customers who were suffering most from this pain so you can validate/brainstorm it with them.

In case your company has a lot of customers It’s very useful to draw a ‘customer profile’ which is somewhat quantitative. This will enable you to hand over this profile to a data analyst who can dig in the database for a list of potential candidates.

 

How many should you meet?

Generally speaking – in case you’re working on a new product/roadmap or want to validate a solution – talking to about 10 customers should already provide you with a sense of whether you are in the right direction or not. To be honest – if you are hearing the same things on the fifth customer you can probably stop there (unless the rest of the meetings were already scheduled, in that case – never cancel them and leverage those the best that you can).

These numbers may sound low, but believe me – this is very time consuming and you’ll be exhausted after this round (if you do it properly). Remember that your other obligations don’t wait patiently until you are done with the interviews – so this is in addition.

 

Who should attend?

From their side – certainly the ones who are directly using the product. However, from time to time it’d make sense to invite other stakeholders from their company. Someone who is getting indirect value from the product. For example – if you are selling a product to data analysts you may also consider inviting the employees who are using the outputs of those data analysts (that were created using your product). This is highly dependent on what value you’re looking to extract from this meeting.

From your side – there are several people I’d consider inviting:

  1. Notetaker – your wingman. It’s quite challenging to take notes and interview at the same time. It’s also good to have another pair of ears. Ask someone you trust (another product guy?) to join you. You can return the favor later when they need you. Recording the meeting is the fallback in case you can’t find anyone but note that then you’re just doubling the costs of the interviews – as you’ll need to watch them all again just to take notes.
  2. Guests – invite people from the R&D, QA, UX/UI, marketing, etc.. to join you from time to time. It’ll greatly improve their understanding of the business and why you prioritize things the way you do.

One thing to make sure, though, is that the meeting doesn’t turn out to be too crowded. If the customer is meeting you on their own – never bring more than two additional people from your side as it may start to feel like an interrogation. 

 

Where should you meet them?

Oh, this is a great question. Before Covid struck the world in 2020, the companies I worked for would fly me around the world to meet with strategic customers and rarely I’d meet them on Zoom (codename for any video conferencing software). This reality completely changed with Covid taking over the globe.

At this time of writing – Covid is about to release its grip on this world and everyone is talking about a ‘hybrid’ model coming up.

This is highly dependent on your future company policies, but if you have a say on this matter – this is my advice:

  1. If you love traveling (I know I do) – try to set up a ‘cluster’ of customers in the same geographic region and meet all of them f2f. Meetings in person are the best! However, do keep in mind that the customer’s profile is of a higher priority. Meaning – if you can’t find enough customers who fit your profile in the same region – never compromise on non-fitting customers just because you want to travel. This is unprofessional.
  2. Remember that traveling is very time consuming. Especially if jet-lag is involved. Again – your other work is not waiting for you to find the time for it. Therefore, most of the interviews should probably be done through Zoom. The world has learned that this is possible and nobody should be offended.
  3. If the customer involved is a very strategic one and your company somewhat depends on it – do it in person. Your company will most likely approve.

 

As for the other people who’ll be joining from your side – in case you meet the customer in person you may consider bringing your wingman with you (if budget allows). The rest can join via Zoom.

 

What’s the value you’d like to extract from these meetings?

This question needs to be answered by you. I just put it here to make sure you address it. No point in setting up an interview if you don’t know what you’re looking for. You’ll just waste everyone’s time. 

I will give you a hint though – the best value obtained through an interview is usually one of two:

  1. Hidden pain you’re uncovered
  2. A confirmation that your suggested solution/approach is acceptable and if not – what’s missing

 

How to schedule these meetings?

Listen, this may sound trivial, but it can turn out to be a real pain in the a@#s. If you want to meet 10 – you’ll probably need to reach out to 20. Some don’t want to meet you (they have more important things to do; Don’t be offended). Some are super slow to respond. Some lost your email. Some are too busy…. And so forth.

You’ll find out that in many cases you’ll need to ‘sell’ the meeting. Sounds weird at first as you just want to help them. But they don’t necessarily see it this way. You want to take 45-60 minutes of their time to blurb about the product. What’s in it for them? A feature that will be ready 3-6 months from now? Better for them that you’ll waste someone else’s time. 

Therefore, craft the email carefully for each customer. If your product/roadmap discusses past pains they have raised – mention it in the mail. Otherwise sell it as an opportunity for them to ‘bitch’ about the product. Everyone loves bitching 🙂 (if it’s not clear – don’t use this term in the mail itself…)

Try to get someone to assist you with the scheduling if it’s too much for you, but if possible – do it yourself. A mail coming from you will sound more personal and will probably get a higher response rate.

Set the meeting to be around 45 minutes, but book 1 hour to be on the safe side. If a customer tells you they can only devote 30 minutes to you, I’d generally skip this customer unless you have a very short list.

Set the meeting at the time when you won’t be disturbed. If you are in the office – book a quiet conference room. If you’re taking it from home – set expectations with your spouse that the kids won’t interrupt.

At the end of the day – after all the back and forth – you’ll probably be left with half of the amount of the customers you’ve reached out to. 

 

How often should I meet customers?

I advise taking a tactical approach here. Meet customers when you need to (re cases above) and when an opportunity shows itself. Since this is highly time consuming – I wouldn’t recommended do it ‘periodically’ (e.g. – putting something in the calendar like a QBR).

Now, this advice is probably not the popular one. There are some courses that will teach you that ‘Nothing important happens in the office’ (they even developed an acronym for that – NIHITO). I’m going to be a bit blunt here and say that personally, I think it’s a big BS sentence that aims to make you feel bad about how you manage your time, while making the speakers feel smart about themselves.

The execution of the product plans are taking place in the office. Writing the specifications and the whole delivery process is taking place in the office – talking and coordinating with people.

Don’t get me wrong – you should and you must meet with your customers often and lift your head above what’s in front of you. But there is time to hear the market and there is time to execute on what you’ve heard.

I never met a great product person who spent all their time meeting customers. Usually this is just an excuse to avoid the less-glamorous work which is so crucial…

 

What questions should I ask during the meeting?

See my next post 🙂

 

Anyway – let’s wrap up for today. Coming up next – the customer questionnaire, so stay tuned!

 

If you found it useful – feel free to ‘like’ it. If you think others can benefit from it – feel free to share it with them.

Thank you, and until next time 🙂

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