I want you to imagine you’re a farmer from the year 3117 BC – way back in the ancient Egyptian times.
Imagine, one day while farming, you find a mysterious hole in your field. You walk up to the edge, peer in… but then lose your balance, faint and fall in! When you wake up, you’re in the year 2014… and you’re sitting behind the wheel of a taxi in Midtown Manhattan!
You’re pretty smart for an ancient Egyptian, so you figure out that this vehicle is some sort of horseless chariot… but you must still be so confused!
You don’t know how fast you’re supposed to go, you don’t know which side of the street you’re supposed to drive on, and you don’t know why people keep waving at you and trying to get in your chariot!
You don’t understand any of the rules of driving a taxi.
Customer Interviews can be like an Ancient Egyptian driving a taxi in modern New York. You might figure out that the right pedal makes the chariot go faster, and that turning the wheel will turn the chariot…
But will you know how traffic lights work?
Will you know that you can make a right turn on red?
Will you know you’re supposed to pass in the left lane and cruise in the right?
There are rules to customer interviews. Follow them, and you can learn more from your customers than you ever imagined.
Break them… and risk basing your entire project, product, or organization on bad information. And that can mean catastrophic failure.
Just like “Red means stop,” these rules are easy to remember and easy to understand. Unlike “Green means go,” these rules are a lot harder to master. But keep them in mind as you do your interviews, practice, and just like parallel parking – you will get better. And you will be amazed as the quality of the stories you hear from your customers skyrockets.
The Rules of Customer Interviews
Rule #1: No Ice Cream Questions
“Do you want ice cream?” The answer to this question is ALWAYS “Yes!” (What sane and rational person would answer “No” to this!?).
“Do you want ice cream? It costs $3,000 a gallon.” Now? “Maybe not so much.”
Ice Cream Questions are when you purposely hold back a key piece of information that you know will change the answer to the question.
Rule #2: Pull, Don’t Push
When you’re interviewing a customer, don’t push your thoughts, opinions, or ideas on to them. Instead, pull information from them in an unbiased way. It’s easy for a customer to agree with you when you ask “Don’t you hate when your dog smells bad?”
But if you ask “What’s the worst part of having a dog?” and they say “I hate when my dog smells bad!”, it’s MUCH better validation.
Rule #3: No Leading Questions, No Pitching.
This is pretty self explanatory. Pitching your product idea and asking leading questions are “pushing.” Don’t do it. Have a friend sit next to you when you interview and tell them to kick you in the shin if you ask one.
Rule #4: Past Behavior Indicates Future Behavior
“I’m going to start going to the gym every day this year!”
“How many times did you go to the gym last year?”
How likely is it this customer will go to the gym every day for the whole year? Not very likely. But what if they had gone to the gym 5 times a week, every week, for the last year? Suddenly… it becomes a lot more plausible.
What people HAVE DONE IN THE PAST is the best indicator of what they WILL DO IN THE FUTURE. Don’t ask “would you ever” or “do you think you would” questions. Instead, ask “Have you ever” and “tell me about the last time” type questions.
Rule #5: Actual Self vs Ideal Self
When you ask someone what they will do in the future, they will tell you what their Ideal Self will do. I see myself as someone who goes to the gym everyday for the next year. If you ask me what I’ve done in the past, I’ll tell you about my Actual Self, who only went to the gym twice last year.
If you’re basing your product off what you learn from your customers… do you want to make decisions based on how your customers think they’ll act… or how they actually act?
Rule #6: “N of 1” is Not Proof
If you hear something from one person, it’s not necessarily representative of the whole. Keep talking to customers until you start to hear the same stories over and over again.
Rule #7: Ask Low Cognitive Load Questions
Ask the person in the office next to you “What’s the best home cooked meal you’ve ever had in your entire life?” Look at their reaction. They sit back. Their eyes glaze over a little bit. Their shoulders drop and they sigh.
That’s a really hard question! You don’t want to overwork your interviewees. Instead, start with an easy question. If you want to know what makes a great home cooked meal, start with “What’s the last home cooked meal you’ve eaten?” Keep asking follow up questions, and eventually you can be sure they’ll talk about what makes a great meal.
Rule #8: Stories Are Better Than Facts
We all know you want more than just “yes” or “no” answers to questions. But there’s more than just that – you want to ask questions that elicit STORIES, rather than facts. Lets say you ask someone what exercises they did last time they went to the gym, and they say “I do pullups, pushups, and squats.” Okay. Got it.
That could mean they do 10 or 15 each throughout the day at the office. Or, maybe they do Crossfit and do they do 200 one handed pull-ups in 5 minutes! If you had gotten the story of their last workout, instead of just the facts about the exercises they did, you’d reveal some pretty important information!
If you’re building a product, you CAN’T assume anything. If you just get the facts, you have to fill in the details and make a lot of assumptions.
So there they are. The eight rules of customer interviews. Use them wisely so you don’t accidentally drive into oncoming traffic like our poor Ancient Egyptian friend.
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