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8 Simple Rules For Mastering Customer Interviews

Egyptians drive chariots, not cars!

Egyptians drive chariots, not cars!

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?”

“Uhm… Twice.”

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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Three Magic Words To Eliminate Bad Meetings

Decide, Discuss, Inform

There is one type of person in the world: People who hate meetings, and people who love well-run meetings.

Over coffee yesterday, my friend told me a story from when he used to work for Microsoft:

He was heading out for lunch when he glanced at his calendar… and saw he had a meeting half a mile away that started in 10 minutes! He didn’t remember anything about this meeting, but sprinted across campus to make it on time. He walked in just as everyone was sitting down.

People settled in, look around, and then… the room went silent. People looked around some more. Everyone was waiting for someone else to start.

Finally, my friend spoke up. “So, uh… who called this meeting?”

Silence.

“Uhm.. does anyone know what this meeting is about?”

Silence.

“Who are all you people?”

Everyone laughed. No one in that room had ever even met each other.

This is definitely one of the worst meetings I’ve heard about, but everyone has meetings like this (although maybe not so obvious!). Hating meetings is a popular meme, but why do people hate meetings?

Because they’re boring. They’re unproductive. You often don’t even know why you’re there or what the purpose of the meeting is.

If you want people to stop hating meetings, there are three easy words you can choose from that will immediately improve the quality of every meeting you have:

Decide, Discuss, Inform.

Every meeting should exist to do ONE of these three things. And before any meeting, everyone should know which of these three types of meetings it is.

Is the purpose of the meeting to decide something? If so, make sure you have deciders in the room. Make sure they know what they’re going to be deciding on. Make sure they know you’re all walking away from this meeting with a decision.

Is the purpose of the meeting to discuss something? If so, make sure the people in the room know what you’re discussing. Make sure they’re the right stakeholders to discuss that topic. Make sure people have the information they need to have an intelligent discussion. And make sure people know there is no expectation of coming to a decision in that meeting.

Finally, is the purpose of the meeting to inform the group about something? Are you telling people about a new policy or rule? A new hire or fire? Make sure people know this is largely going to be informational, and not a discussion.

The worst part about meetings is when people have mismatched expectations going into them. If my boss think this is an Inform meeting, but you think it’s a Decide meeting… there’s going to be some conflict and some frustration.

Try this out. When you send your next meeting invite, in the meeting description use the phrase: “The purpose of this meeting is to [decide/discuss/inform] about [topic].”

If you’re interested in exterminating boring and unproductive meetings forever, Wonful is running a public workshop: Liberating Structures: Stop Unproductive Meetings, Start Producing Dramatically Better Results. The workshop is January 21st and 22nd in Seattle. Use the code InnovationAtWork for 10% off!

 

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