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In developing a startup, interviewing customers is an integral activity that entrepreneurs must do in order to find out what their customers really need or want. In this post from the Customer Dev Labs blog, Founder Institute mentor, Justin Wilcox, shares the process of how he interviews customers to get insight on how to build great products.  

"Interviewing Customers is a Special Kind of Torture."

  1. Talk to a stranger. Fun.
  2. That stranger is immensely busy…and hates being sold things. Getting better.
  3. That stranger will likely destroy your vision for a company. Ready to get started?!


When I started interviewing customers, the only thing I cared less about than talking about other people’s problems was asking about them. So, I skipped all the questions I thought were BS, and jumped to the most important ones:

“Would you use a product that does _____________?”

“How much would you pay for it?”


Turns out, those aren’t the most important questions…they’re the most misleading.

Apparently, I am not a natural interviewer.

When I realized interviewing customers meant standing in front of strangers doing something I was awful at, any enthusiasm I had towards “getting out of the building” evaporated.

When I see other founders hesitate to interview customers, or do them wrong, I empathize. I’ve been there. It’s a daunting task we have no experience with – and – isn’t nearly as fun as building stuff.

 

Let's Fix That

Despite my early misgivings, learning to interview customers has become one of my most indispensable skills. Not just because it gives me a leg up on competitors, not because it helps me (in)validate ideas quickly, and not because it helps in my personal life as much as it does my professional. It’s indispensable because…

For me, interviewing customers makes customer development…fulfilling.

Instead of being stressed about what the customer is going to think about my idea, instead of fumbling over my words and worrying about the perfect way to pitch my product, a customer interview isn’t about me, my product, or my words. It’s about theirs.

All I have to do is listen. No pitching, no negotiating, just ask a handful of questions with a sincere interest to learn.

Other people’s problems are interesting – when you’re in a position to solve them.

 

How to Not Interview

A few ground rules I use that will prevent you from torpedoing your interviews:

First rule of validating your idea: Do not talk about your idea"

Your brain is hard wired to screw you as soon as you start thinking about your idea.

Once your idea pops into your brain during an interview, your body will literally turn against you. It will start looking for validation that the idea is good. Your interpretations of statements, intonation, body language will all be skewed. What’s worse, the person you’re talking to subconsciously knows what you’re looking for, and based on our desire to build relationships, will want to help you. They’ll be your unwitting accomplice and provide the  ”validation” you’re looking for – leading you in the wrong direction.

To the best of your abilities, avoid thinking about your idea during the interview – and certainly avoid talking about it. These interviews are about your customers and their problems. Do your best to keep the conversation focused there.


Second rule of validating your idea: Do not ask about the future."

No hypotheticals, no projections, no guesses. The way I remember this rule? I never ask a question with the word “would” in it: 

  • “If we built a product that solved X problem, would you use it?”
  • “How much would you pay for something that did X?”
  • “Would you like your existing solution better if it did X?”


When you use the word “would”, you’re making a thinly veiled attempt to validate your product…not their problem. Don’t do that. See Rule #1. In addition, when you ask about the future, you’re asking your customer to predict it. She can’t do that. She’ll try, but she’ll be wrong. Listening to wrong answers can only serve to harm you (“75% of people I talked to said they wanted…”, “Half of the interviewees said they’d pay $20″, etc.) – they’re all bad guesses. There are better ways to answer those questions.

 

How To Interview

There are five questions I use to form my customer interviews. Start with these, and you’ll not only to learn about your customer’s problems, you’ll learn if they’re worth solving (and how to solve them):

My Customer Interview Script:

  1. What’s the hardest part about      [problem context]    ?
  2. Can you tell me about the last time that happened?
  3. Why was that hard?
  4. What, if anything, have you done to solve that problem?
  5. What don’t you love about the solutions you’ve tried?


The trickiest part is figuring out what to put in the blank for Question #1. You don’t want to be so specific that you tell them about the problem you want to solve. For example, imagine you want to build Yelp for Vegetarians…

Don’t ask: “What’s the hardest part about finding a good vegetarian restaurant in a new city?”

But you also don’t want to be so broad that you’re inviting discussion about a range of problems you have no interest in solving:

Don’t ask: “What’s the hardest part about being a vegetarian?”

You want to ask about a significant problem context – situations that occurs frequently enough, or are painful enough, to warrant solving:

Ask: What's the hardest part about eating out as a vegetarian?"

This question will certainly evoke responses, but they could range from:

  • “The portions aren’t large enough,” to;
  • “I don’t really trust that the things I order are meat-free,” to;
  • “A yelp search for ‘vegetarian’ returns results like ‘Joe’s All American Steak House’ with comments  like, ‘Don’t bring your vegetarian friends here.’”


And that’s the best part about interviews! Not only will they help you validate whether the customer has the problem you hypothesize, if they don’t, interviews will point you to one they do have. You win either way."

 

 

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Graduates of the Founder Institute are creating some of the world's fastest growing startups, having raised over $700M in funding, and building products people love across over 180 cities worldwide.

See the most recent news from our Grads at FI.co/news, or learn more about their stories at FI.co/journey

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