Customer Discovery Interviews By Tristan Kromer

Every product has a brand story. Whether it’s a slick campaign cooked up by a PR agency to help build a connection with buyers, or just the history and aesthetics of a product that hasn’t been released yet, when we think of products we think of stories.

You know who else has a story? Our customer. And we mean that in the singular, not the plural. Every customer has their own unique tale to tell. What we’re trying to find in our customer discover interview is the element of their story that intersects with a need for our product.

A person is reading his story, Customer Discovery InterviewsStorytelling is our natural language, the root of human communication. If we’re looking for a customer’s needs, we will find it in their stories.

Every Memory Is a Novel

There’s a very simple rule for customer discovery interviews: Ask about the past, observe the present, forget about the future.

Past, present, future directions

We want to keep our customers talking in the past tense, not asking them to predict what’s coming. Never ask a speculative question like Would you like to have this service to plan your next vacation? As soon as they go into future-think mode, we’ve lost the one thing we need from them — their actual behavior.

Humans are comically bad at understanding our own behavior. Predicting how we’ll plan our next vacation draws on improvisational skills, not memory. We may plan to visit a certain country or not take work with us or pack a lighter suitcase, but we are far more likely to make the same mistakes and copy the same patterns as the last time we planned a vacation. Who among us hasn’t gone to the grocery store for a gallon of milk and returned with bread, cheese, and a one-month trial gym membership?  Asking someone to predict their future behavior is a recipe for a failed discovery process.

meme vacation explaining about what I think I'll do on a vacation and what I actually do

But if we ask someone When was the last time you planned a vacation? it’s unlikely they will respond with a direct answer like October of 2017, and then just sit there in awkward silence. They will answer all sorts of questions we didn’t ask — where they traveled to, why they were going, a roster of family members that accompanied them, the most memorable thing about the trip (being detained at customs for 12 hours or an endless sunset over a white, sandy beach).

In other words, they will tell us a story. With very little prodding, they will share with us characters, a setting, a conflict, a resolution, and even a denouement. These are the same elements that provide us with the data we need from the discovery process, the commonalities between the people who would be willing to pay for our product: they like to vacation at ski resorts, or they always travel spur-of-the-moment when discount tickets pop up, or they never travel with kids, or the most memorable thing about their trip always somehow involves tequila.

Interviewers are trained to ask people about their past — not their plans — for this very reason. Plans are wishful thinking. Memories are lived behaviors that tell the stories of our daily lives, the stories that reflect our true behavior, not behavior we aspire to or predict for ourselves. Encourage your customer to give you details, to go on tangents, to provide you with a thick, juicy story.

To Script or Not to Script

This is why we should keep our scripts open-ended (at least at first), allowing them to pursue the most interesting line of thinking. Often the most insightful parts of an interview come from an unexpected direction. Remember that the most important part of our interview is the part where we’re not talking.

A drawer full of open ended questions

That’s not to say we should just let a customer ramble. We live in stories, but rarely do we tell them with a cohesive plotline that goes beginning->middle->end. It’s okay to let a customer go off on a tangent for a bit, but if it strays too far from the subject matter and is not producing any valuable insight, then the best way to return to a useful interview is to ask them to backtrack to a point where their story showed promise: You said something really interesting a few minutes ago, I’d love to loop back to that point.

This is all great for an experienced interviewer who knows how to pivot on the fly, but most interviewers are somewhere between novice and reliably competent. So it helps to have a guideline to get us through the sticking points.

A note-taking template — such as a topic map — is a must-have fallback to help us go into an interview prepared with a list of topics to cover and a few sample questions to use as prompts to get our customer to tell us a story. (But keep in mind — this is not a script or a checklist!)

Customer Discovery Interviews, A person with a note-taking template to use to get a customer tell a story, but we should think it is as a guideline rather than a script

It also serves as a method of communication within our organization — because we will usually be working in teams, we want to share with our teammates what we’re asking and what our teams are focused on so we can coordinate our efforts.

But we can’t let our template constrain our instinct to follow an interesting line of thinking, or prevent the customer from sharing their story. If we think of it as a guideline rather than a script, then we can have a conversation instead of an interrogation.

Customer Discovery Notetaking Template

Download our Customer Discovery Notetaking Template

Lessons Learned

  • If you want to know what your customer needs, ask them to tell you a story.
  • Never ask your customer to predict their future behavior.
  • The best way to get your customer’s story is to be genuinely curious about it.

Stay tuned next week for “Customer Discovery Part 2: How a Focus on Storytelling can Solve OUR Pain Points.”

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