The Art of the Customer Interview


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By Linda Deeken and Chris Fosdick, The Cambridge Group

To understand customer demand and grow your business, learn to take cues from your customers.

To better understand the path your customers are on and how to join them on that journey, it’s important to consider the Who, What and How of your interview process. Source: Pexels.

To get to the heart of customer demand and unlock new growth for your business, conducting customer interviews is a tried and true tactic for understanding how your customers interact with your product and what you could do differently to better fit into their lives.

With a vast array of content touting sage wisdom on the best approaches for customer interviews and the top questions to ask, it’s clear that the jury is still out on the guidelines for a great customer interview.

Perhaps that’s because the crux of the matter isn’t the interview questions, but who your interviewees are and how you’re engaging with them. To better understand the path your customers are on and how to join them on that journey, it’s important to consider the Who, What and How of your interview process before diving in with a list of questions.

Who? Rather than cold-calling a random list of customers, uncover those who are most passionate about and highly engaged with a category or brand. How is the best way to do that? Ask the right questions. Your best customers give you the best insight, but only if you really ask them the hard questions no one else is asking. This insight translates into a wealth of category and brand knowledge that your best consumers are only too willing to share. Rather than exchanging polite pleasantries with your interviewees, with this approach you’ll receive tactical and actionable insights that drive change.

What? Whether we know it or not, customers don’t just buy products, they ‘hire’ brands into their lives to do a job; in other words, they buy products to help them realize desired progress in their lives. After you’ve identified and contacted your customers, outline questions that will help you reveal what ‘jobs’ your consumers are ‘hiring’ your products to perform and how to actually move that from a theory to an actual job to keep them as engaged customers.

To do that, unlock insights that fuel successful innovation and align your strategy with your most profitable customers by digging deep with questions like:

1. What progress is the person trying to achieve?
2. What are the circumstances of their struggle?
3. What obstacles are getting in the way of the person making that progress?
4. Are consumers ‘making do’ with imperfect solutions through some kind of compensating behavior?
5. How would they define what “quality” means for a better solution, and what tradeoffs are they willing to make?

How? Keep your questions open ended and be willing to veer off-script to learn how your customers are really hiring and using your product, or to uncover any new jobs you could fill. Learning from these priority consumers requires the understanding of the rich, multi-faceted story that underlies the Job for which consumers are hiring your product. Not only do they know a lot about the category, they genuinely want to share their learnings and thoughts with you. And you certainly want to hear what they have to say.

Remember that at their heart, successful innovators are fundamentally great storytellers. They understand the rich, multi-faceted narrative behind the jobs in their sector and how that will play out in their lives. This level of understanding is what separates your customer from being just a profile to understanding your actual customer as a person.

About the authors:

Chris Fosdick is a Principal with The Cambridge Group, a leading strategy consulting firm and a subsidiary of Nielsen. He has spent the last ten years with TCG helping clients primarily in the consumer products, retail and media spaces develop demand-driven growth strategies and respond to change. Chris’ work explores how shifting consumer demand is reshaping competition, and how dynamic companies can adapt to meet new challenges.  Chris earned his MBA with honors from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University with concentrations in Analytical Consulting, Marketing Strategy, and Media Management.  He also holds a BS in Foreign Service from Georgetown University, where he graduated magna cum laude.

Linda Deeken is a Chief Marketing Officer at The Cambridge Group. She has been published in Harvard Business Review, Chief Executive and Entrepreneur, among other publications, and has been a key contributor to several books recently released by The Cambridge Group.  Previously she was a consultant with The Cambridge Group, focusing on developing customer-driven strategies, new product development, positioning and consumer segmentation, in addition to advancing critical new pieces of intellectual capital for the firm.


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