Whether you are developing a new product or managing an existing one, your ability to learn from your clients and prospects will be the deciding factor in your success. The techniques in this chapter will help you extract the maximum amount of information in the minimum amount of time.
Develop and refine the interview guide
As with pretty much everything else, the single characteristic that most sharply delineates exceptional interviewers from average ones is the amount of time spent planning. To plan effectively, start with the goal and work backward. Identify the fundamental decisions, often framed as tradeoffs, your team will need to make. Only then can you form questions that provide unambiguous answers to the most pressing issues.
I once worked on a product development project where the goal was to drive revenue growth for a quantitative information product. This product was a database of market forecast information that clients could use to make fact-based decisions on which new markets to target. My team expected revenue growth from three sources: winning new clients, increasing purchases by existing clients, and improving retention among existing clients. With a development budget in hand, we set out to determine which new features and enhancements would have the biggest revenue impact as we migrated the product from an offline database to a rich online experience.
Consider just one feature – online data visualization. At the outset of the project, there was raging internal debate about the importance of providing clients the ability to generate rich graphics through our web experience. Of course, as a complex feature, this would consume considerable time and money, forcing us to drop other product attributes from scope. Moreover, this was an emotionally charged (and entirely opinion based) issue. In short, it was perfect fodder for inclusion in a client interview.
When we asked clients to rate this feature and several others, we learned that users on the whole just wanted pure data and lots of it. These largely technical clients preferred to analyze the data using their own charting software. With this information in hand, we were able to significantly lower the project risk and focus on features that would delight our customers.
Time is precious during an interview so you need to make every question count. I have seen many interview guides that ask for information that could be obtained in advance through other means. Some examples include probing for biographical information (‘What is your job title?’) or for usage information (‘When did you last log in to our system?’). If your systems do not provide this information, then seek only the minimum necessary and move as fast as possible to the heart of the interview.
People new to interviewing tend to draft overly quantitative and overly long question guides. If you must, you can ask at most five ‘rate on a scale of 1 to 10’ style questions in a thirty minute interview. Such questions sometimes irritate the person you are interviewing since it makes the discussion feel more like a survey rather than a conversation. In fact, many people, especially senior executives, will refuse to provide a quantitative response . In their wisdom, they are trying to protect you from yourself; they know the color commentary matters far more than the rating. In those circumstances, it is perfectly acceptable and expected that you form an estimate and not probe for a number. For those people that do give you a number, always follow their response by asking two more questions. The first is why they assigned that rating. The second, a crucial best practice, is to ask what would be a ten.
To expand a bit more on controlling interview length, you can develop extremely effective interview guides that have as few as three or four questions. If you are trying to develop a new product, you can ask three simple questions. First, what do you value? Second, if we deliver the specific feature you value, how will that drive success in your job? Third, if we deliver the specific feature you value, will it make you more likely to buy?
The “what do you value question” has its proponents and its detractors. Occasionally, you will be in unchartered territory with a product or service that is both new and experiential. Henry Ford faced this in the early days of the automobile and advised “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.” You have two options in this circumstance. First, if your concept is far enough along, then you can assess the value of specific product attributes. Second, you can explore a variation on the ‘what keeps you up at night?’ theme. To prevent eye-rolling, rephrase the question into something not quite so cliché. One possible approach is to ask: ‘What are the critical issues that you are currently facing?’ Then, you should probe for what they do today as a work-around and what they would prefer as a long term solution. Another approach is to ask a person what defines success in their current role. This most certainly fuels insomnia. Yet another variation is to have people identify the most valuable activities they currently do and to follow up by asking which of those they would be willing to offload or outsource.
There is a parallel set of streamlined interview questions for an existing product. One, what were your expectations when you first purchased our product? Two, which of your expectations were and were not met? Three, will you renew and why? Four, what would you change? The final question can be further refined by probing clients to describe their ideal.
Once you complete a draft of the interview guide, you should expect to spend several painstaking iterations refining the questions. Mercilessly remove any questions that do not provide guidance on key decisions that further your overall objective. Shorter is always better. Also, regardless of whether the survey is qualitative or quantitative, pilot the survey qualitatively with a few individuals before you launch to work out any final kinks.
Source interview candidates
In one-on-one qualitative interviewing, simply finding good candidates is the longest lead time component of the process. Hence, to ensure your success, start recruiting and scheduling early. In fact, an efficient best practice is to source interviewees at the same time you start developing the interview guide.
The answers that you get in your study undoubtedly will depend on the people to whom you talk; so, segment them. For example, say you are conducting a study to determine the best practices of effective sales managers. Rather than asking the manager’s managers to rate performance based on opinion, you should actually determine which sales managers are most effective based on objective, unbiased data. A best practice from an underperforming individual may not be what it seems.
Candidate selection is especially important when talking to customers and prospects. Generally, the lowest hanging fruit are existing customers, as they are more likely to take your call and you have their contact information at hand. If you pick only there, then at least make sure to separate your profitable customers from those you would like to fire (the last thing you want to do is to develop enhancements that will drive away loyal customers and lock in unprofitable ones.) However, you can and should go a step further. Make the effort to interview prospects as well as lost customers.
Additional considerations often arise during client interview selection. Specifically, be careful to not disrupt an active sales cycle. Before you solicit a client in this circumstance, reach out to the assigned sales executive to make sure that your discussion will not slow down a win-back or renewal opportunity. In my experience, sales people appreciate the courtesy and are all too happy to have another person engage their client.
Elicit attitudes and ideas
Though this chapter is titled “Client Interviewing”, remarkable interviewers are more precisely focused on eliciting. The main difference is that interviewing ends with merely understanding the answers to the scripted questions that you have posed. In contrast, eliciting draws forth attitudes and ideas When you elicit, the person to whom you are talking should be doing eighty to ninety percent of the talking.
To maximize the value of the live interview time, you should make it a practice to send the interview guide or any supporting material to the interviewee in advance of your session. This will save much wasted time explaining background information and allow the individual to think through his or her answers before speaking. If you are paranoid about competitors getting hold of your interview guide, then you are worried about the wrong thing. First of all, if your competition has strong relationships with your clients, then they are going to find out what you are planning by word of mouth. Second, if leaking your interview guide to competitors dulls your competitive edge, then you should think about working on projects that enhance your unique differentiation and are strategically hard for your competitor to replicate.
Interviewees will provide more insightful feedback if you explain your goals upfront. In addition, they will benefit from knowing what they stand to gain. For example, if you are evaluating a set of enhancements to an existing product without a price change, then let the individual know. For many folks, being able to provide creative input, and then seeing those ideas come to life, is reward enough.
With time pressure and a need to have the interviewee dominate the conversation, you should seek to glean answers in as few questions as possible. Unsurprisingly, word choice determines efficacy. . The least efficient questions begin with “how” or “what”. Questions commencing with “why” are much more revealing. Asking a succession of deeper and deeper ‘why’s’ can be very illuminating. The ultimate question starter is “what if”. A query formed this way allows the interviewee to imagine themselves in a future where the topic of discussion is a reality.
Where possible, you should guide the person with whom you are speaking to provide actual anecdotal answers rather than pure aspirations. I can vividly recall interviewing an information technology professional about features associated with a new product. While she provided feedback enthusiastically, I could sense that her language was somehow too conceptual. When prompted to describe how she would use the product in her own organization, she quickly replied ‘Oh, this offering is not right for my team.’ She viewed herself as a valuable adjunct (and eager to please) member of the development team when what we really needed was her candid reaction as a potential user.
As you interview, you should be as unbiased as possible. You must disconnect yourself emotionally from your company and think of yourself as an objective third party consultant. To that end, resist the temptation to defend yourself, sell, educate, or problem solve. I once conducted an interview where the other party articulated the value proposition of our business as influence peddling. This touched a nerve at the core of my personal values and our corporate identity. However, that was the person’s candid opinion and this was not the forum to challenge them. If you uncover a similar issue, or a more innocuous, though still important, service problem, it can always be addressed responsibly after the interview.
As a matter of respect, manage the discussion so that you end on time. An amazingly effective best practice is asking the following question about five or more minutes before the end of the interview: “Is there anything that I forgot to ask?” This query usually opens the floodgates of creativity. When you ask this question to the right person at the right time, you will get out-of-the-box ideas that can transform your business.
Pan where the gold is
I have had the good fortune to coach people to become skillful interviewers. Almost without fail, when these individuals begin the process, they start with a perceived need to get through every question on an interview guide. Unfortunately, this means giving short shrift to any individual topic of discussion.
A better approach is to view interviewing like panning for gold. If you are working a riverbed and hit the mother lode, then you keep panning in that spot all day and all night. In the world of interviewing, that means that you should only shift gears if the person is way off topic. It is always better to go extremely deep in an area for which an interviewee shows insight and passion, even if it means not getting to some of the other prepared questions. You can always cover other portions of the interview guide with other people if there are questions left unanswered.
Send thank you notes or gifts
Interviewing people provides an opportunity for you to demonstrate grace and charm and even to build new relationships. To that end, you should make it a practice to send thank you notes or gifts in a timely fashion. Merely thanking someone for their time is better than not thanking them at all. An off the charts show of gratitude should capture specifics of the creative ideas the individual provided and should articulate the value those ideas have to you and to your business.
Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to become a great interviewer:
- Develop and refine the interview guide
- Source interview candidates
- Elicit attitudes and ideas
- Pan where the gold is
- Send thank you notes or gifts