One of my bosses didn't believe in customer interviews.
"I've always felt it was a waste of time," he confided in me at some point. "I know they are valuable, in theory. In reality, you invest a lot in finding leads and talking to random people and get only superficial stuff in return."
It seemed that for some reason, he couldn't get any value out of his conversations with customers.
I used to work as a reporter (a long time ago, basically in my previous incarnation). And my interview skills were considered above the industry average. I was always able to get value out of my conversations.
This got me thinking — how much of what I know from my career in reporting translates to customer interviews? I realized that since I switched to product work, I have unconsciously followed the same technics that I had learned as a journalist.
So I put together a short manual explaining my approach to interviews.
All reporters quickly learn not to ask people to "tell them something interesting." Because most people will draw a blank in this case. Asking "what was the most interesting in X" or "What is your opinion on Y" is like asking someone to tell you a joke all of a sudden. You can know dozens of good jokes, but without any context and natural flow of conversation, the brain will just refuse to produce any. The same with "interesting" things — or any straightforward theoretical question. It doesn't mean that nothing interesting or noteworthy happened. It only means that this is the wrong way of having a conversation about it.
What's the alternative? I always got the best results when I asked about what actually happened, what people thought about it, and what they did as a result. Basically, I always asked people to walk me through their personal story as it developed — like it was a sequence of events in a movie — so I could understand the logic of their actions. I did it even when the focus of my article wasn't the story itself. Why? It turned out that based on events, it was easier for people to recall things and to give me "interesting" (deep) stuff — insights, revelations, observations, and killer quotes.
I always cast a wide net and never limited my questions to the time or the subject I was interested in. Usually, I'd want to have a much broader context. The rule of thumb was: the deeper you want to dig, the more context you need, and the further back in time you go. Writing a story about restaurant operators and their experience with delivery aggregators, I'd probably start with when they decided to open a restaurant and why and how they did it — even if it was a decade ago.
How I started as a rookie: I'd have a paper with a list of questions and ask them one after another no matter what. Of course, I got superficial dull answers. After some practice, I completely changed my approach: I threw away the script and instead listened actively, reacted to every word I heard, and then constantly asked follow-up questions to dig deeper into the subject. This ability to "listen actively" turned out to be the key to everything. In daily life, people almost never really listen — they usually just wait till you finish talking to say their own piece. Active listening consumes a lot of energy, by the way. After a 2-hour interview, I was usually so tired that I couldn't do anything meaningful that day.
A big part of this active listening thing was... arguing. At first, I was afraid to do that even when I heard something dubious. As a result, I ended up with an interview that I couldn't really use for the article because too many things didn't make any sense — or required additional explanations. So I had to go back and ask follow-up questions. Then I realized that the more you argue during the interview without accepting everything you hear at face value, the better material I got — so I started making counterarguments at every corner. When you make a counterargument, you force your vis-a-vis to better explain themselves, and you help them refine their argument. I would often argue even if in reality I personally agreed with them.
Sometimes it was beneficial to be super direct and even "aggressive" — and have a somewhat heated discussion. But more often, I didn't want to alienate my "opponents." In this case, I presented my arguments as not my personal opinion but as something that certain people might think. This mitigated the risk of sounding hostile — it wasn't me who was arguing, I was just a proxy giving other people's perspectives. I would say something like: "If I publish this, many people would say that..." This was enough to move the conversation forward.
Junior reporters — me included — were often afraid to admit that they didn't understand something that was said. They just pretended that they did. The opposite tactics brought me much better results — I quickly learned that openly admitting your lack of knowledge was the best way to extract information. Counterintuitively, it gained people's respect. They saw that I was actively engaged in the conversation processing their every word instead of just blinking and nodding to whatever they were saying.
I was a business reporter, so I knew a popular business concept called "5 why analysis." It posits that you should ask "why" at least five times to get to the root cause of any event, trend, or problem. This was the framework I always kept in mind because it was 100% applicable to interviews. Often, just asking "why" a few times would give you much deeper insight.
It's easy to get carried away in any conversation and forget about the question you asked — especially if your respondent is talkative. People often start answering your question, then remember something related, and sometime later nobody can recall what led to all this... When I just started, it happened to me quite often — and my interviews had some big nasty gaps in them. I learned to "keep my eye on the ball" — and if I didn't get what I needed, to return to my initial question even after a five-minute detour.
Whenever I wanted to dig deeper and get really interesting insights, I inevitably encroached on people's personal stuff. I knew they had to feel comfortable enough to share something more or less intimate. I found that the best way to create a safe space for them was to openly explain my goals as a reporter (so they'd have context and understand my motivation) — and to be open myself and share some personal stuff as well. If there was a logical opportunity to do that in the conversation without going into too many details and wasting precious interview time, I'd always seize it. When one person only asks questions and the other has to answer them, such conversation reminds me more of an interrogation.
Finally, it was simple as that: I'd keep it casual. As a business reporter, I met "Forbes 100" folks, and it was hard not to be intimidated at first, but over the years I learned to be respectful but still relaxed. As a reporter, you generally want your sources to give you great quotes. Great quotes are never formal. So I figured that if I wanted my vis-a-vis to be informal in their speech, I needed to be informal myself. It usually worked.
That's about it. Since I started doing customer interviews, I found that most of these technics translated quite nicely to business research.
The biggest challenge was — and still is — time. Such a quality interview needs at least 30 minutes, and you as a PM don't always have that much. But if you want to dig deeper, this might be the only way.
At least this is what I try to explain to my boss.
If you haven't read this book yet, you should. Here are a few notes I made for myself after reading it:
Last year, I was also studying with Reforge. As the number-one cust dev technic, interviews were covered in a few programs, including "User Insights for Product Decisions" and "Finding Product-Market Fit." Here are a few notes I made for myself: