When we begin an engagement with a new client, we lead them through an extensive discovery process so that we can learn about their business, their goals, their products or services, their market and more—but arguably one of the most important areas we need to understand as marketers is, “Who are you trying to reach?” One of the best ways we’ve found to get a handle on who we’re trying to convince, and what it might take to convince them, is by interviewing a client’s current customers.

5 Reasons to Do Customer Interviews

Most companies can rattle off the criteria for their “ideal customer” pretty easily. However, as much as you think you know about your target audience … you, yourself, are not the target audience. Here's why hearing directly from customers is essential to your marketing strategy.

  1. You can get a lot of valuable insights in a short amount of time.
    All it takes is five to 10 conversations to start hearing important themes. A 30-minute call (with a thoughtfully prepared question list) is enough to validate (or invalidate) what you believe to be true about your customers, and often uncover insights that couldn’t have been obtained any other way. For example, one client of ours discovered, via interviews, that their customers really appreciated that they could always get a live person on the phone. It became a key part of their message. (In contrast, another client thought it was one of their key value propositions that customers could always get someone on the phone, only to have every single interview report that they preferred email!)
  2. Build your brand story around how customers actually think and talk.
    You may think you know how customers make purchasing decisions, what their pain points are, what’s important to them, why they like working with you and even where they think you can improve—but it’s much better for your customers to provide their answers to those questions. When you communicate with customers and prospects, you want to use the words they use and talk about things in a way that’s relevant for them. Interviews give you those insights. At Pepper Group, we provide interview transcripts for all conversations—not just notes or a summary—precisely because it’s so important to hear all the feedback in the customer’s own voice.
  3. Gather potential case studies and testimonials.
    To be clear, the main point of a customer interview is not to write a case study. However, when you have the chance to hear from a customer, in their own words, about a time your company helped them or what they like best about working with you, you will naturally get ideas for which customers you can follow up with for public-facing stories or testimonials that may resonate with prospects. No matter what, you’ll have valuable stories you can tell in sales conversations.
  4. Find out who your competitors really are.
    Our clients can almost always give us a list of their competitors. And almost always, when we ask their customers who they think of as our client’s competition, they’ll throw out a few names that weren’t on the list—and they’ll give you useful insights and opinions you won’t get just from reviewing competitive websites. Your customers may have a better idea of your current competitive landscape than you do, which allows you to be more proactive in your market positioning and tactical plan.
  5. Learn what gets customers’ attention—and what doesn’t work.
    The fact is, your customer is someone else’s prospect. Being able to find out what other companies are doing to get their attention—and if any of it is working—not only helps you understand and protect against how your current customers are being targeted, but also helps you learn what might work with your own prospects.

5 Reasons You Should Not Do Customer Interviews Yourself

It’s very logical to think that you know your customers best, so it makes the most sense for you to take the call. Having done dozens of these projects over the years, we can confidently say that having an objective third party talk to your customers yields better insights. Here’s why:

  1. Customers are more likely to open up to someone who’s not you.
    It’s a quirk of human nature that it’s easier to share negative feedback with someone else than directly; similarly, sometimes people will talk more positively about you than they will to you. A customer may tell you you’re great, and they may never tell you where you’re falling short (they’ll just suffer in silence or even worse, leave without telling you why). But they’ll tell someone else why you’re great or where you need to improve in detail, and that yields deeper insights.
  2. An objective interviewer is trained to listen, not respond.
    If a customer has had a negative experience, or if they have a misconception, your instinct is going to be to try to address it in the moment. This will derail your interview and rob you of valuable information. A third-party interviewer is in a better position to ask strategic follow-up questions, get more detail and listen for similar themes across other conversations. Yes, you should follow up on all issues that are raised in customer interviews, but this should be done after the fact—ideally with profuse appreciation for the customer’s time and honesty.
  3. Uncover unexpected opportunities—or threats.
    Even “good” customers may not tell you if they’re making a big change until it’s too late, or they may not think you can help them with a new opportunity. In one recent customer interview project, we asked, “Do you expect your business with Client X to stay the same, increase or decrease this year?” The customer told us that while they were big promoters of our client, they were in the middle of trialing products to replace them for two-thirds of their business. The reason? It was a product our client didn’t offer, and the customer was interested in making a strategic switch. Because of that interview, our client was able to get ahead of an issue that could have had a big impact on sales.
  4. Avoid the Curse of Knowledge.
    Simply put, after doing what you’ve been doing for a long time, and working with lots of customers who buy what you do, you might start to assume you know what they think when you really don’t. This is called the “curse of knowledge.” Our immunity to the “curse” allows us to approach conversations with objective curiosity. We’ll ask more questions and probe for more details, and removing the customer’s ability to use “shorthand” often leads to useful insights. For example, recently a customer told us that our client had a “sustainability issue.” The client might have assumed that the customer meant environmental sustainability—but we asked the follow-up question, and it turned out that the customer was talking about business sustainability. They thought too much of the business depended on the owner, and they worried if the company could scale to provide more support. Talk about an “aha moment” for our client!
  5. While the insights come quickly, the process is involved.
    Getting the most out of customer interviews requires a lot of steps and specialized skill. A question list must be carefully curated to address your goals. Customers must be contacted (almost always more than once), scheduled and often rescheduled. Interviews must be conducted by someone skilled in keeping wandering conversations on track or drawing deeper answers out of more reticent participants. Calls must be transcribed and analyzed for overall themes, useful insights and opportunities. Everyone on your team should read the full transcripts, but they might not, which means you need a strong executive summary to share. It's a lot, and having an experienced partner with a proven system is one way to not only make it easier on yourself, but also ensure you get the best results.

There’s one more great thing about customer interviews: They make your customers feel appreciated and valued. Asking for and acting upon feedback strengthens relationships, even as it helps us learn what we need to know to make your marketing as strong as it can be. No matter what stage of your marketing strategy you might be in, we’d love to help you learn more about your customers. Contact us to get started.