Why customer interviews should be listen and learn, not tell and sell

Previous installments have described how customer discovery helps the entrepreneur develop a well-defined value proposition and business model. Today, we explore the critical enabler of effective customer interviews.

Meaningful information is generated from about 30 interviews in our experience with numerous teams. The National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program, in examining hundreds of teams, finds that 100 interviews generally enable a founder to develop a solid business model, including value proposition.

Effective customer interviews share characteristics that the entrepreneur can control. At the most basic, the best customer interviews become conversations as you listen and learn. Importantly, the interview focuses on the customer, not the new venture. It is most definitely not a sales call.

Two groups find it especially challenging to conduct effective interviews. Salespeople want the session to lead to a sale or, at least, a qualified prospect. That prevents learning from listening to needs and problems. Technologists want to talk about their code or design or other technical attributes. That misdirects the conversation away from customer problems and opportunities.

Here is how you can ensure maximum learning from your interactions: Your starting point is your hypothesis about who might be the customer for your product or service. Initial interviews should validate or reject that hypothesis and reveal new possibilities.

Our Ventureprise Launch experience with over 100 teams suggests that you will likely develop insights that will change your initial thinking.

For instance, a brilliant researcher developed a high-strength, environmentally friendly material that she thought might be adopted by automotive manufacturers or as an alternative to roof shingles. Customer discovery interviews uncovered multiple barriers to the roofing idea and identified an automotive market adoption cycle that was too long for a startup company to survive. After many customer interviews, a home improvement opportunity became the focus of this startup company.

Who do you interview to gain this insight? Interact with a broad range of perspectives, including end users, decision makers and payers. Possible competitors may be willing to talk. It is best to talk to individuals, not groups, to avoid groupthink. It is generally not helpful to interview friends because they may find it difficult to be straightforward. It is better to ask friends and acquaintances for referrals to other relevant interview possibilities.

For a consumer product, for instance, talk to consumers and the sales channel such as retailers.
How do you conduct the interviews? Face-to-face interviews are best because you can observe body language. Video connections such as Skype are good, and telephone calls are okay. A survey, however, is not an interview.

Propose your interview as research, not a pitch or sales call. You are seeking the person’s expertise. Let them know that you want to learn from them.

Have a purpose in mind for the interview and ask open-ended questions. Always ask for first-hand information, not speculative or abstract thoughts. You will need to ask “why” multiple times to drill down to most valuable insights. You are seeking facts more than opinions.

Always close the interview with, “Is there anyone else you think I should meet?” Also, be sure to document what you learned with as much detail as possible.

Remember, the customer interview is designed to help you learn, especially challenging information. If all of your interviews are glowingly positive about what you are doing, it is likely that you are biasing the discussion.

Next time, we will explore how to make sense of what you learn and how to act upon the knowledge.

Recommended reading: Talking to Humans, by Giff Constable.

Paul Wetenhall is the executive director of Ventureprise, UNC Charlotte’s innovation and entrepreneurship center serving the UNC Charlotte campus and Charlotte region.

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