Research in the Right Order: When to Interview Your Customers

One of the parts of my work that I get the most satisfaction from, and the part that most consistently surprises me, is in listening to our customers. has a lot of customers. When you are dealing with a B2C company at this scale, it gets to be important not just to learn to listen, but learn to seek information in the right order.

(If you were at my SupConf talk, some of this is going to be very familiar!)

I like to talk to people – it’s part of who I am. I am an unapologetic talk-to-think-er. My most successful side hustle was a thinly-veiled attempt to get incredibly smart and incredibly busy cutting-edge farmers to talk to me. It worked! I interviewed them (and other members of their industry) for over a year. I think the art of the interview is a subtle one, and I’m the sort of person who literally reads books about different types of interviews.

(I also read books about the history of tool boxes – what can I say, they’re fascinating!)

Customer interviews can be so valuable. Done well, they’re a source of incredible insights. I’m not blowing smoke here – I’ve interviewed customers in person, I’ve interviewed customers using an eye tracker. I’ve interviewed customers while screen-sharing a mobile app. I’ve interviewed them after they stopped being customers. I am an advocate.

All that being said, an interview is an incredibly high fidelity, highly focused form of inquiry. It should absolutely not be the first line of research for any software company with more than 100 customers. Here’s why:

1.) You won’t be sufficiently prepared for the interview.

2.) You won’t know which customers you should interview.

3.) You’ll waste time asking questions you already have answers to.

If you have the time and the organizational buy-in to pursue customer interviews, you have the time and buy-in to do them right. A customer interview should be the final step of a longer chain of research, going from low fidelity to high fidelity research.

When I say low fidelity and high fidelity, I mean a hierarchy, a sliding scale that confers huge amounts of fuzzy information at one end (like Google Analytics) and a small amount of sharply focused information at the other end (like a series of customer interviews.).

Going through a longer series of research is going to provide you a greater depth of understanding of your customers, and it’s going to make the interviews ten times more valuable. 

Imagine, you have the green light to do a dozen customer interviews. You jump right in, choosing a dozen customers who have been active in the last week, and get them scheduled.

After the first two or three, have a sense of a few themes, so you pursue those themes with the next few interviews. Things aren’t quite lining up, so you take a broader, zoomed-out view for the final bunch. By the time you’ve buttoned them up and summarized your notes, its likely you have some nice pull quotes and a broad recommendation or two.

That’s great! It’s definitely better than you would have had without doing interviews of any kind.

Now, let’s imagine that you have the green light to do a dozen customer interviews. You know your company’s #1 focus for the final quarter of the year is reducing churn. Your first step is a low fidelity resource – you log onto your company’s internal sales (or maybe success!) dashboard, and take a broad dip into the churn situation.

Your existing folks have identified two verticals that are in special danger of churn, small business owners and individual consultants. You conduct an in-app survey targeting just the existing customers in those verticals, using Qualaroo or Hotjar or whatever is popular for in-app surveys when you’re reading this. This is getting to be more high fidelity.

While the survey is running, you take a second look at the broad behavior of these two verticals, noting that the majority of the churn occurs right around one month before a subscription would usually renew. You let the survey run for a week and take a day to deep dive into the results.

Now, you’re in an immensely better place to start conducting interviews. Rather than asking customers semi-randomly, you can target exactly the folks you want to learn about, customers in those two verticals who are one month plus a week or two from their renewal date.

Since you have performed the survey, you already have an idea as to what the problem might be, and you have a baseline understanding of what these folks struggle with, so it won’t be a cold start – you’re already prepared to provide empathy.

Once you’ve conducted the interviews, you’ll also be armed with all of your earlier research, which will help to frame your findings, and provide concrete background for your recommendations.

In learning about your customers, take the time to start zoomed out, and work your way in. Going from low fidelity to high fidelity gives you a huge advantage – use it!



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