I’m not gonna pumpkin-spice coat it: interviewing customers is hard.

Prompting vulnerable sharing from complete strangers is not something most people consider fun…

Which is why I’ve heard just about every excuse for not interviewing customers:

I don’t have any customers.

I don’t want to bother my customers.

No one has any time to talk to us.

Customer interviews don’t give quantitative data.

We don’t even get any good qualitative data from interviews. Just a bunch of whining.

And my personal favorite: I know what my customers need.

There are hurdles. There’s that discomfort. There’s technical set up.

But if you get past that, there are big rewards waiting for you. 

Because when Alex Turnball of GrooveHQ impromptu interviewed over 500 customers, he discovered so much. He also doubled his conversions. #nobiggie

And he’s far from the only one to get results like these. 

When you talk to your best (and worst) customers, you can optimize all of this:

  • Your product >> Customer feedback helps you fix your flaws or develop new angles
  • Your audience >> You’ll develop new personas or refine existing personas based on use cases
  • Your relationships >> If you do a good job, you can actually build more brand loyalty (people love talking about themselves. And if you give them the chance, well…<3)
  • Your social proof >> You’ll get authentic testimonials, stories, even case studies… But best of all, you’ll optimize your messaging. And that means you can optimize everything.

Want a conversion lift? You need to get to the root of the customer experience

If you’ve learned anything from Talia, it’s probably this: your customer is not a data point. Your customer is a living, breathing person.

And that means demographic data, like age or income level, just can’t stack up against more holistic data like motivations, triggers or emotional state.

Once you’ve identified the emotional drivers of your customers, you can apply them to your copy, design, and messaging to drive up conversions.

A platform for creating birthday invitations was doing everything they could think of to boost conversions. Button colors, button copy, button placement…all the “best practices.”

Nothing was working. So they engaged GetUplift.

Talia did her emotional targeting research and understood their problem: their messaging was all off. It wasn’t appealing enough or relatable enough for their target audience: parents.

With that piece of information, the team created a new landing page using the words of their true customers– and bam – saw a 42% uplift in revenue.

You can tweak the copy. You can tweak the design. But if you’re not communicating how you can solve the customer’s needs, conversions will stay stagnant.

Often the most effective way to discover what makes your people buy from you is – of course – customer interviews. 

But how can you run interviews that help your conversion goals? And how can you separate the golden nuggets from the other stuff? It all starts with a single step.

What’s your goal?  

Before you invite a single customer for a chat, you need to set a goal for your interviews. By setting your goal first, you can match your interview questions to fit your goal, choose the best customer segments and collect better data. 

This way, if you’re on budget, you can cut a customer group type and still accomplish your goal. And if you’re not getting good answers, you can ask different questions and still uncover the answers you need.

Point is, if you’ve got your destination set, you can get there via the best possible route.

Talia has a great goal setting system that includes a doc called the The Four Helpful Lists – and it’s a fabulous doc for trouble-shooting any issue.

The Four Helpful Lists is like a SWOT analysis on steroids, even though it’s just four questions:

  1. What’s right?
  2. What’s wrong?
  3. What’s missing?
  4. What’s confusing?

Sit down with your team and answer these questions. Allow yourself to free-think, brainstorm, and address every possible problem.

Pro tip: Don’t stress if you can’t fill out “what’s missing.” Once you fill out the other columns, you’ll uncover hypotheses that can get you there.

Here’s what your sheet may end up looking like:

What’s right?What’s wrong?What’s missing?What’s confusing?
- Last month’s trial ads resulted in 716 new accounts

- Customer service ratings are 83% positive

- Customer lifetime is 3 years longer than industry average
- Only 4% of trial users are upgrading

- Trial users are only active in the software for an average of 3 days

- Trial users aren’t reaching out for help
- A lower priced tier
onboarding sequence to clarify why trial users should upgrade

- Available support during trial
- Why are trial users not upgrading?

- What solution are they finding to replace us?

These insights can help kick off your customer interview process because, based on the questions that came up, you’ll be able to identify:

  • Who you need to talk to
  • The core question you’re trying to answer
  • The umbrella goal you’re trying to accomplish

Here’s what that’d look like using the previous example:

Umbrella goal: Fix the trial/upgrade funnel  

Customer group 1: Happy customers Customer group 2: Trial sign ups
You’ve got great customer service and lifetime. You’re doing something right – once the customer signs up. Something is broken in the trial > upgrade funnel. There are too many questions here, too many angles. You need to get the current perspective before you can fix it.
Core question 1: Why did they sign up?

Core question 2: Why are they sticking around?
Core question 3: Why are they not signing up?

Start off on the right foot: talk to the right people

Even once you have your persona groups to interview, you still have a wide pool to choose from. Which happy customers should you talk to? Which trial users?

Some of these decisions will be dictated by your Four Helpful Lists. If most users are only using the software for 3 days, you’ll want to talk to 3-day users and find out why.

But which 3-day users should you talk to?

The most effective way to find your perfect interviewees (and also Talia’s favorite!) is sending out a customer survey. 

A survey gives you an immediate sense of who will be helpful (and who won’t).

One word answers? Skip that guy. Interesting use case: Sign her up.

Surveys are awesome because they give you so much more than great interview candidates. You’ll also get initial answers which can help you form a hypothesis to base your interviews around. And you’ll get qualitative data. And you may even be able to knock some questions off your interview question list.

It’s a no brainer way to start your interviews.

Setting up your interviews

Time to get into the fun part: running the interview!

#1: Start with the basics

Where are you hosting your calls?

Phone calls are easier – for you and the customer – but I recommend using a .

Seeing your customer’s body language is invaluable. A lot of the digging you’ll need to do will be cued by non-verbal language.

You’ll also need to record the calls for two reasons:

  1. Your customers’ exact language is priceless. Speaking in the words your customers use is a copywriting must. Getting a transcript of the recording will give you the word-for-word, without the stress of anxiously scribbling down the exact phrases during the interview.   
  2. You need to focus and drive the conversation. Taking notes is distracting – to you and the interviewee – and recording frees you from that obligation. When you only take margin notes – notes for immediate prompts, not notes that you’ll use for future reference – you stay present and available.

#2: Send out the call

To get people to show up, your interview invite needs to be:

  1. Compelling
  2. Clear
  3. A no-brainer

Let’s take a quick look at how you can make that happen.

Step 1: Crafting an invite they can’t wait to answer

You’re asking for a favor so give recipients an incentive to help you. 

You don’t need to bribe them. You definitely can, but you don’t have to. If you appeal to a motivation or emotion, you may be able to forego the monetary incentive.

This is really easy to do if you’re building something new. Just appeal to the human interest of developing new things, of contributing, of networking or of making their lives easier with a cool new product.

Here’s an excerpt from an email I got from Avraham Byers of avrahambyers.com

“Coaching with Seth and his team has inspired me to start a brand new project (it’s still a secret and under wraps.) 

Here’s where you come in…

I need you to help me develop my idea further. I’m looking for a few people to jump on a 15-minute Zoom call (like Skype) with me to do some brainstorming.”

This worked really well because it appealed to my desire to help and made me feel valuable and important.

Here’s another example of making it about the customer’s needs done really well. This one is from Forget the Funnel:

“PRE-S: We’re in early talks about building a private network for Forget The Funnel members. But right now, we’re stuck in our own heads about the whole thing. To figure out how to do this right, we need to hear from “you.”

Could we meet with you for a short call, so we can get to know you better? It’d be 30-minutes, max. If you’re intrigued, name a time that works for you here, and we’ll meet you then. Thanks!”

It is harder to motivate others if the cause is just you refining your own messaging to get more customers. But it’s not impossible – especially if you have a loyal customer base that wants to help you spread the word. You just need to show them how that update will help them. 

And if that’s just not working for you, there are always tangible incentives to throw around.

Step 2: Being clear about your intentions

The last thing you want from a customer is for them to drive the interview. And if you’re unclear, she’ll think you just want feedback. And then she’ll fill the time with all her thoughts, opinions, speculations and suggestions. Which is good stuff (sometimes), but may not answer that core question that will help you solve your goal.

So make sure you clearly outline expectations and outcomes for the call at the start.

Step 3: Make jumping on a call with you a no-brainer

Make it absurdly easy for your potential interviewee to say yes.

Using motivation and maintaining clarity will help get the emotional yes, but you also need to get the technical yes. Use a scheduling software so your customer can pick their preferred time in a couple of clicks.

You should also manage expectations with information like:

  • How long the call will be
  • Who will be on it
  • What types of questions you’ll ask

Don’t forget to send follow-up reminders that are also clear, compelling, and enticing to answer. Don’t underestimate the need to sell yourself again. People are busy and may have even forgotten what they agreed to talk to you about.

Finally, while you’re writing up email templates, write up a thank you email and schedule it to send post-call.

#3: Write the questions you’d like to ask

Working off your Four Helpful Lists, write up a series of questions you want to ask your interviewees. Every question should support your overarching goal. 

Remember: interviews are never black and white, and it’s a rare (and usually poor) interview that hits all your questions.

Use your goal to guide the interview. Keep the call focused, but expect to veer from your script, especially if an interesting use case or story comes up.

How to get the golden nuggets

You’ve sent the interview invites. You’ve got a list lined up and your questions are ready. But what can you do to ensure you get the best possible responses?

#1: Establish rapport

There are a million and one sales tricks for establishing rapport. And you should try them… Well, at least the great ones: 

Give genuine compliments, mirror your interviewees, smile more. All these are a great start. 

But there’s an even more effective way to establish rapport – and it’s directly aligned with your interview goals:

Be authentic.

In America, trust is declining. But if you show authenticity, you can establish rapport even with skeptics.

“Be authentic” is kinda fuzzy so here are three specific things you can do to ooze authenticity:  

1. Be curious

Curiosity is the driving force behind discovery, says Carol Gilligan, research psychologist and author of In a Different Voice.

Gilliban found that her initially resistant research subjects began to collaborate and trust her once they felt her authentic curiosity.

Curiosity doesn’t just help you discover more. It also connects you to the person you’re curious about. In The Tipping PointMalcolm Gladwell identifies trendsetters and change agents as ‘Connectors’, and theorizes that they’re so connected – and thus influential – because they’re insatiably curious:

” Connectors…ability to span many different worlds is a function of something intrinsic to their personality, some combination of curiosity, self-confidence, sociability, energy.”

So let your natural interest in your customer’s experience come through and you’ll be well on your way to getting business-changing answers.

2. Validate your customer’s emotions and experiences

Empathic listening is especially important if you’re digging into the customer’s pain. If the customer is getting vulnerable with you, validating that emotional experience encourages more sharing. That’s an instant rapport creator.

Bonus points: Backing up your validation with brief personal experiences makes the validation more authentic.

Validation also helps you uncover more authentic truths. When you agree with someone, you encourage vulnerability. This can help bring down the walls we all build around ourselves and encourage your interviewee to reassess what he just said and give you a more raw answer.

David Burns presents a method for diffusing critical attacks in Feeling Good:

…if I respond with empathy and disarm your hostility, more often than not, you will feel I am listening to you and respecting you. As a result, you lose your ardor to do battle and quiet down. This paves the way for…feedback and negotiation.

If empathy works in disarming the angry, critical people in our lives, it sure works in opening up composed but recalcitrant interviewers.  

3. Listen. Really listen.

One of the tools our brain uses to process conversation is anticipation. In plainspeak: we don’t actually listen to what people will say, we predict what they’ll say before they say it. And it usually works out well for us.

But in an interview, we’re digging for new material. We want to be completely open to the customer experience. We need to let go of our assumptions and actually listen to what the customer is saying, as she’s saying it.

That means listening with an open mind, but it also means not jumping into the conversation often. Allowing a silence will typically uncover more than you’d learn if you ask another question immediately.

In the Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay, says this of allowing silence:

Silence is often a measure of success… it means he’s thinking, searching for the answer. He’s creating new neural pathways , and in doing so literally increasing his potential and capacity. Bite your tongue, and don’t fill the silence. I know it will be uncomfortable, and I know it creates space for learning and insight.”

#2: Tap into the subconscious

Know anyone that loves making decisions? I don’t either.

We’re faced with infinite choices every day, and because of this, we routinely choose instinctively – or with what David Kahneman calls our System 1 – with emotion coloring our decision. The trouble with this though, is that even when we do need to take time to manually decide – and activate our more rational System 2 – we don’t.

Kahneman tells a story of the chief investment officer of a large financial firm who invested tens of millions in Ford Motor stock because he’d seen their cars at an auto show and liked them.

But you wouldn’t buy stock based on your gut, right!? You’d be surprised…

The question that executive faced (should I invest in Ford stock?) was difficult, but the answer to an easier and related question (do I like Ford cars?) came readily to his mind and determined his choice…when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.

“Boy do they make good cars!” was the executive’s reasoning for choosing to add the stock to his portfolio. Instead of relying on the stock’s price – and whether it was under or over valued- or on market projections, he ultimately chose it because he liked the cars. 

Notice how he rationalized his irrational decision? The executive actually noticed he made an emotional decision, but he still swept it under the rug. We all do that too – we assign fabricated logical sounding reasons to our emotional decisions.

The takeaway from all this neuroscience: Don’t ask your customer why. Why he chose X. Why he didn’t choose Y. Why he did or didn’t take action Z.

You need those answers, but you won’t get them with direct questioning.

Steer away from speculative questioning and instead prompt the customer to re-live the experience.

Police investigators use a method called context reinstatement which mentally moves the interviewee back into the scenario she’s trying to describe.

Jobs to Be Done – the interviewing framework that’s proven effective for both product development and messaging interviews – uses a line of questioning that simulates context reinstatement:

  • Were you sitting or standing?
  • What was the weather like?
  • Who was with you?

Once the interviewee is “back” in the decision making moment, she’s more able to answer questions on her emotional state or purchase rationale.

Even “within” that moment, still keep away from speculation and turn why questions into what questions.

“Why…does two things very quickly, immediately in fact; two things you want to avoid: 1) it sends people straight to the word ‘because’ which is justifying their actions or decisions; and 2) it closes down information-gathering in the request for ‘the reason’.” – Kay White

This is where the running joke of “how does that make you feel” from therapists comes into play.


Therapists studiously avoid “why” in favor of more explorative questions that uncover the driving emotion. Take a leaf from their book and instead of speculative questions like:

  • Why did you buy X?
  • Were you concerned about price when you choose tier Y?
  • Why didn’t you do action Z after you signed up?

Ask “what” questions like:

  • What was the business impact of purchasing X?
  • What were the factors involved in choosing tier Y?
  • What were you hoping to achieve with action Z?

As for follow up and clarification, Jeff Pruitt suggests looking for verbal and nonverbal cues for direction:

“To turn an introductory question into a meaningful conversation, pay attention to moments when the person you’re talking to shows a verbal or nonverbal spark. This is a sign they’ve hit on something important to them, so you’ll know where to take the next open-ended question. Of course, that requires listening with intent and empathy rather than following a preconceived script.”

Treat your interview like a conversation, and let curiosity – driven by your umbrella goal – drive the interview.  

SOS: What to do when things don’t go as planned 

In an ideal world, every interview will go smoothly and give you the insights you crave. Sadly, that’s not always the case…

So let’s take a quick look at some potential roadblocks and what you can do to overcome them.

#1. What if my interviewees don’t want to be recorded?

Claire Suellentrop of Forget the Funnel and Love Your Customers, offers a creative option to ease resistant interviewees. She tells them this: 

“This is not going anywhere. This is not going out to the public. Your name will not be associated with this, this is purely for me to take notes. I will email you and let you know as soon as I’ve deleted this recording.”

She says that letting the interviewee know that she would delete the recording – and notify them of its deletion – is like “magic words” that help customers go ahead with recording. 

#2. What if I have multiple no-shows? 

People are busy and customers are doing you a favor by showing up – canceling is easy for them. That said, if you’re getting a lot of cancellations, there may be something broken in your process. If that happens, review the following:

  • When are you sending reminder emails? Do you need more? Should you send them earlier or later?
  • Does your reminder email make it easy for them to access the call?
  • Are you offering an incentive? Don’t underestimate the power of bribery. 

#3. This customer won’t talk! All I’m getting are one word answers

Some people just can’t or don’t want to get vulnerable.

If that happens to you, tell your interviewee you’ve gathered what you need, thank her for her time and end the call. There’s no point in wasting anyone’s time but remember that everyone has bad days so show graciousness. That means following up with the incentive (if promised) and thank you email. 

#4. The customer just wants to give feedback

If this happens often, you might want to refine your process. Is your request email not clear enough on the interview goal? Did you clarify at the beginning of the call what you’re trying to accomplish? 

When a customer just wants to vent, Suellentrop has an effective way of dealing with “feedback-focused” interviewees: tell him you’ll connect him to support after the call! Run the interview as normal, then in your follow up, tell support to get in touch with him. 

Organize all your fabulous data so you can identify themes

After the interviews are done, it’s time to bring it all together:

Grab this data collection worksheet and follow these steps:

Step 1: Organize the information you gleaned from each customer

1. After each call, note down your immediate impressions. Use these questions to guide your thoughts:

  1. What’s top of mind? 
  2. What’s in sync with what you expected?
  3. What’s different and surprising? 
  4. What was similar to other interviewees’ experiences? 
  5. What was different?

2. Add in any action items you need to take care of – like follow ups or case studies.

3. Once you have your recording transcripts (send for those as soon as you finish the interview), copy the customers words and note these more technical bytes of information like:

If driving for decision making outcomes:

  • How they found you
  • What objections they had to overcome
  • What their hope was when signing up

If driving for upgrade outcomes:

  • The primary features they use
  • Where they switched from
  • What their budget for your solution is

If driving for product development outcomes:

  • What pain are they experiencing
  • The #1 feature they need to solve their problem
  • What solutions have they tried

4. Also using the customers’ language, note any:

  • Interesting use cases
  • Messaging themes
  • Instances of heightened emotion

5. Double check that you included all action items – now that you have the full transcript to pull from.

6. Finally, add some tags to the top of the sheet so you can sort easily when developing outcomes.

Step 2: Answer your core questions

Once you have all the customer information organized, type your core questions in a new tab. Plug in any unexpected data in a Misc. column as well.

Step 3: Summarize your findings

Open a new tab and summarize all repeated or primary themes you copied into other parts of the sheet.

Time to take action: turn those themes into outcomes

I can’t tell you which outcomes to focus on. I wish I could. But you need to look to the data for that.

Angela Cho and Alfredo Gutierrez of Function Labs delivered a funnel strategy based on findings from customer interview and survey data, and the client said “it was the first time every single person in the room agreed on something.”

After the meeting, 10 people from different departments agreed to increase the product’s price, narrow down their target users to two, and invest in even more research.

Because customer interviews end the opinion war.

“It’s the best gift to give to a client: clarity and alignment amongst themselves. Because most of the time, ideas aren’t holding them back—it’s getting everyone to see the same thing at once. Skilled interviewers and the right questions clear up noise and narrow down ideas to ones based on actual data. No more arguments!” Angela said.

“It stops being about your theories, or what the product designer or their boss wants based on separate information. Great interview data aligns even the most stubborn teams on one sound strategy focused around a real customer, which speeds everything up.”

So how do you decide on actions to take? Review your summaries and tags and watch for direction. Follow the data to work on things like:

Set deadlines for all outcomes you need to act on – including the action items you included in each customer tab.

  • Schedule in those case studies
  • Add new features to your roadmap
  • Engage a copywriter (I know a good one!) to write a customer re-engagement sequence
  • Engage a UX designer to restructure your site

Make sure that you use the insights you discover. And when you do, send your customer with a personal thank you. They deserve it.

You can down a shot for your hard work too.

P.S. [A note from Talia!]

Nikki joined me for one of our weekly optimization workshops and walked us through her customer interview process. 

Here’s what you don’t want to miss:

  • Discover why not running customer interviews = throwing money down the drain
  • How to ask the right questions (and dig deeper)
  • Getting everything ready for a killer interview
  • Analyzing your interview data (See Nikki’s actual process!)

Wanna see Nikki’s awesome slide deck? Get it here.

About Nikki

Nikki Elbaz helps you get more products in more pockets with copy and strategy for sales pages and emails. All done with customer interviews (of course). Grab the worksheet she uses to organize her customer interview data here.

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