18 Tips and Tricks for Conducting Killer Customer Interviews

Here are 18 tips and tricks for conducting killer customer interviews.

If you want to share this Slideshare, feel free to use this prewritten tweet: “Learn how to build products people want with @LIFFFT’s 18 Customer Interview rules and techniques! http://www.slideshare.net/ZacharyCohn/18-customer-interview-tips

Now – get out there, apply these rules, and get interviewing!

When to Call Bullshit on Paul Graham?

“You should call it 360scope. And get rid of the little bug guy” was PG’s advice, explained reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian. “But reddit turned out to be a great name, and ‘the little bug guy’ has turned into one of the most iconic parts of the reddit community.

“Sometimes your investors know best. Sometimes they don’t. Even Paul Graham is wrong sometimes.”

Todd Bishop and Alexis Ohanian

Todd Bishop and Alexis Ohanian

Alexis is on a 175 stop tour for his new book, Without Their Permission. On Monday night he stopped by Seattle’s Town Hall to be interviewed by Geekwire’s Todd Bishop. Topics ranged from the silly – alternative names for reddit (Ooglyaboo) and his favorite Star Trek captain (Picard, no hesitation) – to the more serious topics of his book – entrepreneurship and politics.

There was a lot of great advice for entrepreneurs from his time running reddit, Hipmunk, and Breadpig, his interactions with Paul Graham and YCombinator, and his time as an investor and advisor to over 60 companies.

One of the most valuable themes Alexis touched on is calling bullshit on some advice – even when it’s from someone like Paul Graham. “You’re going to know your users better than an investor or an advisor. They don’t spend all day, every day, thinking about your customers – but you do.”

I’ve seen a lot of interactions between early stage startups and mentors. Whether it’s at a Startup Weekend I’m facilitating or with a TechStars team I’m talking to, mentor whiplash can be a huge problem. One mentor tells you to focus on revenue, then an advisor tells you to focus on press, then an investor tells you to focus on number of users. All their advice seems good, but you only have the bandwidth to do one. Who’s right?

Sometimes, the answer is none of them. People will say things like “I think users will be turned off by the cute bug mascot” or “360scope would make sense because the scope of your news is everything, like every direction in a circle, and there are 360 degrees in a circle.”

The key words there are “I think that…” and “this would make sense…”

If you want to know how to effectively call bullshit on advice, cite your customers to back up why you think your advisor is wrong.

“Well, I showed 37 people the reddit alien, and the universal reaction was ‘awwwwww I love it!’”

“We interviewed 53 attendees at the conference this weekend, and the biggest complaint 50 of them had was not being able to find a place to stay. 43 of them even ended up crashing with strangers they met at the conference.” (Sounds like something the founders of Airbnb could have said to an advisor who challenged the premise of the company.)

Investors are an invaluable resource for insights and advice, but it’s critical to remember that you live and breathe your customers. If an advisor ever tries to predict what your customers will do based on gut instinct… get out there, interview some, and then maybe you can say “Bullshit. We have stories from a ton of people indicating otherwise.” Stories and proof trump gut instinct.

Even if that advisor is Alexis Ohanian.

Without Their Permission is available now, and check out Alexis’s tour dates to see if he’s coming to a city or University near you. It was a fantastic event, he is a great speaker, and it’s worth going out of your way to attend.

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How Shotguns and Politics Prepared me for Startups.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” I asked. We’d spent the day coaching recent college graduates on customer interviews and were finally sending them out on their own. They were nervous, as most people are when confronted with the task of talking to strangers.

“Wind up with a gun in your face,” one of them responded, joking.

In June of 2012 I was talking to strangers in Seattle. I’d found myself in a rare part of the city where the sidewalks ends. Each house had a lawn to play on and trees to hide in, the forest having crept up from Puget Sound, eerily engulfing this little neighborhood in a shade unusual for the Seattle summer. I was doorbelling, walking door-to-door talking to voters about a political candidate. Despite having talked to thousands of strangers before, I was scared.

I approached a slate blue house with white trim. It had a small side porch accessible by a disorderly gravel path that looked as if it’d been strewn together. I hastened my step as I marched toward the door, excited and scared and determined to win these strangers over.

I knocked once. Nothing. I knocked again. Nothing. Finally, I tried the bell, in case the owners were downstairs or out back and couldn’t hear me knocking.

I heard stomping, huffing, and a deadbolt shift. My heart hastened, beating quickly, nervously.

The door creaked open. I smiled, ready to launch into my pitch.

I was staring down the barrel of a shotgun.

The weathered face behind the gun screamed at me, louder and louder, demanding why I was on her doorstep, why I hadn’t responded to her earlier asks of who was there and what they wanted. She screamed and screamed as I stood there motionless, sweating, awed and silenced by the angry women holding a gun at me.

Finally I spoke. Apologizing, profusely. Eyes at the ground. I was so sorry I’d bothered. I hadn’t heard her ask who was there and what they wanted. I was so, so sorry.

I had tears in my eyes and was shaking, shaken by the very first gun in my face.

I hated my life. I hated my life so much right now all I could think about was crying and quitting my job and never ringing a doorbell ever again. I hated strangers. I hated talking. I hated politics and I hated selling candidates to people on their doorstep. I wanted to go home.

Eyes down, I quickly sputtered out an explanation. I was working for a candidate I thought she might be interested in. He was a Democrat, just like her. We were spending the afternoon talking to voters about the upcoming primary.

As I spoke, explaining what I was doing on her doorstep, the weathered face softened and the shotgun lowered, resting nose-down on the floor.

The women, a frequent-voter, a democrat, confessed she was a marine biologist who rarely found a candidate worthy of a vote. None of them ever seemed to give a “rats ass” about the environment. She was an avid bird-watcher who loved spending afternoons in Carkeek Park. Blue Herons were her favorite, and their recent troubles in the park had left her disgruntled with our notoriously “environmentally-friendly” city.

Timidly, I launched into a more calculated version of my candidate’s environmental feats.

She smiled.

We continued talking for 20 minutes. At the end she asked for a yard sign and where she could find out more. She was excited to see him speak at some of the upcoming events in the community.

“Someone will pull a gun on you,” I told the teams as they filed out of the building.  They laughed and exhaled, amused by my seeming sarcasm. I laughed too, because I knew it to be true.

Talking to customers always starts off a little scary. Sometimes people yell at you, sometimes they reject you, sometimes they ignore you. At some point, you may even end up staring down the barrel of a gun. Whatever happens, hold steady. You can turn it around. Remember, you are not selling anything, you are here to learn. Tell them what you’re doing and why, then shut up and listen.

Whiteboard Wednesday: When to Stop Conducting Customer Interviews

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Do you ever worry that your product won’t succeed?

Talking to your customers is great, but you’ve got to ship something eventually. Right?

After months of customer interviews, you might wonder if you’re ready roll up your sleeves and start building.

Have you found the right solution to the right problem? Is it too soon to start development? What if you build the wrong product?

What if that next interview provides pivotal information?

We’ve all been there.

While you should never stop talking to your customers entirely, there are a few signs that you’re done with the “discovery” phase of customer interviews and it’s time to start building.

What are they? When should you stop conducting customer interviews? Kav answers these questions (and a few more) in this week’s Whiteboard Wednesday. Enjoy!

When to stop conducting customer interviews:

  1. Top 3 problem
  2. Same problems
  3. Be psychic
  4. Shut up and take my money

See you next Wednesday,

Lily and the LIFFFT Crew

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Whiteboard Wednesday: The Importance of Customer Interviews

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Don’t Buy Your Boss a Gym Membership for Christmas.

Ever totally missed the mark on a Christmas present for someone special?

Last year I bought my boss a gym membership.

…That went about as well as you’d think. The indignation that crept across her face as she opened my gift is now permanently burned into my memory.

My coworker bought her a cookbook. It turns out what she really wanted was to cook more healthily, not have her newest employee imply she needed to spend more time on a treadmill.

You really don’t want dissatisfy your customers like I did my boss.

So what’s the best way to win your boss’ approval? The best way to keep your customers happy? The best way to build the right product?

Have a conversation with them. Better yet, have a lot of the right conversations with them. Sit down with them for lunch and ask about their hobbies, like my coworker did when he learned about my boss’ culinary creations. Coming up with an acceptable solution to a problem you perceive is not enough, it doesn’t generate a product that people will need or want to use. You have to take the time to get to know their problem if you want to build the right solution.

In this week’s Whiteboard Wednesday video, Zac dives a little deeper into the importance of customer interviews, and the tricks to ensuring you make the most of them. Watch the video – in 8 minutes you’ll learn all the reasons why these customer interviews are so critical to the success of your product and business.

No offended boss, no disappointed customers.

Why are customer interviews so important?

  1. Validate assumptions
  2. Build the “rightest thing”
  3. Build customer empathy
  4. Understand pricing

See you next Wednesday,

Lily and the LIFFFT Crew

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What the Hell Am I Going to Do With 50 Clay Pots?

And why do I have 50 pots? Because sometimes that’s what it takes to get one perfect pot.

It’s important to remember that there’s a process in reaching perfection. Behind every great, be it a pot or nanobot, Babe’s perfect swing, or Hendrix’s greatest riffs, are the ghosts of iterations past. Even the most impressive tools started out slower, bulkier, and far less beautiful.

So what’s the process for getting to the perfect pot?

There are many answers to this question, but my favorite comes from a ceramics professor referenced in Fear and Art:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups.
All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.

His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on.

Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot -albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

When developing your product, it’s unlikely you’ll hit perfection your first, second, or third try. Be aware of this, and push forward. The more times you’re able to complete a prototype cycle, the more you’ll learn and the better off you’ll be.

Babe wasn’t crowned King of America’s favorite pastime by spending hours reading and no time practicing. Hendrix didn’t spend years studying technique before finally picking up a guitar. Don’t spend your time planning and plotting out perfection. Just build the damn pot. Measure your successes and failures. Learn from them. And build another pot.

So what the hell am I going to do with 50 clay pots?

End up with at least one kickass pot. That’s what.

Perfection comes with time, patience, and practice. Push out your 50 pots.

Whiteboard Wednesday: How To Approach Strangers for Interviews

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What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

Skydive. Start a company. Ask them out. Travel the world. Learn to paint.

But there’s a more interesting question. “Why are you afraid?”

Once you ask the “five whys” enough times, you often end up getting to the same core reason, over and over again.


If you want to do customer interviews (and you DO want to do customer interviews), you have to get over your fear of rejection and start approaching strangers.

Here’s the thing though. It turns out approaching people isn’t actually that hard.

In this week’s Whiteboard Wednesday video, Kav talks about how to approach people and build rapport and provides a few opening patterns that we have seen work almost 100% of the time.

This tactical advice will help you get comfortable approaching and interviewing people on the street, in the bookstore, at a bar… anywhere!

Approaching and Building Rapport:

1. “Because…”
2. “I only need a few moments”
3. Ask for advice.
4. Everyone loves telling stories.

What openers work for you? Email me (zachary@liffft.com) and let me know!

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Case Study: Customer Interview Questions

Have you ever gone out on a first date, had a really fantastic time, then ended the night by asking your date “So… do you love me?”

Yeah. Neither have I. Because that’s a terrible question.

As it turns out, your grade school teacher lied to you. There is such a thing as a bad question.

So when you’re doing customer development and talking to customers, how do you know if the questions you’re asking are the business equivalent of “Do you love me?”

A few days ago, an online education startup asked if we’d give them some feedback on their interview questions. After giving them feedback, they gave me permission to share the before and after’s with you.

Word of clarification: In the early stages of customer discovery and customer development, do not send out surveys to collect data. This company had someone doing the interview, but used the survey afterwards to input the information into a central place.

There are pros and cons to this system – the biggest con is that it’s difficult to record what you learn from follow up questions and stories they tell. Surveys, even if the interviewer is only filling it out afterward, encourage you to keep drilling through the survey and not dive deeper.

We’re going to list their original question, and then our comments and suggestions on that question. If you want to see more examples, you should watch our Whiteboard Wednesday video on Good and Bad Examples of Customer Interviews.

Bad Question #1: Age Ranges

Bad Question #1: Age Ranges

Why do you break out their age into radio buttons instead of a text field? In doing this, you lose a lot of resolution in your data. At 25, you’re freshly out of college, trying to figure out your career, and still trying to find your way in life. At 34, you’re over 10 years out of college, might be in the middle of a career, and might have a family and children. You’re in a very different place than at 25 than you are at 34. Careful about bracketing ages.

Bad Customer Interview Questions

Bad Question #2: Employment

There should be check boxes here. I might be employed and also a student. Or I might be a student, but also looking for a job. Or employed and looking for a job! Allow for this flexibility in responses.

Bad Customer Interview questions

Bad Questions #3: Do you need to learn new skills?

This is a borderline ice cream question. Almost no one would say “No, I have all the skills I will ever need.” So what’s the point in asking it?

This question also doesn’t necessitate an answer beyond “yes” or “no”. What do you learn from someone answering “yes” to this question? By rephrasing it to “What did you struggle with at work today?” or “What was the last thing you struggled with at work,” you learn about a particular problem and can dive deeper into what skills would help. Look for stories, not statements.

Bad Question #4: What do you need to learn?

Bad Question #4: What do you need to learn?

You’re asking about their future self, which means you’re likely to hear about their ideal self (instead of their actual self).

“Do you want to go to the gym and work out more?” “Of course!” Does anyone ever actually start going to to the gym more? Rarely. (Kudos to the three of you who do!) Remember, past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.

A better line of questioning might be “Tell me about a time in the last three months where you needed to do something you didn’t know how to do.” “How did you accomplish that task?” “What new skills are you learning right now?” “Why?”

By learning what they’re doing NOW and how they’re solving their problem now, you can learn about what skills they ACTUALLY need and want to learn.

Bad Question #5: Have you recently used any online learning tools?

Bad Question #5: Have you recently used any online learning tools?

This is the right idea, but you’re pushing online learning tools on them. You want to pull it out of them. If they mention online learning without being prompted, then dive into it.

If they DON’T mention online learning… then that’s very interesting. Did they ever consider it? Is there no online course for their desired skill? Did they have a bad experience with online learning in the past? You’re not going to get the same purity of data if you directly ask them “Have you used online learning before, yes/no?”

Bad Question #6: What is the quality of the current offerings?

Bad Question #6: What is the quality of the current offerings?

Instead try: “Tell me about the tools you’ve used in the last 3 months.” “How was the experience of using it?” Get stories from them. If the tools don’t meet their needs, dear god will they tell you about it.

Bad Question #7: Describe critical features that don't exist today

Bad Question #7: Describe critical features that don’t exist today

Be very careful asking customers what they want. They’ll typically send you chasing unicorns. “But what I REALLY want is a car that can hover and uses sadness as fuel and produces happiness as exhaust.”

These types of questions should be less suggestive/leading. Get them telling stories. Why do they want a car that can hover? They can never find parking outside their office? Interesting. If there are features that they need or would like, it’ll come up naturally in conversation. Don’t expect the customer to tell you what to build – just rely on them to learn more about the problem.

Also, remember that people often have no idea what they want or what actually works well for them. They may say that “the videos are the best part!” when really the video is just first to mind; really the newsletter is what keeps them coming back.

Bad Question #8: Are you willing to pay?

Bad Question #8: Are you willing to pay?

Ice cream question. “I have a lotion here that will solve all your problems. It will regrow your hair, make you three inches taller, and make you vomit Benjamin Franklins. Would you pay for it?”

Who would SAY no to a product that you tell them solves all their problems? Instead, look at what they ALREADY are paying for. Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. Have they ever spent any money on online learning? Self education books? Night school? THAT is a good indicator.

Bad Question #9: How much would you pay?

Bad Question #9: How much would you pay?

They’re going to lowball you. Also, they have no idea. Instead, infer what they’d pay based on what they’re already paying for. Or try to get them to put a dollar amount on the value it would add to their life (could they make an additional $5k/year with their new job? $20k/year? Now you have something to base your price off of.

So remember – there is such a thing as bad questions. Don’t ask someone on the first date if they love you, and be careful what questions you ask your customers.

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Whiteboard Wednesday: Good and Bad Examples of Customer Interviews

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Turns out, there is such a thing as a stupid question.

How many times have you sent out a survey with answers like “1-3 times a week, 4-7 times a week, 8+ times a week?”

Or what about used the question “Would you use a product that solves [insert your problem here]?”

Sorry to break it to you, but these are stupid questions.

But luckily, not all stupid questions have to be stupid forever! We can make them better, faster, stronger. Well… we can at least make them better.

So take 6 minutes and 57 seconds to watch Zac and Kav talk about bad customer interview questions (and why they’re bad) and what good versions look like.

Have you made any of these mistakes before? Did any of these techniques help you clean up your questions? Let us know in the comments below.

To download the accompanying handout for this video, check out https://www.liffft.com/documents/CustDev-Interviews.pdf

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Whiteboard Wednesday: Techniques for Getting Customer Stories

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If I had asked people what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse. -Henry Ford

What people don’t realize is that Henry Ford wouldn’t have stopped there. Next, he’d have asked “Why?”

When creating a new product, misunderstanding your customer and their needs can break your business – and the bank. Talking to your customers is the best way to ensure you’re hitting the mark, but how do you do this effectively?

Wanting faster horses is a statement about a problem — to understand the problem, you need the significance behind the statement. So how do you move beyond yes or no questions and shallow responses? How do you hear about your customers real problems?

Stories are best for this, but getting your customer to tell you them can be tricky.

Today, Kav covers a few best practices for drawing meaningful stories out of people.

The Rules:
1) “Tell me about the last time…”
2) “Yes, and…”
3) The 5 Why’s.
4) “Tell me more about that.”
5) “What do you mean by…”
6) How are you dealing with the problem now?
7) Silence is golden.

To download the accompanying handout for this video, check out https://www.liffft.com/documents/CustDev-Interviews.pdf

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