Recently we had a guest speaker come in to my marketing class to talk about qualitative research interviews. She had some great advice for interviewing customers and getting valuable information out of them. Here are some tips I learned for conducting customer interviews:
- Be Prepared, Yet Flexible. Always have a list of questions, but use them as a guide. Let the content of the interview go where the customer takes it.
- Show You Care. It should be obvious to your customer that you care about what he or she has to say. Pay attention! If you don't care, why bother?
- Don't Interrupt. Never interrupt your customer while they are telling you a story. Instead, make a note of what you wanted to ask about and ask it when the story is done.
- Pause. When the customer is done telling you a story, pause for slightly longer than you normally would, just to be sure they don't have anything else to add.
- Be Encouraging. Non-verbal communication (i.e. head-nods) and minor vocalizations (i.e. "Mmhmm") show that you are still paying attention and encourage the customer to keep talking. Also, don't be afraid to probe the customer for more information with short extending questions like "Can you offer additional details?" or "What happened next?"
- Don't Talk About Yourself. Customer interviews are NOT a two-way conversation - let the customer do the talking. You won't get accurate information by offering up your own insights and opinions.
I used to think that these techniques could only be used for market research at large companies who are developing new physical products, but after this particular class I started to think about how qualitative research applies to software development. Every one of these tips should be applied to our relationships with customers - especially in our initial meetings.
As developers, we often get ahead of ourselves and start planning out a product before we fully understand what our customers want. In my opinion, the first meeting with a customer should be exactly like a qualitative research interview. Allow the customer to talk at length about what they need and what kinds of problems they are trying to solve with the software. Show them you care about what they have to say and hold off on offering up your personal opinions. By structuring our initial meetings this way, we can get a clear, unbiased picture of the situation and create better solutions for our customers.