Customer Interviews for CX: How to Conduct Interviews & How They Can Make a Difference

by Jeannie Walters

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Customer experience leaders often talk with confidence about their Voice of the Customer (VoC) programs. They boast about how often they survey customers, collect feedback via fancy technologies, and produce reports with color-coded graphs.

Yet how often do we, as CX leaders, really just focus on listening to customers in authentic, low-tech ways? Customer interviews can be a key step in:

  • Customer Journey Mapping
  • Building Customer Personas
  • Diving deeper into an identified problem or customer challenge

Customer interviews can highlight issues in emotional ways. Customer quotes can be used to tell your customer’s story on a customer journey map or in a persona. Word clouds can help others in the organization connect with the real language customers use again and again!

I love talking to customers! Interviewing customers, former customers, and almost-customers is a great way to really listen to the people who actually traveled through the customer journey.

How Many Customer Interviews Are Enough?

When we conduct customer interviews on behalf of our clients at Experience Investigators, we don’t aim to have a statistically significant group but rather a few representatives to tell the customer’s story.

Conducting a large number of interviews can be a major strain or — for organizations with limited resources — altogether impossible.

In general, if you want a large volume of customer data, options like automated customer surveys at key touchpoints or open opportunities for customers to provide feedback tend to be better tools. Market research professionals can give you the exact science of how much data is statistically significant for your situation. (Shout out to Analytics & Insights Matter , our official partner for such research.)

Interviews are an opportunity to focus less on quantity and more on quality. They’re a chance to have a real conversation with someone who can add some color commentary to the data, complementing those surveys and metrics.

With that in mind, let’s revisit the initial question: How many interviews are enough?

The answer is… It depends. It depends on:

  • Your own team’s time & resources
  • Availability of customers
  • The nature of your business and products/services
  • …and more.

I recommend starting with a “handful” and going from there. (I warned you this isn’t scientific!)

I’ve found even a few interviews can be enlightening. If you hear the same thing from 4 or 5 customers, that’s enough to merit your attention.

Who to Include in Customer Interviews

Most companies have all sorts of customers. So who should you select to interview?

First things first, know why you’re interviewing customers. 

If You’re Developing Customer Journey Maps, consider:

  • What customer story are you trying to tell? Find customers who have close experiences to that story and interview them.
  • If you’ve identified the “highs” and “lows” of a customer journey, then look for customers who shared those experiences.
  • Validate the journey identified by interviewing the customers who the map is said to represent.

If You’re Building Customer Personas:

  • Interview a group of customers who share similar goals to start defining how to represent them in a persona
  • Interview specific customers who reflect the persona in-development to add personality and real quotes
  • Bring in a few customers who you believe are not represented by the persona, to help you build the “anti-persona”

If You’re Diving Deeper into an Identified Challenge:

  • Interview those customers who brought the challenge to your attention. They care enough to complain, so they are invested in the outcomes.
  • Interview customers who have similar journeys but DIDN’T run into those challenges.
  • Brainstorm solutions with customers who had those challenges and ask for their opinions!

Don’t shortchange your interview process by avoiding those customers labeled as difficult or irritating. The squeaky wheel loves to be heard! And at the same time, look for those quiet customers who may have a lot to say…if only they were asked!

How to Invite Customer Interview Participants

Now that you know who you’ll be interviewing, it’s time to invite them into the process!

Some leaders are intimidated by the idea of contacting customers who left the brand after an unresolved incident or those who are active customers. But guess what? Customers, even those who left, are often happy to be heard. There are certainly some former customers who don’t want to participate, but there are some customers who are waiting to hear from you!

It can be helpful to ask a third party to conduct the interviews themselves. Customers are often more likely to share their honest opinions with a third party who doesn’t have the emotional baggage of a long-term relationship or the likelihood to take anything personally. 

If you do conduct the interviews directly, I encourage you to invite someone the customer hasn’t interacted with before. The interviewer needs to be patient, encouraging and open to wherever the conversation goes!

Here’s a rough script to invite customers to participate in an interview:

Hi. I’m David from ACME, and we’re looking for honest feedback from customers about their experience with XYZ. I know you were a customer of ours from (DATE) and we’ve brought in a third party expert to help us listen to our customers and turn their feedback into a better experience.

It is quick and easy! As a thank you for participating, we’d like to (send you swag/offer you a gift card/invite you to a special event.)

Here’s a link to schedule your time: LINK

Make it easy to schedule a video or phone interview. 

How To Conduct Customer Interviews

The customers have been invited and scheduled their interviews… now it’s time to actually conduct them!

Interviews may be conducted by one person or several. You want the questions to be consistent from one interview to the next. That’s where a script can be helpful.

I often keep interviews to 30 minutes or less. That means there is time for about 4 questions with a little wiggle room. 

Here’s how that 30 minutes plays out:

5 Minutes: Introduction & Overview

This is an opportunity for a quick introduction and explanation of what’s to come. It’s also a perfect time to reassure your interviewee what’s said is never reported back with names, so they are more comfortable sharing honest feedback.

20 Minutes: Questions

The exact questions you ask may vary depending on who you’re interviewing and what your goals are, but if you’re looking for a place to start, I love asking these questions:

  • What did you like about (defined experience)?
  • What disappointed you?
  • What would you recommend to (brand) to improve the customer experience?
  • Did you shop (or leave for) a competitor? If so, can you share what you liked better or worse about that experience?

Those are the main four, but I always love to end with these two:

  • If you had a magic wand, what would you change about the experience?
  • Is there anything I didn’t ask about that you want to discuss?

5 Minutes: Closing and Thank You

Thank the customer for their time and communication with you. Let them know how you plan to follow up with them (if appropriate) and set any future expectations. 

This last part may not take a full 5 minutes, but that’s okay — everyone feels great when a meeting ends a little early, and your customers are no different!

More Tips for Customer Interviews

Develop Trust From the Start

Too often, customers being interviewed can feel obligated to tell us what we think they want to hear, or feel like they need to sugarcoat any criticism.

But the value of these interviews is directly correlated to how honest your interviewees are… and since you and your team are investing a lot of time and energy in making these interviews happen, getting honest answers is critical!

  • Make sure that interview answers are kept within a small circle of those directly involved in the interview process and made anonymous when shared beyond that circle.
  • Then, make sure that interviewees know this is the case. Do it early and often:
    • When sending out your initial invite
    • In the confirmation message/calendar invite that goes out after they schedule a time
    • At the start of your interview
  • Consider using a third party to interview customers, or at least make sure that nobody directly involved with the customer is conducting the interview

When we conduct interviews on behalf of clients, we find that interviewees are more forthcoming with us because we’re an independent third party who has vowed not to link their comments back to them.

No matter how you’re conducting interviews, make sure you’ve got trust. Once customers have enough trust in the conversation, they are apt to come up with some amazing ideas and insights!

And if you listen closely, you’ll hear exactly what challenges and goals they have.

Probing Questions are Key

As you go through each interview, keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions, like: 

  • Why did you feel that way?
  • What happened next?
  • How did that make you feel? 

Oftentimes, these follow-up questions can dig to the heart of your customer’s experience and reveal — good and bad — the root causes.

Keep It Consistent & Centralized

Customer interviews should be customized for the unique brand, industry and situation. But once the questions are designed, gather the feedback in one place to review the patterns and outcomes. 

Gathering feedback in one place could be a spreadsheet, or table. How did each interviewee answer? What trends show up?

Once all those answers are in one place, it’s easy to recognize patterns at a glance and uncover what needs to happen next. 

You can record the interviews, but be clear on how those recordings will be used. Clients love to see the recordings, but sometimes that leads to getting stuck on one comment or dismissing the customer. That’s why I like reporting back to the client with overall trends, observations, and next actions. 

Have Lots of Resources? Consider Observational Research

Some companies do this in conjunction with “follow me” research, in which Experience Designers or researchers literally go to where the customer is and observe how they use the actual product in their actual lives. This can also be done in virtual environments and user testing. This type of research is rich with understanding the product usage and can shed light on who customers are.

Many organizations simply don’t have the resources to do this on an ongoing basis. If you don’t have the resources to directly observe customers, then interviews can help bridge the timeline between these types of in-depth research programs.

 

What to Do After Conducting Customer Interviews

Finally, what do you do with this intelligence? You can report back on customer interviews by:

  • Creating word clouds to show emotional words and how often they came up in interviews. Seeing “FRUSTRATED” as the biggest word can make a big impact!
  • Develop a “quote deck” to complement your customer journey map. What do customers REALLY say at key points in the journey?
  • Create a “before and after” story about what customers say TODAY and what you want them to say in the future! How can an improved customer experience help you get there? What are the next actions?

Next actions after interview could include:

  • More research – what did you hear that requires a deeper dive?
  • Connecting with specific teams to share insights directly from customers.
  • Creating an action plan to address customer concerns.
  • More outreach to prospects, former customers, or customers at key points in their journey.
  • Cross-functional projects to address the overall customer journey.

And no matter what, it’s important to close the loop with the customers who participated in interviews.

  • Send a handwritten thank you note from an employee they’d recognize or a leader of the brand. 
  • When appropriate, send branded swag.
  • Send a gift card or donation to charity in their name to show your gratitude for their time.

Customer interviews are really just conversations with a purpose. The relationships you have with customers are built on moments, and interviews allow you to engage with them in a meaningful, personal way. 

Don’t be shy! Ask your customers to tell you what they really think.

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Jeannie Walters

Jeannie Walters is the CEO/Founder of Experience Investigators, a global Customer Experience consulting firm. She has 20 years of experience helping companies improve loyalty and retention, employee engagement, and overall customer experience. Jeannie is a Certified Customer Experience Professional (CCXP,) a charter member of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA,) a Professional Member of the National Speakers Association, LinkedIn Learning instructor, TEDx speaker, and President-Elect of the National Speakers Association Illinois chapter. Learn more here.

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