The Art Of The Customer Interview

Some great advice on getting to the core of the customers’ problems from Raomal Perera of LeanDisruptor.

Customer interviewing is undoubtedly a skill, and there are many benefits derived from good questioning and framing techniques. Yet, so many of us find it difficult to ask the right questions when it comes to customer interviews, and to gathering meaningful insights.

Question the questioning, question the questions and question the answers.
Anette Sandberg

It is important to remember that customer development is about understanding the customers’ problems and needs. One of the biggest challenges when it comes to customer interviews is actively listening to the interviewee. It is not an opportunity to pitch your solution, or refer back to your innovation. It is an opportunity to ask open questions, and allow the customer to do the talking. You should account for only 10% of the conversation in an interview.

So what is the difference between an open and a closed question? In short, a closed question is one which can be answered with a simple one word answer, such as the dreaded ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. An example would be “Do you like this product?” There is little scope for an interviewee to say little more than ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to such a question, and it can often feel like the Spanish Inquisition when such an approach is employed.

Knowledge is having the right answer. Intelligence is asking the right questions

Open questions encourage dialogue and necessitate longer answers. They prompt the customer to think, reflect and give opinions. ‘What’, ‘how’ and ‘describe’ questions are often the most valuable ones to have in our arsenal, as they help us to probe without being intrusive, and to understand the problem from the customer’s perspective. For example, “What are the primary challenges and difficulties that you face?”, and “Describe the first time you became aware of this problem”.


Questions which involve ‘telling’ the customer, such as, “Have you tried…?”, should be avoided at all costs– they are not looking for a solution at this point, and this question is unlikely to yield meaningful insights for you. An alternative might be, “What have you tried to solve this problem?”, and this should bring about some insight into their current solution.

If you do not know how to ask the right questions, you discover nothingW. Edward Deming

Around 5 questions is sufficient for an interview of 30-40 minutes duration. It is imperative that you understand the purpose of the interview before you start i.e. is it a problem assessing interview or a solution interview? This depends on what stage of product development that you are at.

Finally, to conclude, here are a few tips on the art of customer interviewing:

  • Reframe your questions. If a question is a little on the closed side, simply reframe it in such a way that it becomes an open question. Rather than asking “How do you find our service”, try “Can you think of an example of when our service exceeded your expectations?”
  • Make questions specific. General questions often lack context and are met with a pat answer of “it’s fine” or “I don’t know”. Specificity encourages engagement and usually causes more detailed and thought-out responses, which in turn leads to insight
  • Information and Knowledge will develop into insights. Information is just many bits of data. Knowledge is putting all the data together. Wisdom is transcending this information and knowledge to gain insights – the ‘aha’ moments
  • Find patterns, as this will bring some of your assumptions closer to facts. Use an affinity diagram to help you organise your findings and focus on the larger opportunity
  • Use discussion forums (an Internet forum, or message board). Here you will find people holding conversations in the form of posted messages
  • Clayton Christensen’s article on Milkshake Marketing talks about the importance of observation. The jobs-to-be-done point of view causes you to get into the skin of your customer and go with her as she goes about her day, observing her and always asking the question as she does something: why did she do it that way?”

Raomal has a useful resource on the art of customer interviewing, and the skill of asking and framing questions here.

Raomal Perera is a veteran of multiple entrepreneurial ventures and an adjunct professor of entrepreneurship at INSEAD where he currently teaches and studies entrepreneurship, innovation and the management of rapidly growing companies.

He is a regular contributor to the IGNITE Graduate Business Innovation Programme at University College Cork.

Find out lots more about Raomal at www.leandisruptor.com.

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