Improve Your Students’ Customer Interviews
If your students are struggling conducting high-quality interviews with customers, or you’re not sure how to get them started, this lesson plan is for you.
With this lesson plan, your students will learn exactly what to ask during a customer interview, and how to ask it.
When students first see they will be interviewing customers, they feel nervous, overwhelmed, and worried. Why?
- They’re nervous about talking to strangers.
- They don’t learn this technique somewhere else.
- They’ve never seen or heard sample interviews.
- It feels like too much work.
- They’re worried about looking and feeling stupid.
In this lesson plan, students will practice customer interviewing with their classmates to expose to interviewing techniques, and to deepen connections between them.
Specifically, in this lesson plan, students will learn:
- Basics of customer interviewing techniques
- What questions to ask during customer interviews
- How to create rapport with interviewees
- What it’s like to be interviewed
- Differences between interviewing and surveying customers
Print out at least one Interview Script Template, for each student. Generate a B2C script where the:
- Interview Type = B2C
- Role = student
- Problem = having too much work to do and too little time
- Context = during midterms
Use this exercise when students are preparing to start validating their first Business Model Canvas assumptions. They will validate these assumptions by interviewing Early Adopters – see the Finding your Early Adopters module in the Experiential Entrepreneurship Curriculum (ExEC) for explicit instructions to prepare students to interview their Early Adopters.
Let students know there are techniques that can help them interview customers in a way that helps them test their assumptions, but it takes some practice to get good at, and comfortable with, these techniques.
Let them know it’s normal to feel awkward or nervous interviewing at first, everyone does, but that after a while, it becomes as natural as having a conversation with a close friend.
Tell them they’re going to get their first chance to interview today, and they’re going to start off, by interviewing their teammate(s).
Tell students their one and only goal with customer interviewing is to understand the problems their customer is actively trying to solve.
Show students this intro video on interviewing customers to give them a broad sense of the objectives:
Step 2: Warm Up
Start out with a few warm-up, rapport-building questions. These are questions that make your students and their interviewees feel comfortable so that your students can get into a flow of conversation before diving into problems or difficulties.
Here are some examples:
- Ask about the weather – students might even do a quick web search to find out what it’s been like where they are: “How’ve you been faring with all the rain recently?”
- Comment on sports – again, a web search is helpful: “49ers are the team no one wants to play again this year.”
- Simply ask how their week has been.
Step 3: Understand the Role
B2B (business-to-business) Script: Your students want to understand the challenges their early adopters are facing, so they should focus on that person’s role, be it a student, or a hiring manager, etc. They want to focus on how that person defines their role, what success looks like for them, and, ultimately, the challenges they face in achieving that success.
By focusing on their role, as opposed to the entire company, you students have a much more sincere and open conversation.
With that in mind, your first question here is:
How would you describe your role as a __________?
This is a nice, easy first question to get the person starting to talk about the ins and outs of their job. Let the interviewee describe in their own words what it’s like to have her job.
It is really important that your students understand how this person views their roles and responsibilities. They will be referring to their words over and over during the rest of the conversation. This will also help them to create a mental framework of what their job is like.
As the interviewee responds, be sure to write down the words and jargon they use.
If it’s the first time your students have heard the word or something described in a specific way, they need to ask about it. Don’t be shy! This is their chance to hear the definition of a term directly from their customer – it’s also a chance for their customer to demonstrate their expertise (a good thing).
Going forward, the best way to build rapport is to…
Use their words to talk about their job and problems.
Using their words and phrasings will help your students build trust as they get into the more vulnerable part of the conversation around problems and difficulties.
Step 4: Define Success
Now that your students understand their potential early adopter’s job description, the next step is to understand how they define success. The question here is
What does success look like for you?
This question is meant to be aspirational. What are they looking to achieve? How does their performance get measured? What expectations does this person’s boss have of them? What expectations do their customers have? What expectations do they have of themselves?
The answer to this question will help guide your students’ conversation. At the end of the day, they will be helping your students solve their problems so, ultimately, they can achieve the success that they have just named for your students!
Their success is your students’ success.
Your students will be successful when they help their customer be successful – this question will help them figure out how to do that.
One tip is to circle here, saying something like, “If I understand you correctly, if we were to solve this problem, we can help you achieve [your success].”
Reflecting back their success will also help build rapport. It’s a way for your students to remind them that they are here to help them solve a problem and achieve their goals.
Step 5: Identify the Problem
Your students now dive into the problems their interviewee is facing.
For B2B interviewees, by asking about their customer’s role and goals, your students have created a sufficiently safe context to ask about their challenges:
What is the hardest part about achieving that success?
For B2C interviewees, this is your students’ starting point. Their customer doesn’t have a job description or larger company vision, so they can start with the personal challenges. After their initial warm up questions, ask:
What is the biggest challenge you are facing as a [customer role]?
Both: In this question, your students are listening for the challenges that are preventing the customer from achieving their success or living their life as they would like.
Again, students should listen for the words they use to describe their difficulties. Ask a lot of questions to clarify and fully understand what they are telling them.
The answer to this question will get to the heart of what their customer is looking for.
Below this question your students will notice there are 3 columns. That’s because parts of this script are designed to be repeated so they can discover all of the problems your customer is trying to solve. More on that below.
Empathize, empathize, empathize.
At this point in the script is a reminder that your students should be empathizing with their interviewee throughout the conversation. They don’t need to go into their own stories, but do acknowledge if they’ve experienced a similar difficulty or if they can understand where they are coming from.
Phrases such as the following can be helpful for students letting someone know they’re on their team.
- I’ve been there.
- That makes complete sense.
- I can see how that would be frustrating.
When empathizing, be genuine. If your students can’t put themselves in their shoes, ask for more information. They want to understand their customer as thoroughly as possible.
Many of us are used to putting forth a front of having “it all figured out”.
If someone is sharing their problems, they are taking a risk to be vulnerable.
This is especially true for B2B, where your students are asking someone to admit that they are having difficulties in their role with the company. Validating their experience will help them feel safe and comfortable so they will continue to open up.
Step 6: The Last Time
Your students now want to know whether their customer is actively “paying” to solve the problem they just mentioned. To do that, they should ask
When was the last time you tried to solve this problem?
This question is key.
The answer will tell your students if they are an Early Adopter or an Early Majority. They are looking for Early Adopters – customers who are already “paying” to solve the problem.
For B2B, listen for evidence they’ve “paid” to solve the problem within the last 12 months – the typical business budget cycle.
For B2C, listen for evidence they’ve “paid” to solve this problem within the last 6 months.
The answer is easy to interpret:
If they’ve “paid” to solve this problem recently, with a currency that will lead to your students’ victory, they’re an Early Adopter for a solution. If they haven’t, they’re not.
If they’re an Early Adopter, continue with the questions below. If they are not, start again from the previous question:
“What else is hard about achieving your success?” for B2B
“What else is challenging about [customer role]?” for B2C.
This is why there are multiple columns for notes under this question. Most of the time your students will have to go through the series of questions a few times before striking gold. Use the second and third columns of the script to dive into alternative problems.
Step 7: Specific Problem Scenario
Once your students know they have an Early Adopter, they can start to gather information specifically about their customer’s attempts at solutions. Ask:
Can you tell me about the last time that problem occurred?
Here, your students are looking for a more detailed description of the actual problem. They are hoping to get beyond generalizations or broad descriptions of their customer’s struggles, and dial down into a specific instance where they had this problem and tried to find a solution.
This strategy is important for both B2B and B2C.
Why is this important? In this response, your students are listening for more specific words, jargon and emotions that help to understand the problem. This will help them understand how their customers describe the heart of the issue.
Again, ask a lot of questions. There are no stupid questions – the more information your students can get, the better.
Take special note of the words they use, the jargon they use, and the emotions they describe. This will form the foundation of the marketing strategy.
The scenario the customer describes can also serve as a case study later on. If they give your students a very concrete example, they can use it to help develop a solution when they’re back inside the building, brainstorming.
Step 8: Marketing Copy
This question will answer all of your students’ marketing copy questions for both B2B and B2C. Ask:
Why is it a problem for you?
Warning: this question may feel awkward to ask – but your students must ask it.
It will probably feel obvious why it is a problem and your students will be tempted to skip this question. However, the way they describe why it’s a problem is likely to be different than how your students would describe it.
Your students are not psychic, so they shouldn’t pretend to be. Let the customers speak for themselves.
Above all else, your students want to know the words their customer uses to describe their experience, and the emotions they feel when encountering this problem.
In the marketing copy, when your students can use a customer’s exact phrasings and identify the exact emotions they are feeling when faced with a problem, they will resonate with the customer on a profound level.
The better your students understand their customer, without making any assumptions of their own, the better they will be able to serve them, and the better – and more successful – your students’ solution will be.
If your students don’t hear any emotions mentioned the first time they ask this question, keep trying. Say something like, “Interesting. And why is that a problem?”
Keep going, asking why up to five times, until they get to the emotional core of their customer’s experience of the problem.
Step 9: Current Solutions
Now it’s time to for your students to figure out where they should do their marketing. To do that, ask:
How did you find your current solution?
The answer to this question is key because it will help your students figure out how to find more people like the interviewee, with similar problems. This is just as true for B2B as B2C.
Eventually, the answers your students collect to this question will drive their marketing channel definitions. If one customer has gone there to find a solution, it’s likely others have gone there as well.
Step 10: What Isn’t Ideal About Their Solution?
Presumably, the current solution for this customer isn’t working – that’s why they mentioned it as a problem earlier in the interview. At this point, your students are in a perfect position to ask:
What’s not ideal about this solution?
Here, your students will discover how they’re going to differentiate their solution from their competition.
Your student’s solution will be superior, because their understanding of the problem is superior.
The information your students gather from this question will feed into their solution ideation process – ensuring they solve the problem better than their competitors.
Step 11: Rinse and Repeat
Even if your students hit on something good the first time around, there may be more value available in this interview. At this point, your students should go back to the Hardest Part question to find out what other problems are at the top of the customer’s list.
Remember: use the additional columns of the script to take notes for additional question iterations.
After that, validate they are an Early Adopter for the new problem they mention by asking when was the last time they tried to solve it. If they are, continue with the rest of the interview questions, including a possible third iteration.
If your students make it through the second round of questions and there’s still no mention of the problem they’ve hypothesized, here is another question they can ask to both businesses and consumers:
What is the biggest challenge you’re facing as a [customer’s role] with respect to [problem scenario]?
In this question, your students will spoon feed the customer a situation where they are likely to experience the problem that they’ve hypothesized. This will focus your students in on the specific area of their customer’s job or life context that aligns with their own interests.
From there, circle back to the “when was the last time you tried to solve this problem?” question and continue the exercise as before. In this scenario, your students need to pay extra close attention to their interviewee’s answer.
Important: If your students spoon feed their customers a scenario where they are confident they will feel the problem your students hypothesize and either they don’t cite the problem you hypothesized or they aren’t actively looking for a solution – they aren’t Early Adopters!
If this happens, it’s clear something has to change:
- If this happens just a few times, no big deal. Not everyone in your students’ interview channels is going to be an Early Adopter.
- If this is happening frequently, but your students are discovering a different problem the customers are Early Adopters for, no big deal – they can pivot to solve the new problem they’re reporting.
- If it’s happening frequently, and your students are not discovering problems customers are Early Adopters for, no big deal – they can pivot their interviewing channels or their entire target customer segment (refer to your the ExEC curriculum for exercises for alternative segments to interview.)
Step 12: Wrap It Up
When your students wrap up an interview, they want to be sure they are leaving the door open for future conversations, even if this person is not an Early Adopter. To do that, say:
I’m actively exploring a solution to [their problem]. Can I contact you if I find a viable solution?
Regardless of your students’ hypothesized problem, they should use their customer’s words to describe their problem in this closing…even if it’s not the problem your students are currently focused on solving!
Use their words to describe a problem your students hope to solve.
It is true your students may not pursue a solution to their problem now, but if enough other customers present the same difficulties, they’ve discovered a viable place to pivot. In fact, their interview may end up being one of the data points that convinces your students to pivot!
By your students asking them if they can contact them if they discover a solution to their problem, they’ve left the door open for further communication should they fall into their Early Adopter category now, or ever.
For B2B, your students will also want to ask:
If we wanted to put a solution to this problem into place, who else would we need buy-in from?
In a B2B situation, there are often multiple stakeholders in the adoption of a new solution. This question will prime your students’ interviewee to give them permission, and an intro, or just let them know who else they would need to contact to get buy-in for a solution.
Step 13: Ask for Other Interviewees
So your students can quickly talk to other similar customers, ask the interviewee if they know other people trying to solve this problem. Say something like:
I’m trying to understand this problem from a wide range of perspectives. Do you know one or two other people within your organization who are struggling with [the problem they are actively trying to solve in their words]?
This will help your students knock out their interviews even faster, and from a group of highly related customers!
Step 14: Say Thank You!
Finally, no matter who your students are interviewing, they should thank them for their generosity and their time. Tell them that the interview has been helpful – because, I guarantee, it will have been. Your students may also share that their will bring their information back to their team to help inform the development of their solution.
People enjoy being helpful. Make sure you let them know they have been!
Congratulations, your students now know exactly what to ask during their customer interviews – and what to listen for!
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We’ve created a detailed “How to Interview Customers” lesson plan. This exercise walks you, and your students, through the process, step-by-step.
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