Gathering information from customers is the most valuable skill an entrepreneur can practice.
Two common methods for collecting that information are surveys and customer interviews. Customer interviews are, hands down, more valuable for entrepreneurs than surveys because they:
- Provide the depth of insight to validate problem hypotheses
- Provide emotionally driven marketing copy from the customer’s perspective
- Identify high potential marketing channels
- Identify realistic competitors, and competitive advantages
- Provide potential pivot opportunities, by eliciting alternative problems to solve if hypothesized problem is not one customers are seeking a solution to
The qualitative nature of interview-based research gives entrepreneurs the chance to dive deeply into the problems and emotions a potential customer is feeling. It’s those feelings that the entrepreneur will ultimately resolve that will lead to their success.
Surveys in entrepreneurship classes, on the other hand, largely avoid addressing customers’ underlying emotional needs, because few, if any, potential customers will complete a survey about their feelings. Instead, customer surveys in entrepreneurship classes often use leading questions in an attempt to do the impossible – predict future customer behavior:
- Would you use a product that does ______________?
- How often would you use a product that does ________________?
- How much would you pay for a product that does ______________?
The result of these surveys is that students either confirm their bias that there’s high demand for their product without discovering the emotional ways customers describe their problems, or they conclude there isn’t sufficient demand, leaving them without any actionable next steps either way.
Validation surveys provide no actionable marketing strategy if demand is “confirmed”, and no potential pivots if demand is “invalidated.”
While surveys have the allure of producing statistically significant data, statistically significant data on people’s predictions of their own behavior aren’t worth anything – especially in terms of business model validation. If we really want to answer questions like how much customer will pay for a product, there are far more effective ways of doing that than surveys, for example, selling pre-orders.
If we believe interviews are a far more powerful tool than surveys for business model validation, the question becomes:
How do we show students interviews are more powerful than surveys?
In our Surveys vs. Interviews Lesson Plan, we provide an experience that will demonstrate to your students just how much more effective interviews are than surveys, by having them complete both experiences, and compare them.
As a part of our Experiential Entrepreneurship Curriculum (ExEC), we recommend that before this lesson, students complete the following lessons:
- Emotionally Intelligent Innovation. Here they learn that customer problems are the most effective place to look for value propositions, and
- Idea Generation. Here they hypothesize the customers for whom they are uniquely suited to solve problems, and they hypothesize the problems they are uniquely suited to solve
With this background, they begin figuring out how to test those hypotheses.
Step 1: Problem Survey
Before class, ask your students to complete a Challenges Survey (find a sample in the lesson plan). Your students will be asked questions about the problems they face and how they have tried solving those problems.
In ExEC, we provide results from thousands of students at the universities using the curriculum so you can highlight how difficult it is to validate hypotheses about problems students face using a survey. What we find, and what your students will likely produce, are:
- Low volume of responses
- Short answers, with little emotional depth
- Some responses aren’t even comprehendible
Step 2: Surveys vs. Interviews
Start class discussing with students the pros and cons of asking customers about their problems using surveys and using interviews. Each method of validation has pros and cons, as highlighted below. After the discussion, show this table and highlight any relevant points. Let students know they will now experience these differences.
|Customer Interview Pros
|Customer Interview Cons
|Difficult to get responses to open-ended questions
|Higher quality information
|Takes longer to facilitate than surveys
|Can produce statistically significant results
|Don’t provide insights on an emotional level
|Significant emotional depth
|Results aren’t statistically significant
|Difficult to probe/ask follow-up questions
|Probe as deeply as necessary by asking follow-up questions
|Often expensive (in time and money) to collect enough quantitative data to be statistically significant
|Can explore multiple problems
Step 3: Discuss Their Survey Experience
In the lesson plan, we guide you through a conversation with your students about this surveying experience. First, discuss why some students did not complete it. Then transfer those reasons to customers from whom they want to gather information. Next discuss what it felt like completing the survey, and how much emotional depth they provided.
Step 4: Interview Experience
We then guide you through introducing your students to customer interviewing. In groups, students will experience being interviewed, interviewing, and taking notes/observing. In these groups, students will ask and answer the same exact same questions from the survey, but in a format that’s much more conducive to problem validation.
Step 5: Compare their Survey vs Interview Experiences
The lesson ends with a discussion, focused on two key points:
- Comparing the quality and depth of information gathered through each method, and
- Comparing the ability to validate problem hypotheses using the information gathered through teach method
This is where the magic happens, as you reveal that in both their survey and interviews, they answered the exact same questions. As professor Emma Fleck told us after this lesson:
“I genuinely feel that this was a light bulb moment in my class. Students were frustrated and angry about this survey and didn’t see the point. However, 2 days later, when we did this as customer interviews, I was able to illustrate to them how much I could learn from using a different format with customers. They really started to understand as many of them had taken marketing research classes and were convinced that all of their customer learning would come from surveys!! Great exercise.”
This is a powerful lesson for students as they begin their entrepreneurial journey. It engages them in two important methods for gathering information to validate aspects of their business model. But more importantly, it offers two benefits:
- Students feel the benefit of interviewing as a hypothesis validation tool.
- Students practice customer interviewing. They learn how to be able to talk to anyone about their problems, so they can put themselves in a position to solve them.
Below is the complete lesson plan of the Surveys vs. Interviews exercise.
Get the “Surveys vs. Interviews” Lesson Plan
We’ve created a detailed lesson plan for the “Surveys vs. Interviews” exercise to walk you, and your students, through the process, step-by-step.
It’s free for any/all entrepreneurship teachers, so you’re welcome to share it.
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