In-person customer interviews: 3 things I learned

This past week, I unlocked an important PM achievement: interviewing customers face-to-face. In fact, after 12 customer interviews in 4 days, I found it both exciting and challenging, especially for someone who hasn’t done it before. (I had had customer interviews before, but only over Skype.)

Thanks to the unexpected challenges posed by these in-person customer interviews, I came across the following 3 tips for conducting them.

1. Plan plenty of commute time

If you are like me and need to travel to a different customer’s office for every interview, I have found that it would be a good idea to reserve some time traveling from one location to the next. Allocate that time realistically and generously.

For one thing, scheduling back-to-back interviews might not be a good idea, because customer interviews can go over time and when they do, it is a sign that your customer really have a lot of things to tell you — that’s gold you don’t want to walk away from just because you are out of time!

Not only can the meeting go over time, there are other seemingly small factors that can really eat up your planned commute time: driving around the block, finding parking, looking for the office, getting your notes ready… none of these sounds time-consuming, but when they pile up it can be a lot. (Not unlike those situations when “just picking up a few $1.99’s” at the dollar store end up costing 50 bucks…)

2. Don’t be afraid to go off script

Spending hours curating the interview guide only to end up going off script might frustrate at first, but I have learned that it’s so worth it. Why?

When I wrote my interview guide (an outline of all questions I want to ask, and the order in which I want to ask them), although I try very hard to not guess what answer I may get, I still inevitably have a generic anticipation about what form the answer might be in. I expect to collect a piece of information pertaining to a certain topic and then move on. But sometimes, a certain topic can make the conversation step into an area of interest of the customer, and lead to unplanned feedback that is the thing the customer want their PM to know the most.

So, embrace improvisation! Your goal is to learn about your customer’s experience with your product, so when they go off the topic and talk about something very important to them that you didn’t anticipate, that’s a strong sign for you to tune in.

(Yes, you may go over time if you go off script, but that’s why I had tip No. 1 “Plan plenty of commute time” 😉)

3. Use a recording device (or have a note-taking buddy)

My laptop temporarily stopped working right before my first interview this week, and I couldn’t take notes as I planned. I apologized to the customer for this inconvenience and with his consent, recorded the conversation instead of taking notes. That conversation was very successful with both parties relaxed and engaged at the same time. Then I fixed that laptop before my next interview, and started taking notes with it as I had always planned. Taking notes distracted me, and I was a little less engaged in those conversations, although I didn’t notice at first.

It was only after one of my last interviews with a customer did she nicely pointed out to me: You know, nobody would mind if you just record this session and free your typing hands! I looked at her and immediately recalled that first interview where my laptop wasn’t working: right! When I didn’t have to do the Scribe job, I could fully focus on the Listener job.

So next time, I am definitely going to rely on recording or a note taker to capture the details, so I can focus on steering the conversation into the most constructive direction. When customers are taking their time to give feedback, they deserve undivided listening attention — which also increases the PM’s chance to uncover important customer-related learnings.