Do you know your customers? I mean really know them? Sure, you know their age, gender, and location. But do you understand their needs, motivations, and behaviors?

Odds are, whether you realize it or not, the answer is no.

Time and again, we find that companies who are convinced they know their customers are, in fact, woefully misaligned with regards to their perceptions. And that, to put it mildly, is a problem. If you’re not speaking to the specific needs of your customers, if you’re not acknowledging the way they see you, then your messaging is suboptimal. You’re missing a valuable opportunity to connect with those you serve in a powerful and authentic way. And the thing is, your customers aren’t that hard to get to know.

All you have to do is ask.

Customer interviews are an indispensable component to any brand research initiative. Quantitative surveys are great, and provide valuable data on broad audience segments, but only in-depth interviews give you the all-important qualitative insight into how your customers think and behave. A brand, remember, lives in the minds of its customers. And so to truly understand a brand you have to get inside the heads of those it serves.

The question, then, is how best to go about this psychological spelunking. While the most effective customer interviewing skills take years of experience to master, there are a few fundamental steps—from preparation to analysis—that you should keep in mind when it’s time to rebrand your business. Below, we show you the ropes.

Step 1: Recruit Interview Participants

customer research recruiting participants ignyte branding agency

At the risk of stating the obvious, the first step in interviewing your customers is finding the right customers to interview. In recruiting participants, it’s important to be purposeful. You want customers who will be receptive and engaged. You’re looking for brand allies, but it’s important to find more than just “yes men.” The goal is to source individuals who are as close to archetypal representatives of your target customer segments as you can find.

For most companies, target customer segments are usually already defined. Five participants per segment is an ideal number to secure. The diminishing return of qualitative research means the amount of unique, useful insight that any one customer segment can provide drops off considerably after five interviews. This is because much of the feedback you’ll get from additional participants will simply be different versions of sentiments you’ve already heard.

For startups and new companies where target customer segments may not yet be defined, it’s advisable to interview at least 30 subjects. As trends emerge within their responses, the data can be used to back out audience segments that can then be used for subsequent branding initiatives.

In addition to active customers, interviewees should include both potential customers (i.e., non-customers) and lost customers. These outlier groups provide invaluable insight into your brand’s blind spots. Securing the participation of these segments can be a bit trickier. Incentivization in the form of gift cards or giveaways can go a long way. As a symbolic gesture, $20 has proven a good amount for people to deem an interview worth their time. More than anything, though, people appreciate the fact that their opinion is valuable. Asking for their insight about a brand’s performance makes them feel important and bolsters their ego. And who doesn’t like to have their ego stroked every now and then?

By making both customers and non-customers alike feel valued and special, interviews have the ancillary benefit of building brand loyalty. They can be a powerful initiative that, while carried out on a micro scale, has far-reaching macro implications.

Step 2: Create Interview Questions

Once you’ve picked your participants you can turn to the business of crafting your questions. When it comes to interviewing customers, language is essential. It’s important that the words you use in your questioning are clear, concise, and easily understood. Avoid industry jargon or technical speak. Testing the language of your interview questions internally is a good way to ensure that the words you plan to use make sense. In addition to complex terms, avoid leading or suggestive language. The simpler and more objective the question is, the more genuine and valuable the response will be.

Asking your customers direct questions about big things like motivations and values is generally not a good idea. You want your interview subjects to come at these revelations obliquely. A good strategy is to ask them to reflect on how they made a certain decision. Ask for anecdotes and examples. Push for clarity and exposition. This is where profound, underlying insights emerge. When creating your interview questions, it’s best to plan for these types of digressions so that you can capitalize on them when they happen.

Here are a few questions that we’ve found to be revealing:

  • What particular challenges were you facing when you sought services from [CompanyName]?
  • What made you choose [CompanyName] over similar brands?
  • What promises or guarantees has [CompanyName] made to you?
  • Do you feel that [CompanyName] has delivered what they promised? Why?
  • What do you like most about working with [CompanyName]?
  • What could [CompanyName] do better?

The practice of crafting questions is ultimately an opportunity to reflect back on the goals of the research itself. What information are you trying to glean with this endeavor? Which questions best serve the need of the larger branding project?

Step 3: Conduct Interviews

customer interviews ignyte branding agency

The process of actually conducting interviews is where a bit of skill and experience comes in handy. Good interviewing draws on instinct and intuition, so it’s hard to draw up a how-to guide. A huge advantage, though, is to conduct interviews in person whenever possible. Face-to-face exchanges lend themselves to less unintentional interruption and natural turn-taking. Phone interviews obviously allow for a larger range of subjects in further afield geographic locations, but it’s hard to pick up on inflection and impossible to catch a raised eyebrow over the phone.

Whether by phone or in person, there are a few basic guidelines to keep in mind when interviewing customers. First off, it can be difficult to anticipate the ideal length of your interviews. Some research initiatives call for longer interview durations than others. To account for this and other uncertainties, it’s best to schedule low-risk interviews first. That is, don’t slot the CEO of your most valuable client as one of your first conversations. Talking with lower-level stakeholders of less essential customers allows you to test for both time and content, and adjust as needed.

Ask the important questions first, as the attention and interest of your subject is apt to wane regardless of how brief you keep the interview. Be mindful of the time that you’ve allotted for the interview and if it looks as if it will run long, ask your interviewee ten minutes prior to running over if they are available to sit for a bit longer. Respecting the time of your subject will go a long way toward fostering an amicable exchange of ideas.

It’s important to keep in mind that some people are just bad interviews. By no fault of their own or yours, there’s always going to be someone who isn’t good at articulating what he or she is thinking. Preparing for this inevitability will mitigate its effects. Like anything in business, expect the best but plan for the worst.

Step 4: Analyze Data

Now for the fun part. Unlike quantitative data (the awkward sibling with the pocket protector), qualitative data is nothing if not labor and time intensive. It’s about more than just crunching numbers and populating spreadsheets.

Qualitative data analysis centers on coding. Coding is the process of combing data for themes, categories, keywords, and phrases, and marking similarities so they can easily be later retrieved further investigation. The goal of analyzing qualitative research is to identify meaningful patterns among the totality of responses. Do people use the same kinds of words to describe something? Are their responses pointing to a particular theme or characterization without necessarily using the same language?

Just as revealing as similarities between your participants’ answers, though, are the differences. Inconsistent responses to key questions on value propositions or differentiation can be the result of a fragmented brand experience. As you deconstruct your qualitative data in the effort to glean actionable insight, it’s critical to read between the lines of what your subjects said. Qualitative research analysis is also about being surprised by certain answers. Look for unexpected statements for profound takeaways. When interviewees expound on a topic not prompted by the questions posed to them, there’s a good chance that topic is important.

Finally, it helps to identify your most articulate participants. Some interviewees have keener understandings of a problem or more clearly communicate what they experience. You can draw good quotes out of these interviews that are representative of larger trends across the data.

Step 5: Develop Customer Personas

customer research customer personas ignyte branding agency

The upshot of the customer interview process is a set of customer personas—one for each of your target customer segments. Customer personas capture both the demographic and psychographic characteristics of each customer segment in a singular brief that tells the story of one archetypal customer. The demographic information is gleaned from quantitative research, but the psychographics come from your customer interviews. The customer persona gives a name, a face, and a backstory to the specific individual at whom your messaging is aimed. It brings him or her to life with a relatable narrative centered on individual wants and needs, hopes and fears, goals and challenges. It humanizes the customer side of the all-important brand/customer relationship. A good customer persona informs your branding and marketing initiatives at the deepest level. It is a revelatory snapshot of the person with whom you hope to foster a lasting and meaningful connection.

Conclusion

As an integral part of the brand research process, you’d think the value of customer interviews would be a no-brainer. But for companies looking to cut costs on their branding initiatives, customer interviews often one of the first things to go. The thing is, customer interviews are among the most cost-effective research tools available. And they help ensure a return on investment from your branding efforts. At the end of the day, branding is all about shaping customer perception. But how can you hope to shape those perceptions unless you have an intimate understanding of what they truly are? Customer interviews give you that understanding, and with it a powerful tool in building an authentic brand.

The Definitive Guide to Rebranding

Everything you need to know about rebranding your business-and avoiding costly mistakes.

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A prolific blogger, speaker, and columnist, Brian has more than a decade of experience in design and branding. He’s written for publications including Forbes, Huffington Post, and Brand Quarterly.