Customer interviews are one of the most powerful tools a brand has to better meet the needs of those it serves. They’re also one of the most underutilized.

Think about it. Do you know your customers? I mean really know them? You might know their age, gender, even 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.

The thing is, your customers aren’t that hard to get to know. All you have to do is ask. That’s the essence of customer interviews.

In what follows, we’ll take a look at how to conduct eye-opening customer interviews that will give you the insights you need to optimally position your brand for success. But first, let’s start with the basics.

What are Customer Interviews? (And Why Do They Matter?)

ignyte brands customer research

Customer interviews are one-on-one conversations designed to better understand a brand’s target audiences. An integral component of any customer research initiative, customer interviews include a series of questions that seek to better understand a customer’s needs, goals, motivations, and challenges as they pertain to a brand.

While quantitative brand research, like surveys, provides valuable data on audience demographics, qualitative research, like customer interviews, provides insight into how customers think and behave.

Customer interviews allow you to better understand how each customer perceives your brand and why they choose your brand over your competitors.

By analyzing the responses from a number of customers in the same segment, you can see trends emerge in their needs, goals, motivations, and challenges, as well as in how they perceive your brand.

These insights are invaluable to successfully positioning your brand to meet the needs of those you serve. They enable you to align positioning language—including your value propositions, brand promise, and competitive advantage—with your customers’ values and challenges.

After all, if your brand isn’t speaking to the specific needs of your customers, it may as well be speaking into the void.

To get the most out of your customer interviews, there are a handful of important steps to keep in mind…

Step 1: Define Your Customer Research Objectives

ignyte brands customer research

The first step in conducting customer interviews is defining the objectives you hope to accomplish with your research.

Clearly defining your customer research objectives provides a roadmap for the process and dictates the questions you will ask in your customer interviews.

The following are some common customer research objectives:

  • Understanding customer motivations, goals, needs, and challenges.
  • Understanding how customers become aware of your brand.
  • Understanding how your brand is differentiated from its competitors.
  • Understanding your brand’s strengths and weaknesses in the eyes of customers.
  • Understanding how clearly your value propositions are communicated to customers.

Step 2: Create Your Customer Interview Questions

ignyte brands customer research

Once you’ve defined your objectives, you can turn to the business of crafting the questions that will yield the best data for each of your objectives.

When it comes to interviewing customers, language is essential. It’s important 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, the more genuine and valuable the response.

Asking your customers direct questions about abstract concepts 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 they do better?

Remember, your customer interview questions should always be crafted with your research objectives in mind. Refer back to the objectives you’re trying to accomplish with this customer research, and craft questions that will enable you to achieve those objectives.

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Step 3: Recruit Your Customer Interview Participants

ignyte brands customer research

The next step in your customer interview process 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 representative of your target customer segments. Five to ten 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 ten 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 customer segments that can then be used for subsequent branding and marketing initiatives.

In addition to active customers, interviewees should also include both prospective 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, but nonetheless important to gaining a holistic view of your brand.

Incentivization in the form of gift cards or giveaways can go a long way in enticing non-active customers to participate in an interview. As a symbolic gesture, $20 has proven a good baseline amount for people to deem an interview worth their time. For higher-worth individuals, however, the price may be much higher—as much as $500 for premium customers in high-value customer segments.

You’ll find that most customers appreciate the fact that their opinion is valuable, though. Asking for a customer’s perspective about a brand 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 4: Conduct Your Customer Interviews

ignyte brands customer research

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 face-to-face interviews whenever possible, even by video conference.

Face-to-face exchanges lend themselves to less unintentional interruption and natural turn-taking. The convenience of phone interviews might allow for a larger range of subjects, but it’s hard to pick up on inflection and impossible to catch a raised eyebrow over the phone.

Whether by phone or face-to-face, 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 5: Analyze Your Customer Interview Data

ignyte brands customer research

Now for the fun part. Unlike quantitative data, qualitative data is 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 for 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 6: Create Your Customer Personas

ignyte brands customer research

An important outcome 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 single 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. Customer personas give a name, a face, and a backstory to the specific individual at whom your messaging is aimed.

A customer persona brings a typical customer to life with a relatable narrative centered on individual wants and needs, hopes and fears, joys and pains. They humanize the customer side of the all-important brand/customer relationship.

A good customer persona informs your sales, 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.

The Takeaway

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 are often one of the first things to go.

The thing is, customer interviews are among the most effective research tools available. And the insights they return are invaluable.

At the end of the day, branding is all about shaping customer perception. But in order to shape those perceptions you have to have a nuanced understanding of what they are. Customer interviews give you this understanding and more, yielding the insights you need to powerfully position your brand.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in November 2015 and has been updated with additional insights.

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A prolific blogger, speaker, and columnist, Brian has two decades of experience in design and branding. He’s written for publications including Forbes, Entrepreneur, Inc. Magazine, Fast Company, HuffPost, and Brand Quarterly.