The Competitive Advantages of Customer Interviews

Marketing automation. Sales automation. Big data. The Internet of Things.

Automation and artificial intelligence are more popular in business than ever, perhaps rightly so, but they fail to address an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to business development, sales, marketing, customer advocacy and user experience.

That piece? The human piece.

Now, perhaps you knew that was the punchline. Fair enough. But before I come across as a Luddite, I want to explain what I mean.

When it comes to the human, I’d like you to picture a great interviewer like Charlie Rose, Barbara Walters or David Frost. Think of some of their great interviews. They’re amazing interviewers because they helped those they interviewed to reveal something new and different about themselves, and that “new and different” piece only comes through real human interaction. Which of course requires humans.

As master interviewer Marc Pachter said about his subjects, “I wanted interviews that were different. I wanted to be, as I later thought of it, empathic, which is to say, to feel what they wanted to say and to be an agent of their self-revelation.”

He later added, “I was trying to get them to say what they probably wanted to say, to break out of their own cocoon of the public self.”

See his whole TED Talk here:

I prefer to think of great interviewers as midwives, getting people to say more interesting (and often unexpected) things. They also ask great follow-up questions.

Customer interviews in a business content

So what does this have to do with the business world?

A lot, as it turns out. While automated tools have their place, there’s a reason why some of us choose not to use the self-checkout at the grocery store or to ignore the spam that comes in our inboxes. It just feels impersonal. We have more to offer the world than a human-to-machine interaction.

When your business is in the business of marketing and selling to human beings, you need to approach them, as much as possible, as human beings. And human beings often have untidy and un-quantifiable things like feelings and emotions, biases, likes and dislikes. If we’ve learned nothing else from behavioral economics, it’s that humans are predictably irrational.

Getting down to the interviews themselves, do you interview all your customers? No, of course that’s not practical.

But what you do want to do is to identify your best customers (as measured by revenue they’ve generated for your business) and interview them. If your company is like most, a large percentage of your revenue comes from a small set of customers, so you want to learn how they became your customers, why they spend so much, and how you can “clone” them through your business development, sales and marketing efforts.

Why do your best customers want to be interviewed? Because they’re your biggest fans. If they weren’t, they would be someone else’s best customers.

Note that these are interviews. They aren’t casual chats or an opportunity for them to tell you what you as a business want to hear. You want a warts-and-all story from them about how they found your business, how they vetted your business, maybe why they almost didn’t choose to buy from your business, what their world is like and how your product/service fits into it, why they sometimes flirt with your competitors because your products/services need improvement, and even what else they’d love for you to do for them. Listen carefully to the unprompted answers and asides — they can be quite revealing, so don’t let them pass without comment.

And then what happens to the information?

Well, you’ve now got to tease out patterns, common phrases, read between the lines, and so on. After you process the information, you can share it with other departments:

With business development you share what your best customers liked and didn’t like about your products/services. You can also make some recommendations about value-added products that might grab a bigger share of wallet from these customers. These elite customers might also be willing to help you shape the products that they themselves will be willing to buy.

With marketing you can provide a better elite customer persona and customer journey map(s), plus some of the objections these customers have to your products and services. These elite customers might also provide written or video testimonials.

With sales you can show how better to sell to elite prospects that share the same characteristics of these elite customers. You can also help by providing valuable input during complex sales negotiations and brainstorming.

Customer interviews are a powerful tool that can work in tandem with other tools in your company’s toolbox. Done well, they will help you grow revenue, improve customer retention and get you thinking in a customer-centric way.

Why do they offer a competitive advantage? Because your competitors are trying to take shortcuts. You, on the other hand, have the courage to hear what your customers really think, and what they really need and want, and to make the whole of your business adjust accordingly.

Leave a Comment: