Why are customer interviews so important?

When we are working with researchers and early-stage high-tech start-ups, we often find ourselves faced with a technology-first scenario where the main challenges is not only crafting the technology and its applications in response to the needs of the market but finding out what and more importantly who that market is. Key to the Customer Discovery process are the initial discovery interviews. Researchers, both from the scientific and engineering disciplines, have been trained to plug away at a challenge and developing a solution that is, in their mind, just right.

This approach is necessary for us as a society to progress and push the boundaries of human knowledge incrementally, piece-by-piece. Yet this approach and mindset can clash with the agility and responsiveness required in bringing an innovation to market, a balance between achieving a perfectly engineered solution and the relevance for the market. This is where speaking to potential customers, finding out who they are and if the assumptions inherent in our concept are real and make it worth pursuing in its current form. It is a process to calibrate not to frustrate our efforts and ensure that we are making a sound investment of our time, effort and potentially money. Remember the biggest cause of failure for start-ups is building something nobody wants.


Is there a wrong way?

Yes. The purpose of these initial ‘discovery interviews’ are to understand a potential client, their context, their problems that you wish to solve and whether or not they are the right client, both in terms of sector and position, for your invention. The most common errors we come across, ones that pollute the data, are related to the interviewees, referring to a predefined solution and overuse of leading and closed questions. Quite often when researchers and entrepreneurs are tasked with speaking to potential customers, the first thing they do is reach out to friends or colleagues that they already know. Stop! While it is a lot more comfortable to do this, when there is a pre- established and close relationship, you are losing objectivity; they will be too familiar with your work or even your idea and will always try to give you an answer you are looking for.

The ideal is to be introduced i.e. a warm contact through somebody you already know well and can help open the door. Otherwise, you can get in touch with people through LinkedIn or just call them directly. The second major error is to describe the product or service that you have in mind. These discovery interviews are about understanding the customer, the time will come later for assessing opinions and responses to solutions. Providing even the sketch of a potential solution shifts the focus of the interview onto the solution and not the problem and sets the interviewee’s mind onto a single track which means that you will miss out on the surrounding context.
This context is that which will prove more valuable than comments on your idea and someone telling you that it sounds good (the majority always will, even if they themselves don’t believe it). The other danger is that the interviewee now feels as though they are in a seller-buyer situation and will adjust their responses accordingly; they will be less comfortable and open.

Finally, the last bit of advice is to avoid closed and leading questions. These are the type of questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no, black or white, up or down. In our MERLIN programme, we perform an exercise where we practice the discovery interviews in two groups; one using only open questions and the other one using only closed.

Despite having the same brief and profile of interviewees, the resulting concept from both groups always diverge. The open question groups produce concepts different to the original brief and more novel solutions. Start your questions with tell me how, give me an example of, what do you think about and you hand control over to the interviewee so that do not feel part of an interrogation. It is important to ensure that the conversation flows. Closed questions have a purpose for clarifying and confirming understanding but alone will only result in providing you with the answers that you want to hear and you have wasted the interview.




How do I get started?

  1. Identify your potential customer groups – not just the type of companies but the persons within them.
  2. Prepare a long-list of potential contacts – name, company, position, contact details. This will help you streamline the process and provide enough people are contacted to secure interviews (the success rate will not be fantastic)
  3. Identify the 4 main doubts or assumptions about the problem or market that you would like to clarify through this process and prepare a loose script, remember the flow of the conversation is important but you also want to make sure you touch on each point.
  4. Find a partner. Having someone to take notes frees up the interviewer to control the conversation and ensure that it flows but also is important to confer with afterwards and check that you understood what the interviewee meant at certain points.
  5. Start – it doesn’t matter where or with whom, the most important thing is to begin finding out for definite that a certain sector or customer group is not your ideal customer is a successful outcome too. Start calling and best of luck.


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