How to interview your customers

Speaking to customers is the best way to find out what they think about your products and services. It helps us learn what works, and more importantly what could be improved. Yet the majority of businesses never speak to their customers. Do you?


Some businesses send out a customer satisfaction questionnaire. However, the questions are often crafted with internal KPIs or other performance measures in mind, rather than from the perspective of wanting to learn from the customer.


Customers are the life-blood of any business, and as such we should be speaking to them, and learning from them, regularly. If we can learn to ask the right questions, and then actively listen to our customers, the benefits to the business can be significant.


Active Listening


Often, when we engage in conversation, we’re thinking about what we want to say next and listening for cues that it’s our turn to speak. In this environment, listening becomes a limited resource.


However, listening is the most effective way you can build rapport with an interviewee. It’s how you demonstrate tangibly that what the other person has to say is important to you. Listen by asking questions and be aware of your body language.


Active listening involves listening with all senses.  As well as giving full attention to the speaker, it’s important that the ‘active listener’ is also ‘seen’ to be listening – otherwise the speaker might conclude that what they are talking about is uninteresting to the listener.




There are three main methods when it comes to customer interviews – online, telephone, and face-to face. Let’s look at each in turn.


Online interviews


This is the method that most businesses will be familiar with. The typical company will use a tool, such as Survey Monkey, to ask customers a series of questions. Each month they’ll send the link to a selection of customers and ask them for their opinions. Designed correctly, this can be an effective way of collecting feedback from a large number of customers. However, to be truly worthwhile, the questions have to be carefully considered and written in such a way to give customers the opportunity to tell their stories – good and bad.


Telephone interviews


Once upon a time, these were very popular, however as we’ve moved our lives online fewer and fewer people use the telephone to speak to other people and we don’t like being interrupted by a ringing phone. I don’t know about you, but I never answer a call from a number I don’t recognise. If they want to speak to me, then they can leave a message and I’ll call them back when it suits me. As a consequence, telephone interviews are not as effective as they used to be.


However, if you can arrange the call in advance at a time that’s convenient for them, then you will learn a lot more from the conversation you will have, than you do from an online survey. The key skill for the interviewer is the ability to be flexible, to actively listen to the customer, and not to blindly follow a script.


Face-to-face interviews


Given the choice, my preference will always be face-to-face interviews. You earn so much more from them. Like telephone interviews, flexibility and active listening are vital skills, however when we do face-to-face interviews, we also get the chance to observe the customer, and we can learn a great deal from reading their body language and the things they don’t say, as well as what they do.


The downside is that these are time-intensive, and also emotionally intensive, so you’re limited in the number you can do. They’re also the most expensive type of interview.


What’s the right mix for your business?


The answer is – it depends! There are a number of factors we need to take into account when designing the customer interview strategy for a business. These include:


  • Why does the business want to interview its customers?
  • What’s the nature of the business?
  • Number of customers?
  • Geographic spread?
  • Average transaction value
  • Previous survey experience & results
  • Budget & available resources


No two strategies should be the same, although most will include two or more of the above methods. Often we’ll start with online surveys, and one of the questions will ask customers if they’d be happy to have a follow-up call or face-to-face interview. This allows you to drill deeper with a smaller pool of customers.


The main thing is to be clear about why you want to do customer interviews and how you intend to use the results. Then we design from there.


What questions should you ask?


Some questions will be specific to the product and service your business provides. When asking those, try not to do any of the following:


  1. Don’t ask closed questions that can be answered with either a yes or no. You learn very little from this type of question. I always want to know why? How can you frame your question to find that out?
  2. Don’t use a scale e.g. ‘rate the service on a scale of 1 to 5’. One person’s 3/5 will be another’s 4/5 or 1/5. Whilst the result will give you data you can report and measure against, you won’t know why they gave that score. If you’re going to ask a question like that, ask them to explain why they’ve chosen the score.
  3. Don’t ask leading questions. These are questions that are designed to illicit a certain type of response e.g. What do you most like about our cheese panini? That assumes they like your cheese panini – what if they thought it was terrible?
  4. Don’t ask for referrals in your surveys. Customers REALLY don’t like this! There’s a time and place to ask for referrals or introductions. Your Customer Interview isn’t one of them.


The best interview questions are open questions that help you to find out what it feels like to be a customer; how the process or experience feels like from their perspective. It’s also good to ask questions such as:


  • What could we do better?
  • What don’t you like about what we do? (as opposed to what they liked).


Finally, think about what ‘context’ questions you want to ask. These are questions that will give you a better understanding of the customer and might include questions such as:


  • Tell us a little bit about yourself
  • Tell us about your job and the role our product / service plays


If you’re going to do interviews, you should be going into it with curiosity, wanting to gain insights and learn things you didn’t know. The survey should be seen as an opportunity to improve your business and the customer experience, not as a marketing tool, so develop a thick skin and get ready to learn what it really feels like to be a customer of your business – good and bad!




Many companies offer an incentive for people to participate. It doesn’t have to be much, maybe a money off coupon, an Amazon voucher, or that sort of thing. Survey response rates are typically quite low, so what can you do to encourage your customers to take part, particularly if you’re going to ask them to do face-to-face interviews?


Using the results


Once you’ve completed the interviews, then you need to analyse the results. What have you learned? Are there any patterns or trends emerging from the data? Are there any areas that you need to do more research on?


A well designed survey will always generate opportunities to improve your business. Make use of what you learn and let your customers know what you’ve done with their feedback. This will increase loyalty and make them feel valued. They’ll also be more likely to participate in future surveys if they know that you’re actually likely to listen to what they have to say.


Finally, don’t make this a one-off event. Build this into the fabric of your business; make listening to customers a part of your brand. You’ll stand out from your competitors for certain.


In summary


This stuff is hard, and at times you’re going to hear things that will make you uncomfortable and upset. But isn’t that better than the alternative? We know that 96% of unhappy customers don’t complain, and that 91% of those will simply leave and move to a competitor (First Financial Training Services). By listening to your customers regularly, and acting on the feedback, your product or service will evolve to meet the needs of the market.


So give it a go! You won’t regret it……