Josh Pitzalis

March 5, 2021

Doing Your First Customer Interview

People don't care about your product. They care about what it can do for them. Talking to the people who use your product on a regular basis helps you remember this. 

Listening to your users might sound simple but it’s not. Setting up interviews and speaking to customers is a delicate process.  If you come off as a robotic questionnaire people’s shields will go up and the conversation goes nowhere. If you hit it off and have a wicked time,  they've almost certainly lied to you.

It’s not that people want to lie, but rather, our brains are great at coming up with answers. We can't help it.

The easiest way to get reliable information out of people is to let people tell you a story.

The trick is to ask questions that elicit stories about the last time people used your product.  For some reason, people are less likely to rationalise and distort stories. 

Here is everything I know on how to get a good story out of an interview.


Establish what you hope to learn before you begin

This is trickier than it sounds because we don’t know what we don’t know. Define your learning goals too precisely and you may miss out on stuff you had no idea people cared about. Keep things vague and it will be hard to lead the conversation anywhere useful. A good goal is to focus on insights around the riskiest parts of your business hypothesis. What are the most expensive assumptions your product is making?


Stories, Not Facts

A good interview usually lasts about 15 minutes. You want to be talking as little as possible during this time. This process is about listening, not talking. The more you talk, the worse you do.

Getting someone to talk means asking good questions.

You must start with pleasantries (Thank you for taking the time). Then you need to frame the conversation (As I mentioned in my email, we want to improve our product but we need to make sure we’re heading in the right direction). Then jump straight into what matters.

I’m not big on using scripts. They can be helpful.  I usually have a list of fallback questions and follow-ups if the conversation stalls. Beyond that, the only question I ask is:

 "Tell me about the last time you (used our product)?"


I'll say it again, the purpose of the question is to elicit a story. 

If you get a one-sentence response, you can pad it with supporting questions so that it's easier to answer.

  • What were you trying to do? 
  • Can you take me through what you did, step by step? 
  • What was the context? 
  • Where were you are the time?
  • What were you doing before that?
  • Why were you trying to achieve this?

Try your best not to pad the question though. The less direction you provide the better. Undirected, people are more likely to take the conversation to a place that matters.

If you care about your product and you're curious about how people use it, then all you have to do is listen.

When the opportunity arises, pursue emotional highs or lows in the conversation. You can use prompts like:

  • Tell me more about that.
  • Say more.
  • What happened next?
  • What about the time before that?

These kinds of stories will help you understand what people care about. The words they use. Their tone. What their concerns are. The points of friction in the product. What better means to them.

If they don't bring up how amazing the big new button is, it means it's not something they care about. You can't launch into a series of questions about the button till you get the response you want. If you persist they will tell you it looks pretty and is super useful. What other choice do they have? On the hand, if you ask them for a story and they start talking about the button, you're onto something.

I know I said that I am not big on scripts but there is one question that I like to end every conversation with:

"Is there anything else I should have asked?"

This is a great question because sometimes people understand what you are trying to do but you haven’t given them an opening to say what they want to say. Other times you can sense that the conversation isn’t over yet and it’s because they have questions. Worst case scenario, they say no.


Scoring Your Interviews

I can go long stretches without doing interviews and when I jump back into doing them I'm always a little rusty. I usually need a call or two to warm up.  I play a game that helps me focus on what's important when I'm getting back into the interview groove. I score each conversation with the following point system


-1 Don’t Interrupt People

You cannot interrupt people. Ever.

This is where I always lose the most points.

When someone stops talking, the best thing to do is count to five in your head. I have never made it past 3. The idea is to create a mildly uncomfortable vacuum that elicits valuable follow up information.

Conversely, when people are talking and you have an important question. Make a note of it so that you remember to come back to it later.


-1 Have Nothing To Sell

If you try and push a feature or sell an upgrade then the conversation becomes a sales call. It stops being a customer interview.

A customer interview is about the customer, not your product.

The moment you start pitching a feature people will tell you what you want to hear. If you have nothing to sell, people don’t know what you want to hear, and they can’t lie to you.

You pitch, you lose.


+1 Only Discuss Specifics

Hypotheticals are toxic shiny objects. They sound great and mean nothing. People are terrible at predicting their own behaviour. Instead, you can only talk about specifics that have happened in the past. It’s harder for people to lie about specifics.

When you start talking about what someone might do,  people try and tell you the *correct* answer. Regardless of how true it is. It’s not that people want to lie to you, it’s what we do in polite conversation. It's often the path of least resistance.

Every time you shut a vague, hypothetical statement down and redirect it to a specific in the past you get a point.


+1 Summarize And Then Ask

If you can't interrupt people, it can be hard to get a conversation back on track when things start to wander.

The easiest way I have learned to do this is to summarize what people said back to you when they stop talking. This re-aligns the conversation to your agenda. It helps them reflect on what they said, and it clarifies any misunderstandings.

Every time you summarize what someone says before proceeding, you get a point.

That's it.

Remember, much bullshit can be avoided by not having anything to sell and only talking specifics.


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