Customer Interviews: Getting Stakeholders Excited

November 10, 2020

Product managers are not only accustomed to going into the unknown, wading through lots of information, and dealing with ambiguity, we actively seek out those kinds of experiences. For me, there’s no better representation of that idea than customer interviews. We go into interviews with no expectation of what we’ll get out of them (specifically), but knowing that the value is high because we will learn something, and get one step closer to validating (or invalidating) our hypothesis. But stakeholders can struggle with this, so you’ve got to get them comfortable with the unknown, and that work starts before your first interview.

When stakeholders or teams haven’t done customer interviews before (or often), it can seem like a lot of work, risk, and effort for an unknown payoff. They’re going to have a lot of questions, and be really (unnecessarily) nervous about it. It takes a bit of coaching, but it’s possible to get teams that don’t typically deal with this kind of ambiguity excited about the possibilities that come from customer interviews. We find that the best way to get your team onboard with interviews is all about including them in the process and showing them value fast.

Here’s how to make the most of your customer interviews:

Know your hypothesis, and make sure everyone else knows it too.

A hypothesis is your best educated guess on what problem you think customer has, or how you might solve that problem, depending on what kind of interview you’re doing. Here’s the key: a hypothesis doesn’t need to be right to be valuable. It just needs to be concrete enough to test with real customers so you can learn from it. The goal is learning, not to prove that you’re right. Setting that expectation with stakeholders early on will help them to feel that learning is the real win, with your hypothesis as the vehicle that helps get you there.

Record the interview whenever possible.

A recording of your interview (with explicit permission only!) is helpful for your own analysis later, but it’s also really valuable for sharing with stakeholders if they aren’t able to join the meeting. Often it takes a stakeholder actually hearing the customer share their experience to be willing to consider a new way of looking at a problem or opportunity. This is also a great way to create a data-backed conversation around a feature or strategy that may have been previously been a gut feeling only, and encourages decisions to be a balance between intuition and user feedback.

Synthesize as soon as possible, and definitely before your next interview.

You’ll want to create something that you can look back on in one week, one month, or six months, and have a clear idea of what you learned in each interview. My favorite tool for this is the “customer snapshot,” a visual one pager, which I learned from Teresa Torres’s Continuous Discovery course, and have used ever since. I find it helpful to fill this out once right after the interview based on my own notes and memory, and then to listen to the recording to fill in any gaps.

Create a summary for stakeholders.

No one is going to read your snapshot for each interview, but they will want to know what the learnings are, what decisions need to be made, and what the next steps are. This is where you really sell them! Review your findings often, with each round of interviews, so that stakeholders along can see the progress and value in real time. For one of my clients, it wasn’t until we had a round of interviews where nothing we had showed customers solved their problem that I could truly demonstrate the value of this customer interview process. They were dejected after hearing so much “negative” feedback about a possible new feature, but I was elated. We spent exactly $0 of engineering development time to find this out, and now we had definitive feedback about which direction not to go in. If we hadn’t done the interviews, my client would have invested in building that feature immediately, and wouldn’t have realized for months that it didn’t actually solve the problem for our customers.

Product managers excel at distilling lots of information down to the most important parts, so that your team can make decisions about what to do next. Customer interviews are no exception. It is the collection of customer feedback that can lead to an aha moment for your product. And nothing gets stakeholders more on board with the investment that goes into these interviews than having those moments themselves when you bring them along for the journey.