Supercharge Your Startup With These Killer Customer Interview Secrets—Video Content Roundup

Published: Jun 9, 2014
Last Updated: Apr 27, 2017

You’ve defined the problem. You’ve created some hypotheses. You’ve looked over more industry research and market data than any sane person should ever read in a lifetime.

Now that you’ve finished the necessary groundwork, all you need to do at this point is throw your thoughts on paper and you’ll have a viable business plan that will take the world by storm, right?

Not quite.

As it turns out, there’s really only so much you can do for your startup without leaving the building. Sure, you can go over the stats and figures until you think you have an idea that will capture customers’ interest, but you won’t know for sure until you step out of the office, talk to some potential clients and learn about their wants and needs. This process is known as customer discovery. Reading through industry and market data will allow you to formulate some hypotheses, but you’ll need to engage in customer discovery in order to validate your hypotheses and ensure your business survives first contact with customers. To learn more about customer discovery interviews, check out the tips below.

  1. Pre-plan the right way

Before you do anything, you need to come up with a list of 100 potential customers to interview. That might seem like a very big number, but the whole point of this process is to get as much insight as possible—and you’re only going to learn so much chatting things over with your friends and family. Once you’ve decided whether to pursue B-to-B or B-to-C sales, you can use resources like LinkedIn and the Yellow Pages to come up with a list of potential candidates. Next, do some dry runs. Customers will respond better when you seem prepared and comfortable, so sit down with a friend or partner and go through the motions of a customer discovery interview until you’re able to do the whole thing without looking at a script. Finally, design some pass/fail experiments to validate your hypotheses. These experiments can be incredibly simple. For example, you might believe a certain market segment will be most interested in your idea, so talking to a broad variety of people and keeping track of their responses will help you determine whether you’re right. Doing this work in advance will increase your chances of conducting a successful interview.

  1. Talk to customers in person

This truly can’t be stressed enough: your chances of getting some useful insight out of customer discovery skyrocket when you conduct your interviews in person. You might be able to get some preliminary data through email, social media, cold calls and online survey tools, but these methods aren’t a substitute for getting out of the building and talking to customers in their place of work. According to Steve Blank, author of The Startup Owner’s Manual, the goal is to see your customer’s pupils dilate when you show them your product. Customers might tell you that they’re excited by your value proposition, but you need to see their pupils for yourself to know that you have something really good on your hands. You might be afraid that nobody is going to want to take time out of their day to talk with you, but you’d be surprised. When you make an interview request, be sure to make it clear to the customer that you’re not selling anything and that you only want, say, twenty minutes of their time. Since most day-planners don’t section off time periods as small as twenty minutes, your potential customers often won’t mind helping you out.

  1. Ask useful questions

A successful interview requires that you ask the right questions. Instead of asking a yes/no question such as whether a customer frequently uses a certain form of technology, ask them to go over their daily habits—everything they do from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to bed. Understanding the customer’s day-in-the-life will allow you to piece together a comprehensive archetype, which will help you define your customers’ wants and needs. The worst thing you can do is presuppose that you already understand everything about the problem you wish to solve, because you’ll be less inclined to ask questions that might challenge your basic assumptions. Keep an open ear for responses that might disprove the entire foundations of your business. If you’re heading down the wrong path, now is the right time to find out.

  1. Don’t overdo it with demos and slide decks

Your customer discovery interview will only be as effective as your ability to hold the customer’s interest. If you immediately throw a prototype in their face or subject them to a lengthy PowerPoint presentation, they’ll become disengaged, which means you risk missing out on the kind of valuable firsthand insight your business plan needs to survive. Remember, a customer discovery interview is nothing more than a structured conversation, so keep things simple. Briefly explain the problem you wish to solve and then devote the bulk of your time to asking open questions, as that’s ultimately the only way you’ll learn anything from the experience. Moreover, try to root the conversation in the customer’s daily life and keep them feeling like they have a vital role in helping you figure things out. Once the conversation has reached a point where you’ve validated the problem and solution with the customer, they’ll be far more receptive to your demo.



  1. Go over the results carefully

After you’ve completed your interviews, you’re going to have plenty of data on your hands, so be sure to go over it carefully and with an open mind. Ultimately, you want to be able to use this data to figure out product-market fit, your customer archetype, your competitors, potential distribution channels, possible partnerships, revenue models and the kind of measures you’ll have to take to get, keep and grow your customer base. When you’re looking through the data you’ve collected, you might notice some general trends with a few outliers. Rather than ignoring the outliers, consider the fact that they might represent new customer segments or routes-to-market that could still be worthy of exploration. Once you’ve reached some sound conclusions, don’t immediately tell your team everything you’ve learned. Properly conducted customer discovery has the potential to steer your business in new directions, which can be jarring for your personnel if you don’t take your time with it. Let the ideas percolate before carefully bringing these conclusions into your team’s regular structured communications.

To learn more about customer discovery, check out more of these extensive Lean Launchpad videos. You can pick up some additional tips with these great Product Discovery blog posts here and here and find out what not to do with this helpful advice from Kevin Dewalt. For more information on UBC’s commitment to helping local and area entrepreneurs, check out what our partners are doing at Entrepreneurship@UBC.