Twelve tips for customer development interviews

Twelve tips for customer development interviews

In the past couple of years I’ve had the privilege of mentoring at the Lean Startup Machine in London. Saturday morning is when the teams first ‘get out of the building‘ to do customer development. It is easy to preach that mantra of getting out and talking to customers, but how do you do it?  How do you get the most out of customer development interviews? What do you say? Here are twelve tips that I’ve presented.

1. Go fish where the fishes swim

I recently heard this from an agency pitching social media work (take your proposition to social networks where your customers are, rather than assuming they’ll come to you) but the statement holds true for customer development. It’s not enough to get out of the building and hope to randomly find people that care. You’ve got to go to where your target market hang out, and better still, find them in a place where your questions will be relevant. If your idea is related to movies, go hang out around cinemas. If your idea is focussed on high end retail, there’s little value in talking to people outside a down-market outlet.

2. Have a plan

Be clear who you want to talk to. You may learn interesting stuff from talking to random people on the street, but how relevant is what they say to your proposition? How will it provide useful insight or validate your assumptions?

Once you’ve framed in your mind who you are going to talk to, be clear what you want to learn. This means documenting your hypotheses and crafting an interview checklist to test these against. The checklist may be on paper or in your head; it’s a list of areas you want to address. It’s purpose is to give you a clear and consistent framework to structure your questions around so when you complete the interview you’ll have data that will contribute to validating or refuting your hypotheses. It is not a list of questions, rather prompts to work with and keep you focussed.

For example, probing recent cinema experience may lead you to ask “tell me about the last time you went to the cinema”. Having the cinema experience prompt will help keep you on track and avoid the person deviating on their passion of rom-com movies.

3. Talking to strangers is unnatural

So you’ve got a plan and you are out prowling the streets. The first thing to do choose your target. Know who you want to talk to. Having created a persona may help paint a picture of what they might look like. Seen someone? If they are harried and clearly in rush you are wasting your time. Look for people who are waiting, people who don’t have purpose in their gait.

You’ve now got to do something totally alien to you. Approach a complete stranger, persuade them in a split second that you are friendly, (not interested in their money) and engage them in a conversation.

The opening move is simple. Smile! Have an opening line, for example say who you are, why you’ve stopped them “Hi, my name is John, “I’m building a new widget and would love to ask some questions about what you think about widgets”. Don’t start with “do you have a minute” because you want to be talking to them for more than a minute. Be succinct, practice before you go out and be prepared to be sidestepped. Once you’ve engaged them, have an opening question, maybe something general around the topic you are exploring before focussing into the pain points and problems they face.

4. Ask open ended questions

You don’t want them answering yes or no, you want them to answer questions with dialogue. This is easier said than done. If I ask you “do you brush your teeth twice a day”, there can only be one answer; yes or no. But if I say “Tell me about brushing your teeth” I don’t give you the opportunity to abruptly end the conversation, you have to talk.

Undoubtedly you will find yourself inadvertently asking a closed question and the response is an abrupt yes or no. Don’t worry, follow up by probing for an explanation of this response. For example ‘why do you say that?’ Why is a beautiful word, let it become your friend and ally. So good in fact, it needs expanding upon. Cue Tip Five…

5. Ask Why? (And other ‘W’ words)

Children’s minds are like sponges, they have an insatiable appetitive to learn and discover the world around them. As a parent this becomes obvious when they discover the effectiveness of ‘why’. Go back to your childhood ignorance and learn to love the word why again. It can be used to great effect, and is a core analysis tool for understanding the root cause of a problem. The “Five whys” is one of the techniques championed by the Lean movement. When you ask someone “why” there is an issue, their first answer will rarely be the underlying reason. You’ll get a superficial answer. To get to bottom of the problem you have to ask why repeated times. The Wikipedia entry describes the process well:

Problem: The car won’t start

  1. Why? The battery is dead
  2. Why? The alternator is not functioning
  3. Why? The alternator belt has broken
  4. Why? The alternator belt was beyond its useful service and not replaced
  5. Why? The car was not maintained according to the recommended schedule
  6. Why? Replacement parts are not available because of the extreme age of the vehicle

Solution 1. Start maintaing the vehicle based upon the reccomendeted service scheule (5th Why)
Solution 2. Purchase a different car that is maintainable.

Don’t stop with the why though, there are a few more words that begin with W to introduce into your questioning.

Who… Who does it?
When… When do they do it?
What… What do they do? What is the trigger for them doing it?
Where… Where do they do it?
With… With whom do they do it with?

And How. How do they do it.

For each of these questions probe around their needs, wants and desires (see my post about customer value proposition for more insight into this).

6. Avoid hypotheticals, lengthy or creative descriptions

Imagine you wanted to know more about a brand, and you had your phone to hand and you’ve got our app on it and you take a picture of the brand – the actual item- and overl-layed on the picture is rich information about the brand – do you think that would be a good idea?

You are creating a hypothetical situation that has no relevance to the person, describing a need that they don’t have (as you ask the question), using language they don’t understand (‘ brand’), a description that means nothing to them (put an app on my phone and take a picture to display information… eh?) Ending with a closed question. They will either be polite and say “yeah! sounds great” (the most likely response given your passion and enthusiasm) , or “no, I can’t see myself using it” (and that response speaks volumes. They can’t see them-self using it. If you were to show them…)

7. Show don’t explain

Words are slippery things that are easily misunderstood. I often ask a group of people to, behind their back or under the table) tear a sheet of paper in half. Without fail almost everyone tears it like this.

Paper torn on vertical plane

I’ve torn mine like this.

Paper torn across horizontal plane

Same words, same instructions, totally different result. Without something concrete or tangible to frame the product description against, your description could easily be misunderstood or misinterpreted. This is more likely when you are passionate about your product or service. You’ll find it easy to wax lyrical about it, probably framing its description around your personal experiences and assumptions of what is good (see above). They say a picture tells a thousand words. So use a picture to explore your concept. Build a prototype. A sketch. Use that to frame the questions. I’ve used post-it notes to simulate a mobile phone – screens are scribbled on each page and they are pulled off as the user moves through the experience.

8. Listening is uncomfortable

Listening is hard, especially in an interview when you need to be doing three things:

  1. Receiving information
  2. Making sense of the information you are hearing
  3. Then asking the right follow up question.

Watch people in a conversation in the pub and you won’t see much of the first two of these happening. People hear a soundbite and get fixated on that, preparing to talk on that point rather than listening to all that is said. This is lazy listening. You need to be an active listener. What does that mean?

Listen & show you are listening. Nod your head, gently grunt uh-huh. Repeat what you’ve heard.

You said listening is uncomfortable. What do you mean by that?

9. Love the uncomfortable silence

Normal conversation is often just banter, a statement by one person, a retort by another. That’s easy. But it’s not listening. If you are really listening, it is OK to take time to absorb what you have just heard. Far better than cutting them off mid-sentance. Learn to love uncomfortable silences, it gives you more time to think. In fact, last the person your talking to feel uncomfortable with the silence – Let them break it, not you.

10. Keep them talking

Of course there are some people who are monosyllabic whose responses give little away. “Tell me about your most recent visit to the cinema” “I saw a film. It was OK”. That’s hardly a conversation. These responses can be off-putting and appear that the person is just not interested. Often they just need a little warming up. Luckily there are a bunch of prompts that you can use to probe deeper and open them up to your questioning:

  • What do you mean by that?
  • Can you explain that a little more?
  • What else do you do?
  • Why do you say that?
  • How do you feel about that?
  • What are you thinking

11. Stop them talking

Conversely you’ll find some people are yakerty yak and just don’t stop talking. Worse, they’ll take an initial idea and take it to places you have no interest in going. Ask them about their trip to the cinema and before long they are telling you all about the partner they went with and how they are no longer associated with them. You need to interrupt their flow in a friendly and endearing way. Don’t appear bored or agitated by their narrative, just nod, smile and then take control

That’s really interesting. You said earlier that…
I know what you are saying! [smile & nod]. Can we return to what you were saying about…
Can I please stop you there for a moment and go back to…

12. They (could be) a customer

At the end of the interview thank them for their time. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t ask for their contact details if you can promise to follow up with something. Give them a flyer, provide them with a URL, invite them to try your website. Remember, they could be a future customer, and having seen you (and liked you) they could become a passionate advocate for your product.

Good luck as you get out of the building. And maybe double up the twelve tips to twenty four, looking at Giff Constables twelve.

If you're new here, you may want to subscribe to my RSS feed. Thanks for visiting!

Four ideas for customer development with charities

A couple of weeks ago I gave this presentation to charities at a Forward Foundation event.  The not-for-profit sector can be just as guilty as corporates for failed IT projects. Several years ago I worked with a high profile campaigning organisation to build a social network for activists. It was useful and usable, but ultimately withered and died. They didn’t do customer development to validate the proposition. This time two years ago I was involved in a pitch to another large charity who again wanted a revamped digital presence.  We lost the bid – it was won by a flagship creative agency.  Again, two years later nothing has been delivered. The website looks the same. It needn’t be this way. The not for profit sector should look to the lean startup community rather than the corporate sector for inspiration in developing digital strategies and building the right stuff for the right people.

Agile experience design video

Doesn’t time fly! It’s been seven months since I last blogged. Since then I’ve moved on, living in a world of car insurance and credit cards. I’ve got loads of ideas for new blog posts brewing, but just no time to get them down. Writing the book took a lot of of me last year!

Anyway, until I write something fresh, here’s a video of me waxing lyrical about agile experience design at the excellent Scan Agile conference in Helsinki earlier this year.

How the retail banks are addressing customer experience

A few weeks ago I attended the Customer Experience Management for Banking and Financial Services conference, presenting on driving agility into your customer experience.  There were some great presentations, it is great to see the banks taking customer experience seriously. From my notes, what follows are some of the presentations and ideas that resonated with me.

Anthony Thomson, Metrobank

Anthony Thomson, chairman of Metro Bank was inspiring. Everything they do is from the customer perspective.

For everything Metro Bank do, they ask ‘why are we doing this?’ Is it going to make our lives easier, or is it going to give our customers a better experience? The second trumps the first every time.

Metrobank see that they (like all banks) are essentially a money shop who sell the same products as their competitors. The only real differentiator is experience and service. With the Vickers Report recommending “the early introduction” of a system that makes it easier to move accounts and that is “free of risk and cost to customers”, this is going to become increasingly more important.

Retail is detail is the old adage. Think about something as small as the pen on the counter. Chaining it down may suggest security, until you see a chain with no pen attached. Anthony questioned what is the cost of a pen? What is the value of having your branded pen in your customers’ kitchen? Talking of branding he showed a picture of a Metrobank van. Banks use vans all the time to transport the pens and stationary to the branches, but they are never branded. Is this security trumping marketing? A lack of joined up thinking? He commented on the press comments on Metrobank attitude towards dogs. Focussing upon the dog misses the point. Customers love their dogs, why shouldn’t they be allowed in the stores and be positively welcomed! By saying “no dogs” are you saying we care more about our carpets than our customers?

Another detail thing – how often have you waited outside a bank to open in the morning, or be hassled out because it’s the end of the day and is now closed. Metrobank have flexibility, they’ll open a little earlier if people are waiting outside and stay open till the last customer leaves.

A theme through Anthony’s presentation was of empowerment. Empowering staff, removing pedantic rules that get in the way of delivering a compelling customer experience. He told a story of how a customer had to wait longer for assistance than expected and incurred an £8 parking ticket. A member of staff wanted to refund the customer and suggested giving them £4. To which Anthony commented “and only half piss them off?”

Empowerment starts with recruiting good people. Only a fraction of the people who apply get to work for Metrobank. They understand that skills can be trained so they recruit for attitude. If someone whose job is to interact with customers on a daily basis doesn’t smile, they don’t get the job. When it comes to targets, they ‘measure what matters’. They incentivise on service not sales because with good service comes sales.

Rob Hawthorn, Barclays

Empowerment was a theme that ran through the presentation that Rob Hawthorne from Barclays gave. He’s taken a leaf out of the hospitality industry and borrowed from Ritz Carlton with their Credo Card, a single sided card that reminds their staff of the levels of service they should provide. Barclays corporate staff are empowered to fix the problem. Like Metrobank they strive for no stupid rules and put the customer first. For example a customer pays in £230.60 and only £230.20 is credited to the account. They now refund then investigate. By introducing this policy change they say a 65% reduction in customer complaints.

Everyday, in every Ritz Carlton hotel they have The Line-up. This is a fifteen minute meeting to review guest experiences, address issues and identify how they can improve service. It is an opportunity to tell stories, both top down (what’s going on in the company overall) and bottom up (what can we learn from individuals and their interactions with customers). Barclays corporate do this across the organisation. From the top down they have one version of the truth; what is happening in Barclays world, what is important and what are customers saying today?”

The fifteen minute meeting is a familiar concept within agile, known as the standup it’s a brief meeting where the team review what they did yesterday, what they are doing today and any issues or blockers they are facing.

“How often do you see your complaints data?” Asked Rob. What use is seeing it once a month? You should be seeing it every day. Better still (and this is something that I alluded to as well), walk in the shoes of your customer. Get out into the branches, into the call centre and see what is going on for yourself.

Richard Brimble, Veolia Water

Not FS, but Richard gave a view on customer experience from a different viewpoint.  He gave an engaging presentation that started by asking if you are a blue tit or a robin. Blank states from the audience, so he elaborated. After the first world war milk companies started sealing milk bottles with foil tops. Until then the bottles had open tops and both robins and blue tits would drink the cream from the top. With the foil tops the birds had to learn to peck through them. By the 1950s the entire blue tit population had learned this. Robins never did. Robins are territorial and solitary creatures, whilst blue tits are social. They may be scruffy compared to the elegance of the robin, but they are innate communicators. They share their learnings and copy each others successes. As an organisation are you a robin or a blue tit?!

Sean Gilchrist, Barclays

Is Barclays going all Lean Startup? Sean Gilchrist from Barclays told a story of their lean customer development approach to developing their mobile bank Barclays.mobi. The journey started in data; a significant minority of customers were accessing internet banking using mobile devices. A clunky experience at best. Rather than going the Big IT route they went lean and did some customer discovery. “What’s important to you?” they asked customers.  “Checking balance” they were told. “How about paying bills on your mobile?” they asked, “No, we just want to check balances” was the response. “How about a branch location finder?” to be told  “No, we just want to check balances”. In eight weeks and on a shoestring they built and launched their minimum viable product, Barclays.mobi. The product was instantly successful and gave the team leverage to continue development.

Sean told another story about the perils of just pushing something into production without thinking about how people behave on-line. To access account information on on-line banking the customer has to use a security device that displays digits that are then entered into the application. The digits were displayed in two blocks of four:

1234 5678

A decision was taken to replace the single field on the application where this number was entered into two fields that better represented the way the number was presented on the screen, i.e.

|1234| |5678|

The week they made this change they received over thirty thousand complaints about this change. When I’ve recounted this story to Barclays customers they can remember when this happened and what a pain it was. People who don’t touch type look at their keyboard, not the screen. They entered the number as one continuum, not in two blocks. Tabbing between fields is an ‘advanced’ technique. Suddenly the customer was unable to enter the number without having to use their mouse to move to the next field. A change that was suppose to reduce errors ended up causing more. The issue was fixed by have an auto-tab between the fields, but not before customer complaints. Usability testing (oe even having an experienced usability expert on the team) before going live would have picked this issue up.

Trent Fulcher, RBS

Finally Trent Fulcher from RBS presented on the customer experience and innovation work he has been doing at RBS. A key takeaway from his presentation was that at RBS they demonstrated a positive correlation between advocacy and revenue per customer. Not only are advocates more profitable, they also bring new customers to brand. RBS accepted that they will always have detractors to the brand and are happy to take a calculated decision not to focus upon changing their perceptions, rather focus on ‘passives’ and move them to advocates. He demonstrated how RBS modelled their customer journeys, understanding what customers value and expect from every touch point. What they discovered is that for some touchpoints they were overreaching on these expectations, enabling them to understand if they were focussing effort on the parts of the journey that Make A Difference.

Live chat MVP

I heard a good story this week about in insurance company getting a minimum viable product for Live Chat on their website.  It was when live chat was first starting and as a service was too expensive for them to pursue.  They had a call centre so what they did was a cheap workaround.  There was a call to action for Live Chat on the site, with a picture of an agent ready to start messaging.  But when the pop-up chat window opened, it had a message apologising that all their live chat agents were busy.  But if the customer entered a telephone number they’d get a call right back on their phone.  This was technology they already had. By all accounts it was successful, focussing upon the goal (get an agent talking to the customer real time) rather than the tool.

Who’s deadline is it anyway?

I’ve been rather tardy of late with blog posts; too much else is going on, not least the writing a book Agile Experience Design with Lindsay Ratcliffe to be published in November. Lindsay writes a great article for our publisher on how the design process is no longer fit for purpose, being stuck in the old advertising/ print world with outdated concepts that are irrelevant for the digital world.  Not least is the concept of the deadline, working towards this mythical date for the final reveal.

I’ve recently seen several projects where deadlines have caused all sorts of issues.  Here’s a theme.  The business owner picks a date in the future for the new product to be launched with great fanfare.  An agency are engaged by the business to develop the creative concepts.  This creative stuff has to happen offsite, and certainly nowhere near IT (who are seen as party-poopers, unable to be visionary, rather doomsayers with their constraints).  Aligning the creative and IT is a challenge, but there’s a deadline for the agency to deliver the creative and this fit’s into the IT plan.  What happens next is that the creative slips.  The concepts are not quite right; the business asks for them to refined.  Their deadline passes.  IT raises it as a risk on the plan, but the delivery date for launch remains fixed.  Finally the creative is complete and signed off by the business who are delighted by the innovative concepts.  IT aren’t.  They got an unrealistic product vision to be delivered in an unrealistic timeframe with no control over the launch date that has been announced to the market.  As the date approaches and difficult conversations are had, who gets the blame?  Not the creative team who produced the hoped-for award winning design.  They are long gone.  It is IT who get the blame, once again failing to deliver on time or on budget.

None of this would happen if designers and developers collaborated.  If ownership of both the process and the product was shared.  How can we facilitate that sharing?   That’s coming in the book.  That I ought to get back to writing. To meet the deadline.

The cart before the horse

“We need a digital strategy to map out our roadmap to success”

“We’ve got to use <insert Content Management System / Product> because we’ve paid for licences for it”.

No you don’t.

You need to think about the what, then just get going on the how.

To overuse the metaphor, you need to stop thinking you need a horse and a cart.  Don’t spend your time  designing the cart, or worse still putting it in front of the horse.  You’ll never get anywhere. Your horse will be perfectly good to get you started on the journey.  If it is an old nag you won’t have invested much time and effort on designing a cart that’s not fit for the horse.  And if it’s a thoroughbred you can build a cart that is fit for the journey when you need it.  And that roadmap? What use is it in uncharted territory?

2 of 38
123456