We recently wrote about interviewing customers to get beyond their initial asks to find out what they really need. In the article, we mentioned that the “5 Whys” is a popular and effective method for talking to customers. We also elaborated on how we use that framework. Of course, interviewing, whether it be with job candidates, customers, or sources for a story, can be a bit of an art and science.

I recently interviewed people for different stories, and I loved how I got some interesting takeaways that I never expected, including:

  • A lawyer turned software engineer telling me why he thought, “law is the code for our lives”
  • An accountant telling me that he nearly went to med school before realizing he hated biology at pretty much the last moment
  • A head of operations for one of the biggest Las Vegas casino telling me that she moved to the tech industry because a fortune teller told her it would happen

I was able to, in a limited amount of time, not only get some interesting bits of information but also what really mattered to them. Whatever kind of interview you’re doing, here are 3 things that can help you both get to know your interviewee and get to the heart of your discussion. Hopefully, as you talk to your customers, you can find something useful here to connect with them as well!

Find the story

Listen carefully and go where your curiosity takes you. Don’t get stuck on where you think the conversation should go. Yes, have a script of some kind to give you an outline, but deviate when there’s something you want to know, even if it’s not totally relevant to the end game you’re looking for. The outline and script will still be there for you.

You don’t need to ignore your personality and what you personally bring to the conversation when interviewing. Not only does it help make for a more engaging and authentic conversation, but it also helps the person you’re talking to feel more at ease to open up more.

In our eBook, Hiten Shah says that while working on a new product, he spoke to over 50 people in a week and explained what he was seeking.  “I’m looking for pain, looking at what problems people say they have, and then I’m also looking for stories (the “why”) that connect it all together.” To find these stories, you have to be open to following where your interviewee takes you. I’m always looking to be surprised in these interviews to the point where if I’m not, then I feel like I may not have listened carefully enough.

Find the emotion

Ask, “how did that make you feel? I realized this question was fundamental to every good interview after listening to hundreds of episodes of This American Life. If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s a decades-old radio show that’s now one of the most popular podcasts in the US. The brilliance of the show is that they turn one person’s or a small town’s seemingly small problem into a full human drama that anyone can relate to. It’s not because they merely report on details, but they report on the emotional impact. We might not relate to a local bar closing down, but we can relate to the emotion of feeling empty that a place you might have called a second home where you hung out with friends is no longer around.

Also in our eBook, Brian Crofts talks about going after emotion. This helps more clearly identify the actual need of the customer.

Now, this can sound a little like a psychiatrist is asking the question, so there are other ways to phrase it. For example, after someone describes their problem, you might ask “so what did you do next?” If they say, “nothing. I just did the next thing,” then you can guess that the issue didn’t cause much trouble. However, if they describe how they had to do a variety of different things to try and fix the issue themselves, then you can guess that it caused enough anxiety and stress.

Deliver the synthesis

Say, “what I hear you saying is…” The most important thing to do is to playback everything you heard. This is also an excellent opportunity to rephrase what you heard in terms that are relevant either to your story or in the language and phrasing used by those that you plan to talk to about it, such as your engineering team.

This is important for two reasons. First, it helps to make sure you completely and fully understood what you heard. When I wrote about effective communication, I mentioned avoiding the telephone game. Playing back what you heard helps prevent that. Second, it gives the interviewee a chance to rethink what they said. Sometimes it’s possible to get so caught up in a conversation, that you misspeak or don’t say something exactly as you intended. This is the point where you may hear some additional nuance. Actually, this is how I found out that a Las Vegas casino executive frequented a fortune teller in Portland for important life decisions!

Ultimately, you’re having a conversation with another human being, no matter the context. If it’s feeling overly mechanical and you’re just going through the steps, think about the techniques above and how you can shake it up a bit!

Monty Mitra Mar 12, 2019