How well do you understand what makes your customers tick? You may want to invest in conducting a Buyer’s Journey investigation. This bit of targeted market research will help you discover how, why, and when your customers make investments and purchase decisions. I’ve worked with B2B tech companies for the past 30 years and have conducted many, many types of customer interviews. If you are kicking off your own Buyer’s Journey project, these 10 tips will help you hone your own interviewing skills.

Before we get started, let me offer that most customers actually like being interviewed and will appreciate your wanting to understand them better — as long as you are respectful of their time and you position this project in a way that benefits them (i.e. how you will use the information you collect to improve your products/process/services to help customers achieve their goals and objectives). The higher you aim (i.e. CIO vs line manager), how you position and conduct your request will become more important.  Regardless, don’t be afraid to ask for an interview, and never be apologetic when you do (i.e. “I know you are very busy, but could I ask you a favor . . .) This is business. The worst they can say is no, and that’s probably because they have time constraints. Most customers will happily take time to talk with you.

Here are 10 tips to improve your interviewing abilities:

  1. Only interview customers who fit the target persona. Not all customers are created equal. You must have a clearly defined persona to guide your interviewee selection. This person must be at the right level, have the right responsibility, and know the details to answer your questions. If that person is not available, and if they ask to delegate your interview to someone who is clearly not your target persona, you should decline the interview. You will not get the insights you are looking for. Stay true to the target persona.
  1. Request an interview with friendly customers first. In the final analysis, you will want to interview a wide variety of customers, including those who may not be currently happy with you. However, as a first step, aim for the easiest customers. Friendly customers will more likely agree to an interview and make time for you.
  1. Ask a company executive or sales rep to provide you with an introduction to the specific individual you want to interview. Cold calling takes too much time and will likely limit your success. Instead, leverage personal relationships where you have them.
  1. Ask for 20 minutes. Twenty minutes seems the ideal, comfortable duration for an interview. Asking for more time (like a half hour) will give the customer pause because of their busy schedule.  However, if you ask for 20 minutes, they may enjoy talking to you so much that they allow the interview to go longer. Let this happen! When you reach the 20-minute limit, and if you have more questions, ask their permission to continue for 10 minutes more. Most customers will agree easily to this. I’ve had customers grant me 45 minutes because they lose track of time while enjoying the interview process.
  1. Don’t confuse your sales process with the customer’s buying process. While these two processes are linked, they are completely different. Consider that 80% of the typical B2B buying process happens without you! We want to know what happens in this 80% and then how it transitions when they invite you to the party.
  1. Play the role of an investigative journalist. There is no such thing as a standard interview. Each customer is different, and you want them to tell you their “buyer’s journey story” in their own words. While you must have an interview guide with questions to guide the conversation, it is not a straight-jacket. Your first priority is to listen to their stories. Don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions and ask about details you may not understand. Be flexible. (Note: this skill does not come naturally to most marketers; it requires training to learn how to properly listen. You may find it helpful to team up with partner who will take notes while your ask the questions and listen.)
  1. Ask the customer if you can record the call. Set up your interviews on WebEx and use the “record” feature if the customer agrees. But only if they agree. You must show trust and respect in these calls. Anything less will damage your relationship.
  1. Document your call. Immediately after each interview, set aside time to summarize the call while it is fresh in your mind. Using the interview guide, provide your answers in as much detail as possible. Include bullets or simple graphics to capture and illustrate key ideas. And be sure to include as many of the customer’s own words as possible! You and your team will need to know how they refer to their issues, opportunities, technologies, priorities, and processes. We want to know the customer’s language, not your company jargon. In my experience, I set aside 30 minutes to update my notes after each completed 30 minute interview. Your notes need to be so clear that a colleague can read them and feel like they were in the room with you. Do not use short-hand; do not use only bullet points. Make your notes descriptive, using full sentences as much as possible.
  1. Don’t sell! These interviews are not about selling your products or services. Do not sell anything. Do not defend anything. Even if it is clear they have misunderstood your vision, value proposition, or product offering, DO NOT SELL. Just listen. Afterwards, you can alert the sales rep with your insights and feedback regarding other sales opportunities.
  1. Thank the customer. Always be polite and respectful, including thanking them at the conclusion of the call. In addition, send them a short email thanking them for their time. People, in general, do not say “thank you” enough.

For more tips and tricks for conducting a world-class Buyer’s Journey project, contact Mike Gospe or visit KickStart Alliance.

Mike Gospe is a marketing strategist and professional facilitator of Customer Advisory Boards (CABs) and an expert in Buyer’s Journey and Voice-of-the-Customer programs.