Salesforce’s 8th annual State of Marketing report displays that marketers are relying on an increasing number of data sources every year to make smart decisions.
In 2021, marketers report using on average 10 data sources. In 2022 this number is up to 15, and to an anticipated 18 sources in 2023.
Note that of the many data sources cited, not a single one of them is “calling my customer on the phone.”
Here’s the deal. If marketers are not directly speaking to their customers, no amount of data will be enough to offer a total/comprehensive/360-degree view of their customer.
Marketers may have access to all the data in the world, but without customer interviews they miss out on the insights that would take them far and above their competitors.
What is a customer interview?
Customer interviews are a qualitative research method connecting business or marketing leaders directly with their customers to collect in-depth information about their customers’ needs, behaviors, experiences and opinions.
In some cases, you’ll hear of a distinction between customer interviews and user interviews. For marketing leaders, these can often be viewed the same way. Customer interviews may target current or past customers, or they may focus on potential or ideal customers. The interview candidates’ relation to the business can vary based on the goal of interviewing. It’s all semantic, really. And that’s coming from an agency that cares a good deal about semantics.
Why should marketers be doing customer interviews?
Ryan Paul Gibson, founder at content lift, has made a career for himself doing one thing: customer interviews.
We asked him, "why do marketers need to do interviews when they already have access to so much data?"
Here's what he said:
"Without [customer interviews], your odds of winning in a market are almost zero.
The data marketers typically have shows actions. It shows a click here, a post here, a form-fill here. But what was the intention behind those actions? Why were those the things that customers did and what brought them here in the first place?
if you don't understand that [buying] process - how your customer is making decisions and thinking about and prioritizing different solutions within their business before they get to you - you're not going to influence that process."
Here are some common benefits of customer interviews that ultimately put you in the position Ryan Paul Gibson takes about - a position where you can influence buyers.
Learn customer pain points and needs.
A lot of marketers sit at a computer, sift through data, and consider themselves acquainted with their customers.
These marketers may know their customers better than they know their next-door neighbors Bill and Jan, but this demographic-level insight is just not enough.
To create empathetic marketing that reaches through to the customer, marketers need to understand their customers pain points and needs at a deeper level.
Marketers should understand their buyers’ concerns, aspirations and cares even beyond the scope of relevance to their own product.
Organic conversations are the best way to do this.
Learn the vocabulary of your audience.
After over 40 hours of customer interviews conducted by the marketing lead at 97th Floor, the team built a robust word bank cataloging how customers think and talk about agencies, hiring an agency and marketing.
Recurring words and phrases soon replaced the unenlightened jargon of the 97th Floor marketing team. Intentionally building these phrases and sentiments into advertising has directly increased 97th Floor ad performance.
Ads from Q2 2021:
Ads from Q2 2023, informed by customer interviews:
And the results?
- 164% increase in clicks
- 275% increase in impressions
- 10% decrease in spend
Discover alternate/additional personas.
If you are only marketing to a demographic, one persona might do it. But when you learn your customers at a deeper level, you’ll discover segments of your audience that overlap or are completely unrelated - but that all fall into your buyer group.
If you suspect an additional persona is emerging in your calls, try to schedule more calls with this type of buyer to dig in and build out this new customer profile.
Learn the standard and the outliers.
Similarly to recognizing the shared vocabulary of your audience, customer interviews will reveal both the standard majority in your buyers and the extreme outliers.
There will absolutely be a group of your audience that is drastically different from your central audience.
Their perception of, use for and approach towards your product will seem to contradict everything you know about your market.
That is okay. Take note of these outlying customers and then, honestly, maybe just throw that note out. You don’t need to spend time here strategizing. Be aware of the minority in your audience, and then continue speaking to your majority.
Develop trust with customers.
A thoughtful, well-planned interview communicates respect, concern and empathy to your customers. Although these interactions happen one-on-one, their impact is far deeper and lasting than any other interaction a customer can have with your brand.
Taking time to understand your customer through this interview will leave a lasting impact on them, perhaps creating a brand evangelist and therefore future business.
How to conduct customer interviews
Establish goals and objectives
A customer interview is always a great strategy for marketing teams, but the effectiveness of that interview for both you and the customer is directly related to your preparation.
This all starts with goal-setting. Consider your business’ position, challenges and opportunities.
What do you need to learn about your customer?
Are you preparing for a product launch?
Is your company new and in-need of deeper-level personas to take your marketing further?
Ryan Paul Gibson explains, "You have to start by figuring out what you want to know and why. Where's the gap in your knowledge and what are you trying to achieve with these interviews? From there you can work backwards to set your objectives and your guiding topics of conversation."
Set an over-arching, qualitative goal for what you would like to learn in your customer interviews. Then follow up with setting objectives for the number of interviews you would like to conduct, at what frequency, and with what customers.
Once you know which customers or ideal/potential customers you need to speak with, you can start finding contacts.
LinkedIn Sales Navigator is the best tool for finding the right people. Sales Nav’s lead-finding filters enable you to narrow exactly who you’d like to talk to.
Is it a former or current client you can learn from? Check your company’s internal records. Perhaps you want to talk to people who have never heard of your brand before. You could consider ads, or start asking your internal teams to pull together a list. Start with friends and business connections. Ask for help developing a list and always ask for introductions. Use your interviews to build momentum finding new people to talk to by asking for referrals after every call.
Pro Tip from 97th Floor VP of Marketing Danny Allen:
“Something that I'm learning that increases my response rates is to bluntly ask for help in my outreach. I have to make it clear that I'm not looking to sell them anything and that I really do need help. Most people are inclined to help someone when they can, and most people also want to mentor someone else and show their knowledge. I get a lot of "nos" or "not right nows" (most often due to their strict time schedule and bandwidth) but at least I get responses.”
The most important preparation you can do is to research the individual you will be speaking to.
Use LinkedIn to explore their past roles and accomplishments. Be familiar with their professional experience and spend some time looking at any content they post or interact with to get an idea of their focus and interests. Consider how this new information impacts the questions you ask in your interview.
Plan your introduction
Always start the interview by orienting yourself and your customer. Take the time to introduce your company, your product or service, and your role. Don’t assume that they know anything about your organization already.
Explain why you are conducting these interviews, what you hope to learn, and express your sincere appreciation for their time and help. Set expectations for how long the interview will last. Explain that there are no right or wrong answers - you just want to understand their own experience.
Your interviewee is the expert here. Make that clear.
Ask open-ended questions
It is the first law of interviewing to ask open-ended questions. Instead of backing your customer into a corner surrounded by one-word answers, ask questions that give your customer the ability to lead you and the interview towards discovering deep and valuable insights about their experience.
Write these open-ended, exploratory questions in advance. Then consider how you might perceive and answer the question if you were in your interviewee’s position. Adjust as needed.
Give your interviewee something to chew on
For your open-ended questions to be most prosperous you need to also provide something for your interviewee to chew on.
Feed them a bold statement, an assumption, a stat, or an experience. Then ask a pertinent questions.
For example: According to LinkedIn, 95% of your target market is out-market and not ready for messaging related to buying.....how accurate would you say that is?
This helps them see that you're well prepared and that you're in the trenches with them. It also makes it easier for them to react as opposed to coming up with an answer to an open-ended question without context.
Ask about past experiences, not future intentions
The best kind of open-end questions will prompt your interviewee to answer with a specific experience of their own. Asking hypothetical questions infects your interviewee’s answer with uncertainty. The way your buyer thinks they would respond to a future crisis is nowhere near as important as how they actually reacted to a crisis in the past. Asking about past experiences reveals true trends, thinking patterns and a more realistic view of your customer’s experience. Try questions that start with, “Tell me about a time…”.
Don't just listen - be curious
A toddler’s first word may be mama or dada, but their most-uttered word is certainly “why.” Unlock your inner child in an interview. It’s easy and obvious to skip to the “what” and “how,” but slow down and ask “why” - with more tact than a two-year old - to understand your customer’s motivations. Digging a few levels deep into this way may reveal some of the most important information you can own about your customers.
What to do after your interview
Just like for a job interview, always write a follow-up email thanking the customer for their time and insights. If possible, get specific about something you learned from the conversation.
This is also your opportunity to ask for referrals to other contacts. Make it easy for them to refer. Instead of asking "will you refer me to someone?", ask "can I look through your linkedIn connections and propose a few people you could refer me to?"
Then if they say yes, find 2-3 people in their linkedIn connections and send them the request to speak to those people in a message or email so they can directly forward those messages to their connections instead of reaching out to them cold.
Codify data and record main takeaways
While the interview is still fresh, record your main takeaways including your customers major pain points and motivations. Review your goals set before the interview - did you learn what you hoped to learn? Consider what you heard that is surprising and what you heard that was expected.
Always save the video/audio of your interview and have it transcribed. Review your objectives, and then re-listen to your interview while highlighting anything in the transcript that speaks to your research objective.
This process of codifying will help you to extract the most crucial parts of your interviews. You'll never be able to perfectly remember what you discussed or what your customer said. Rely on recordings and careful notes.
As you do more interviews, your notes will enable you to form hypotheses about your majority customer base and then test those hypotheses with tailored questions in additional interviews.
In fact, you can start to expect consistent themes to appear in your conversations after only seven interviews, which is great news for busy marketers.
Gibson explains, "You don't have two years to put something together. You might have two or three months. Speaking to seven to 12 customers with specific objectives around something you want to know, you can get some really clear insights to then aggregate and then start making actions out of that in the business."
Keep a word bank
Remember that vocabulary-learning benefit we mentioned? Start compiling words. This is easiest if you transcribe the audio and then keep all interviewee transcriptions in one document. When all of this text is in one place, you can copy and paste into a simple tool like https://wordcounter.net/ to discover keyword density.
Keep learnings top of mind
Finally, and most importantly, carry your learnings into your marketing and to other teams and departments.
Hoarding your shiny new customer insights is pointless - get them to the SEO team, to customer service, to leadership and to any other team that can benefit from better understanding your audience. Make learnings as accessible as possible so that they make an impact in your business.
Ryan Paul Gibson warns of forgetting.
"I worked with a company on a research project that revealed that the buyer we were targeting was off.
But just a year after we did the research, people were referencing the older style buyer. And I had to remind them of this research project from a year ago and say, "This is the actual buyer." It takes time for people to shake stuff out of the brain and think of it as a new lens.
It helps to keep short snippets centralized and continually socialized and educated in the company. That's the key part."
At 97th Floor, this education takes the form of an internal podcast where customer interviews are available for review.
Communicating with leadership
We can't offer any comfort that taking this project forward will automatically win you the hearts and minds of leadership. However, knowing your customer better - better than anyone else - certainly can.
Ryan Paul Gibson explains it this way:
"Always use the research as the focal point of your discussion. I shy away from "I"
statements. Instead, I try to phrase things as, "the data suggests this," or "our ideal buyers have said this.
Executives will focus on and pick up on things that customers are saying, because they know that what drives their business is an understanding of the customer.
Even based on the data you and I have a difference of opinion, but at least we're starting from the same ground.
It goes a long way when you start showing people that you really understand buyers and customers at a deep level. It guides all your decisions about how you're going to move forward."
Great marketing needs three things: Empathy, Innovation and Profitability. While data can offer a partial view into your buyers’ lives, only primary research - meeting and interviewing your audience - will transform your buyers into humans. That level of empathy inspires marketing that can’t be ignored.