B2B marketing is much more complicated than consumer marketing. That’s because B2B businesses address particular niches, where customers don’t spend as much time online.
Also, B2B customers are not as easy to convince to respond to surveys or click on CTA buttons as regular consumers are.
But if there’s one thing that the most successful B2B companies have in common, it’s their in-depth understanding of the industry and of their customers.
How do these companies get to know their customers so well? How do they manage to speak their language like they’re one of them and address their challenges?
Believe it or not, it’s not rocket science: they perform customer interviews.
In this article I’m going to show you:
- why you should conduct customer interviews;
- when the best time to conduct customer interviews is;
- how to do it the right way.
Since we’re big fans of customer interviews, and because we didn’t want to make this article too subjective, we’ve also included the perspective of other 8 business owners, marketing managers, and growth marketers that agreed to share their know-how with us.
Ready? Let’s dig in!
Types of customer interviews
Depending on what you want to achieve, customer interviews can be divided into two groups:
1. Customer discovery interviews
Customer discovery interviews help marketers communicate with potential customers. They’re used to validate a business plan or a hypothesis and turn them into something profitable. Simply put, you conduct customer discovery interviews before launching a new product, or whenever you want to discover potential customers.
User Interviews is an example of a product born out of customer discovery interviews. After missing the mark on product/market fit for their first startup, the founders decided to find a new business idea and validate it with potential customers. The problem was, it was very hard to find people to talk to about your prototype and conduct your research.
They decided to ask their previous clients whether they also find recruitment and scheduling customer interviews a problem they face in their research, and if more than 50% say yes, to proceed with their idea. Turns out 70% of the people they interviewed had the same problem, and so they went ahead and launched User Interviews.
2. Customer development interviews
Customer development interviews, on the other hand, give marketers a clue about what their customers really want or need. They’re used to identify how customers are dealing with specific tasks, if they’re happy with the product, if there are any specific features they need, etc. These are interviews you conduct whenever you feel necessary.
Intuit regularly conducts customer development interviews to test design changes and new features. During these interviews, they realized a lot of their customers were freelancers or a part of the gig economy.
As a result, they had difficulty separating work and personal expenses. So they decided to implement a simple swipe system that allows users to mark expenses as they come in on their mobile phone.
Why you should conduct customer interviews
If you ask me, customer interviews should be included in every marketer’s job description. Here’s what you can expect to achieve by doing them.
1. You learn who your customers really are
The sad truth is that there are many businesses out there that have no idea who their customers are. They think they do and gear their efforts accordingly, but the reality is they have little idea.
Customer development interviews help you identify your target audience, why they chose you, their decision process, what sets you apart from your competitors (key differentiators), what your customers don’t like about your company, and what you can do to change that.Kateryna Reshetilo, Head of Marketing at Greenice.net
2. You identify customer pains
In B2B marketing, the more you speak your customers’ language and the more you understand your customers’ pains, the better the results. This way, your key marketing messages will not be just some fancy pieces of texts that sound good, but rather real solutions to your customers’ problems.
Our customer discovery interviews have helped us better understand their needs and ensure relevance in our service offering and choice of marketing channels. Relevance and added value are key to developing our customer base. We have to do everything it takes to understand their needs, expectations, challenges, and issues so that we can best support them.Ceylan Boyce, Co-founder of Academy for Women Entrepreneurs (AWE)
Ceylan believes that getting feedback from your customers is “eye-opening”.
Customer interviews are great when you want to be very specific with your product positioning, or when the problem you’re solving is particular and you want to express this accordingly. Here’s what David Garcia, CEO of ScoutLogic thinks:
Whenever we conduct a needs assessment as part of the customer development process, our win rates go up dramatically. We always learn the ‘need behind the need’ the client is trying to solve.Tweet this quote
3. You learn your customers’ language
Speaking your customers’ language will accelerate your sales and make your brand more engaging. It will also help you create effective pain or benefit-oriented key marketing messages.
I recommend you film or take voice recordings during your customer interviews. Here’s why:
- You make sure you don’t miss a thing they say (it’s better to focus on the conversation than to take notes);
- You can also use the video to analyze other aspects like inflections in their voice, behavior, or even the way they dress. All this information might come in handy later if you decide to shoot a commercial, for example.
The point is, you go beyond just language, you understand their personality and the way they think, and this helps you attract more like-minded people.
4. You can identify the best product positioning
Tactics like NPS, surveys, and other tools are okay and they do their job. What they don’t give you is the thought process that only talking directly to a customer can.
As people or members of the same team, we’re biased. We tend to believe that the technical aspects of our product are the most important differentiator because that’s what our CTO says. Or we think people care about the money they can save, as the CEO says. They both might be right, but there could also be other reasons your customers chose you.
And most of the time, the unseen features will provide a better product positioning or marketing message against competitors.
NPS is a popular measure of customer experience, but it fails to capture the message and features that truly delight customers. Drill down on areas where users are particularly excited about a product. These are likely the product features that can help you market against competitors, and it’s essential you flag them during onboarding.Scott Bierbryer, CEO of Leanprop
ChartMogul has a great article on onboarding if you’d like to learn more about what the best plan for your B2B SaaS customers is.
5. You also better prioritize your development efforts
The following scenario might sound familiar: you think of a feature that you have to add to your product, spend lots of time and money implementing it, and when it’s finally ready, your customers couldn’t care less about it.
Or, you get a feature request from a customer, decide to implement it right away, and realize that only one customer uses it.
Customer interviews can help you avoid these scenarios (and save you time and money in the process). Before you jump the gun, make sure you validate your ideas with your customers.
We no longer rush to develop any feature idea that appears in our head or comes from a single user. A round of customer development interviews helps us decide whether there’s a need for that feature and usually brings even better, more specific ideas than the original one.
6. You get to understand the industry and gather insights
We can’t all be experts in everything. But as marketers, we need to really understand the industry we’re in.
We need to understand the processes, the challenges, what our customers deal with, what their workflow looks like, what other tools they use and what the most common problems in the industry are. All of this is priceless information that you can only get by discussing with customers or prospects.
You might think these insights are something that you can very easily extract from online research. Some you can, others you can’t. And the part that you can’t extract makes all the difference between you and your competitors, who went a step further. Not to mention that not understanding the industry is one of the most common reasons businesses fail.
7. You save tons of research time
Bear this in mind: you’ll get a lot of insights on competition, marketing channels, or similar products that you’ll probably never get from your own research, in less time. Talking to 2 or 3 clients could save you up to a month of research. Don’t worry, I won’t tell your boss or your manager, let’s keep this between us.
A good customer discovery interview will reveal where your clients spend their time, what they think about your competitors, what other tools they use, why they use your product, how much time they spend online, what they read, if and when they’re willing to recommend a product, how they respond to incentives, what social channels they use & more.
Basically, all the information that will help you create the most descriptive buyer persona profiles you’ve ever thought of.
With a product like ours, customers come in many shapes and sizes. It’s harder to identify your buyer persona and the main jobs they hire you to do (JTBD theory). Through interviews, we learned a lot about who our users are and what their needs are. And by listening to how they describe us in their own words, we were able to explain our value proposition better.Kasia Jordan, Customer Research Specialist at Survicate
When to conduct customer interviews
Now that you know how helpful customer interviews can be, let’s talk about when’s the right time to do them. Choosing when to conduct customer interviews depends on what you want to achieve.
Customer discovery interviews are used before launching a product or during product development.
They are crucial for the success of a business because they help you validate ideas, test the market, find the buyer persona, find the right positioning, marketing message, pricing, etc. The most out-of-the-box ideas I see on the market today are the result of thorough customer discovery interviews.
Customer development interviews are used to gather insights and discover new business opportunities once you already have a stable product.
Unlike customer discovery interviews, they should be conducted regularly throughout your product’s life cycle. Some B2B companies conduct customer development interviews once per week and they have this on their company culture. Basically anyone should and can conduct interviews from support, to marketing, to product and sales.
How to conduct customer interviews for priceless insights
Step 1: Set a goal for your interview
It’s important to set a single goal for your customer interview. Whether it’s about discovery or development, having an objective will help you write your questions, decide what information you want to extract, and how to evaluate the interview at the end.
At the same time, during the interview, interviewees tend to digress, so it’s important to always bring them on your train of thoughts to get the information you want.
We’ve learned from our mistakes, and we’ve realized that having a structured process with predefined questions is crucial for the process to be seamless.Tweet this quote
There are many objectives for which you can perform customer interviews. Here are a few:
- Finding out what problems your customers have and how you can solve them (you’ll also want to find out what solutions they’ve come up with and whether they use products from your competitors);
- How your customers spend their time online (here, you’ll want to find out what social platforms they use so you can better target them);
- How they make purchase decisions (so you know how to convince other users);
- Why they gave up your product (churn);
- How much they pay for similar products (in case you want to know how much they would pay for a new feature or an unreleased product).
If you want to be very thorough in your product development, you should also consider interviewing churned customers. Not all churn is bad and, although it can be painful, knowing why customers decide to leave you (especially if they’ve been with you a while) will reveal even more aspects you could improve. You can find out the lifetime value of your product, as well as the growth phase of a business in which your product fits best.
Often, people leave not because they dislike the product, but because they no longer need it. This is applicable especially for those who work on and move around short-term projects. Dive into what issues customers think could arise in the future, as the work environment is always changing.Hung Nguyen, Marketing Manager at Smallpdf
Step 2: Assemble a team
If you want to better understand customer pain points and your market, it’s best that the interview is conducted by someone from the core team. That’s because:
- customer interviews require a deep understanding of the industry — there are technicalities that only someone who gets the industry knows;
- you’ll want to keep that know-how inside your team — if you externalize or delegate this task to someone who’s not part of the permanent team, you could lose your competitive advantage.
It’s also a good idea to have someone taking notes and someone moderating the discussion.
This way the moderator can be 100% focused on the discussion, and the other person on taking notes, or noticing the situations when the moderator might lead the answers. Leading the answer is one of the most common pitfalls and you should definitely be extremely careful about this.
If you have the time and means for it, you should have short video interviews.Tweet this quote
The advantage of video interviews is that you don’t have to be focusing on taking notes and you can spot inculcated answers (answers influenced by the way questions are asked) afterwards. The downside is that the interviewee will be less comfortable, and therefore less willing to speak their mind and interact with you.
Step 3: Compile your questions
Make sure your questions are open-ended. This way, you actually listen to what your customers have to say instead of trying to validate your assumptions.
Rather than asking the customer directly ‘do you want this feature?’ or ‘do you like what we’ve built so far?’, we pursued more indirect methods of collecting feedback. We’d ask questions like ‘describe your process for building an invoice’ and have them walk through their process step-by-step.Sunny Ashley, CEO of Autoshopinvoice
Don’t get too hung up on your script, though — this is a discussion that should flow as naturally as possible, so you can add or skip questions if necessary.
If they take longer to describe any particular step or any hints of frustration organically arise, we ask for additional information on that step. By gathering passive feedback and trying to be as objective as possible, we try to avoid any ingrained biases and feedback that is potentially skewed.Sunny Ashley, CEO of Autoshopinvoice
Not all customers will be talkative from the beginning, so it’s important to encourage them to be as specific as possible. However, try to keep all your customer interviews as similar as possible – this will help you compile the results at the end.
Try to utilize the same format as much as possible, especially on the quantitative questions. These inputs will give you a rich set of data to work with over time, and you can eventually anonymously benchmark your results, which clients find very helpful.David Garcia, CEO of ScoutLogic
Step 4: Choose your customers
Choosing the right customers to interview depends on the results you want to achieve. If you want to find out how customers are using a specific feature, you should look at those who use it the most.
If you want to know why your customers are leaving you, choose the ones that churned recently or are in danger of churning.
If you don’t have a product yet, try to diversify your interviewees as much as possible to get a 360° view.
Step 5: Time for the interview
If you’ve put effort into preparation, the interview itself should be a breeze. A few things to keep in mind are:
- don’t EVER try to sell anything;
- don’t push your opinions on your customers;
- always ask why — this will help you understand how your customers think;
- don’t monopolize the discussion — customer interviews are supposed to be two-way conversations;
- listen and follow a different path than what you have in your script if the situation asks for it;
- always ask questions by referring to situations in the past;
- don’t ask the interviewee to imagine things or react to potential situations.
The goal of a research study is to observe and listen to users’ frank feedback — not to convince them your product is wonderful as is.Tweet this quote
Revolutionize your marketing with customer interviews
Once you’ve done all your customer interviews, the real deal will be to interpret the answers and actually draw some actionable conclusions out of all this effort. If you’re asking yourself how many interviews you should run, the answer is that it depends. But most times you’ll want to do this until you identify patterns or start getting kind of the same answers.
I can’t promise that customer interviews will revolutionize the way you’re doing marketing for your product. But I can tell you that it’s the tactic that will offer you the most insights and will help you have a very specific, need/problem-oriented marketing approach.
About the Author:
As the CEO of Custify, Philipp Wolf helps SaaS businesses deliver great results for customers. After seeing companies spend big money with no systematic approach to customer success, Philipp knew something had to change. He founded Custify to provide a tool that lets agents spend time with clients — instead of organizing CRM data.