This is the second installment of a two-part series on customer case studies. The first post looked at the importance of using detail to tell a compelling and credible customer story. In this second post, Molly Dee Anderson, one of the talented staff writers at Projectline, offers 10 practical and insightful tips for conducting customer interviews.
“Interviewing is both art and science. The art comes in how you interact with customers, put them at ease, and encourage them to provide information. The science comes in what you ask and how you ask it.” – Casey Hibbard, Stories That Sell
If you are well-prepared for a case study interview, you can effectively gather the customer’s narrative arc-the challenge, the implementation of a product or service, and the positive results-in an hour’s time. You will also gain some choice quotes. Try these ten tips for conducting customer interviews with both art and science.
1. Review the customer’s website thoroughly. You may find relevant information in unusual places. Press releases often provide a concise description of the organization as well as insight into the strategic direction the company is pursuing. Use what you learn to engage with the customer, even if the dialog is not specifically pertinent to the case study. Interviewees will often appreciate that you’ve done your homework and will be more likely to give you the details you need.
2. Get a good working knowledge of the featured product or service. Customers sometimes assume that you are an established expert in the case study’s featured subject. Chances are you’re a writer with a generalist background, so you’ll need to do some research. Aside from getting detailed information from the product or service team, consider reading product reviews, watching videos, and walking through demos.
3. Build a detailed and focused questionnaire. Use complete sentences. Include questions even if you already have a sense of what the answers will be. Be prepared to prompt the customer with a possible answer in case they draw a blank. Once prompted, the customer will likely provide additional details. It’s also a good exercise to create a comprehensive questionnaire and then cut it substantially, based on the specific customer scenario. You probably won’t have time to ask all the questions anyway.
4. Remove distractions. When doing an interview, you’re on stage. You can’t afford to be distracted by anything. Avoid conducting an interview on an empty stomach. Turn off call-waiting, silence your cell phone, shut doors and windows, mute your computer, and set your instant messaging status to “Busy.” Also, sit up straight: It’s showtime.
5. Communicate the agenda to the interviewees. Prepare a script to introduce yourself to the interviewees. Explain how you plan to conduct the interview and what information you’re seeking. Let them know that you’re recording the interview and that you’ll be asking for details so you can get the most compelling story possible.
6. Adopt a persona. Try on an interviewing style. For example, you could assume the interviewing style of Larry King or Oprah. I’m a fan of Charlie Rose because his style is plainspoken, grounded, and engaged. And he’s good at asking for clarifying details about an interviewee’s statement: “But what do you mean when you say that?” Rose asks.
7. Take notes. You’re recording the interview, but audio devices sometimes fail. Plus, written notes help you ask more relevant follow-up questions. Cover your bases by getting down as much as you can with your pen and keyboard and then hope you never have to refer to those notes.
8. Don’t be afraid to ask a few “stupid” questions. It’s not possible to be an expert in everything. It’s better to ask an interviewee to explain something you don’t understand than pretend that it makes perfect sense and then later not know what to write. If you’re reporting about technology, for example, you can ask your interviewees to describe an implementation for you as if they were speaking to a general rather than a technical audience.
9. Be persistent about metrics. Your interviewees will not always be prepared to state numbers such as return on investment, revenue increases, or cost savings. You can nudge them with a leading question such as: “Would it be fair to say that your employees are saving 20 minutes a day by using the new productivity tools?” If you encounter reticence, then offer to follow up about metrics by sending email or by putting queries in the review draft.
10. Be humble. The art of interviewing is primarily the art of listening and putting the interviewees at ease. When they have explained a complex concept, tell them what you heard them say-in your own words. That way they’ll know you’re listening. Gently direct the conversation, but make sure the interviewees get most of the airtime. You may be the host, but they are the stars of the show.