Customer Face Time: Are You Ready?
As seems to happen at times, I've had several recent, unrelated client projects take similar paths. The common denominator among these projects has been the opportunity to have one-on-one discussions with customers or users of our clients' specific products or services. In each case, we had a planned set of questions and a specific objective to guide our efforts, but I feel that what we learned indirectly is just as valuable.
There is definitely no shortage of other methods for gathering customer or market information - from quantitative research to focus groups to feedback gathered by sales or customer service. I believe that one-on-one interviews are uniquely suited to capturing additional insights, provided you're willing to truly listen to what the customer has to say, both the words and the nuances.
I'll preface my thoughts below by recognizing that a few or even numerous conversations cannot replace quantitative market research or the other customer information sources referenced above. But if you're given the chance to interview customers, there are a few things you can do to get the most out of the experience.
Listen for what the customer thinks is important. Do you see patterns in the answers you're getting or feel that they are leading to a common topic? Capturing answers to the questions you arrived with is good, but exploring conversational offshoots makes for a great interview. In one situation, I noticed pretty quickly that my interviewee wanted to talk about a different issue than I had planned to address. I took this as the opening that it was and pursued that topic (in addition to getting my original questions answered, of course). Did I learn anything that necessarily helped me out that day? No, but all industry knowledge is valuable. Perhaps it's a trending topic and I'm now on the front end of that trend. Maybe it will come up in another conversation and I'll be in a position to address it intelligently. Of course, there's the chance that I happened to be talking to the only person out there with that opinion. Regardless, following leads in the conversation expands your ability to gather information and engages your subject to a much higher degree.
Gather clues on how your audience wants to be spoken to. Admittedly, the flow of conversation is not as formal as your marketing communications most likely need to be, but note what reaches your customer. A topic that I've seen addressed in numerous articles and blogs is the importance of speaking to your audience in their language and understanding their mindset. A one-on-one interview is the perfect chance to get inside your customer's head and test phrasing and messaging with someone from your target market. Ask a question in corporate speak and see of it makes sense to your subject. Note how they repeat information back to you and what phrasing works to relay that you emphathize and understand their needs.
While a series of customer interviews alone will not provide the type of quantitative data on which you can necessarily base strategic decisions, they can be eye-opening in many ways. And, if you're someone who truly enjoys talking directly with your customers and you approach the opportunity enthusiastically, you can certainly come away with enough to make it well worth your time.
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