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August 3, 2017

Customer Interviews: the right way to test out new business ideas

The core tenet of most successful businesses is to ensure the customers are happy.

This results from a multitude of factors including excellent service, an affordable price, but ultimately it comes down to the overall question of: does your customer want to use your product or service?

For most businesses this can be checked retrospectively by looking at the sales data, however for businesses who believe that standing still is a recipe for obsolescence it is probable that you will want to test out new ideas on your customers, to increase the likelihood of continual business.

If instinctively the way in which you’d do this is to:

  1. Brainstorm ideas with your team
  2. Come up with some proposals
  3. Call up existing customers to ask what they think of them

Then you need to read on as to why this could be a perilous recipe for growing your business.


Customer interviews

The route which we’ll talk about in this post involves speaking with customers (new or existing) about what they currently do, and then seeing where you can fit in to make their life easier.

Most people are rarely in a state of utopia, and so there almost always will be something people have an issue with which they’re willing to pay money to have solved!

Conducting customer interviews in the right way means they will reveal what is actually important to them, rather than you attempting to second guess what their problems are and then constructing a lukewarm solution for them.


Talking to customers the right way

There are a few general philosophies involved with talking to customers about your ideas in a manner which makes it a worthwhile exercise.

customers know their problems better than you do

And also

it’s better to hear the truth than vacuous praise

There is a human trait to not want to hurt another person’s feelings, and so when confronted with a question like “What do you think of my idea?” there is a tendency to answer variations of “It sounds great!”.

This isn’t necessarily intentional duplicity, but rather that people focus on the upsides of an idea and imagine a future where they conform to the scenario that the question asker has just painted.

When testing out an idea, the difficult mental block to overcome is to remove this layer of social courtesy so that you can get to the truth about what people really think.

It takes thick skin to probe for candid, honest feedback that you can use to create something that your customers will actually use, rather than just say that they will so as to not be awkward.

Tough as it seems, striving for this crystal clear (and sometimes negative) feedback is the best way to ensure you get on the right track.


Don’t ask what they think of your idea

The principle behind customer interviews is to understand what actual behaviours customers are doing, rather than speculate on what they might do in the future (with your hypothetical solution).

By focusing on the concrete actions that they undertake each day/ week/ month, you can quantify/ qualify:

  • Whether it is a real problem they are wanting to solve
  • What alternatives they have sought
  • Why they haven’t yet solved their problem yet

Certain ideas might sound great in principle, but with a bit of digging might reveal that it’s something that only takes them 5 minutes to do every month and usually they can get an intern to do it.


What would your mother say?

If potential customers are, unconsciously or otherwise, sensitive to hurting your feelings by saying your idea is bad, then the most extreme example of this is to imagine you were asking the person who thinks you’re the smartest, most talented person on the planet.

Namely, your mother.

This is the principle behind the excellent (and short) book on conducting customer interviews The Mom Test: how to test out ideas so that even your Mum would tell the truth.

It gives direction on how to navigate through the hazardous terrain of asking questions to solicit useful answers, as well as practical examples of good and bad practices to undertake.


Dos and Don’ts

The process of customer development should happen before any ideas have become fully formed, ideally as a process which your customer-focusing employees continually engage in.

That said, even if you have a fantastic idea about how to improve value for your customers, there’s no reason not to seek feedback from them, and validate its appropriateness, or ways in which it could be tweaked to be even better.

In any case, when seeking to understand your customers more, these are good practices to adhere to.

Don’t say

  • Anything too generic 
    • “Do you have any issues with payroll?” instead zoom in on specifics
  • Starting with “I…” 
    • it exposes your ego and triggers people to be courteous
  • Features of your idea
    • “What do you think about the idea we’ve come up with?”
  • Pricing
    • “Would you buy it if it was cheaper?” instead seek to understand budget, buying cycle etc.
  • Multiple-choice
    • “Can you answer this MCQ survey?” this narrows the conversation instead of broadening it

Do say

  • Specifics in the past
    • “How do you solve X now?”
    • “Talk me through the last time that happened”
    • “What else have you tried?”
  • Things that expand target group
    • “Who else should I talk to?”
  • Things that expand knowledge
    • “What else should I have asked?”


Why? Why? Why?

Another good practice in talking to customers is continually ask “Why?” or “Why is that?” or “and why don’t you just do this?” in order to probe into the root of an issue.

By simply asking customers what it is that they want, you risk building something which is unsuitable.

Most of us will have heard of the famous Henry Ford quote “if I asked people what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse”.

This gets to the essence of understanding what people want (i.e. to more quickly get from A to B) and therefore create a solution which they will use.

For more information on this, and other questions you can ask, take a look at The Mom Test, this summary of the The Mom Test, and this article about customer interview tips.



In a business world getting ever more competitive, it is increasingly important to remain agile and ensure you are growing, and retaining happy customers by offering them solutions that they are happy with.

By undertaking these principles, and researching more on how to conduct customer interviews, you can ensure that you get clear and consistent feedback from customers to innovate around their real problems, rather than ones they simply say to save face.

At the very least, we hope this encourages you to begin a dialogue with your customers to understand their problems better, and allow you to provide an even greater service to them.


We hope that you found this post informative and thought-provoking. If you’d like to be notified of the next post, or learn more about how Inspira UK can help your business grow, then you can sign up to the newsletter and contact us here.

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