18 Powerful Questions to Ask Your Customer
or The Art of the Customer Interview
At Sacred Rides, my adventure travel company, we use Lean Startup principles to guide our constant learning (although we’re far from a startup after 19 years in business, there are many elements of the Lean Startup rapid learning process that are applicable to any business).
Specifically, we’re heavily focused on learning and getting as deep an understanding as possible of our customers. We’ve done a great job of that through extensive surveying, including:
- A short post-signup survey (about 12% of our customers fill this out and give us great feedback and why they purchase)
- A pre-trip customer service survey (this is just three questions: 1) on a scale of 1 to 9 how satisfied are you with our customer service so far? 2) Comments/Questions about your customer service experience 3) Anything else we can do to improve your pre-trip experience?)
- A mid-trip survey: our guides hand out tablets for our customers to fill this out around day 3 or 4 of their trip (depending on how long the trip is). This helps them see where there might be areas for improvement and issues to address for the remaining days of the trip.
- An end-of-trip survey: This is a detailed survey that dives into every aspect of the trip our customers have just completed. The two metrics we pay extra close attention to (they end up on our metrics dashboard) are the trip satisfaction rating and the likelihood to recommend.
Despite all of the great feedback and data we get from these surveys, one thing was missing this past year: actual conversations with our customers. Specifically, conversations between me and my customers.
The past 2 years have been a high-growth phase for Sacred Rides. Much of my time has been spent managing that growth: hiring and training the team, developing metrics to track our performance, putting out the inevitable fires that come with rapid growth, etc.
In the process, I became somewhat disconnected from our customers, especially since I haven’t been joining any of our trips (I have 3 young kids to co-parent). So at the conclusion of last year, when I sat down to review my goals from the past year and develop my new ones for 2016, I made speaking to my customers one of my top priorities.
My goal for 2016 is to speak to at least 5 customers per week, every week, either on the phone or in person. It’s a relatively modest goal – certainly not as ambitious as GrooveHQ founder Alex Turnbull’s decision to speak to 500 customers in 4 weeks), but it’s difficult nonetheless to pull this off in the context of all of my other priorities, as each conversation typically lasts between 20 and 40 minutes.
Multiply that by 5 and you’ve got between an hour and a half to three hours, every week, just to have the actual conversations (farther down in this post, I’ll show you how I’m managing the interview scheduling and data collection as efficiently as possible to minimize the draw on my time). But the insight I’ve gained from these conversations so far has been amazing, and it’s helping to guide the whole company’s strategy and execution.
The goal of these conversations is fourfold:
1. Deeper Understanding of our Customers
Through strategic questions as well as the organic flow of these conversations, I learn a lot about my customers through these interviews, particularly about their primary motivators and driving forces in life.
2. Strategic Insights
I include questions in the interview that help drive our positioning strategy, specifically around what aspects of our service our customers truly value and which aren’t that important to them. As I gather more feedback, it will drive our product development, allowing us to focus more time and resources on the things that are really important to our customers, and take focus away from the things that aren’t.
NOTE: Although it’s tempting to try and just build the best damned product or service possible, and satisfy every customer need, tradeoffs are at the heart of powerful, meaningful business strategies. While it may be able to pull it off in the short term, a business can’t sustain satisfying every customer need better than the competition forever – competitors will catch up, resources will run out, problems will creep in.
Focusing on a few key factors that mean a lot to customers, and really killing it on those factors, is how great companies are made – more on this in an upcoming post, but for now think of Ikea: they trade off a satisfying shopping experience and convenience of fully assembled furniture (which many people do value) for affordability, selection and value.
In order to tease out those factors that really matter to customers, you have to talk to them.
3. Discovering Opportunities
As I speak to customers, I often discover opportunities for new products and services. For instance, our Bring-Your-Partner trips were born directly as a result of talking to customers a couple of years ago.
I used to follow up with as many of my customers as possible after they finished their trip; many of my customers were telling me they had an amazing experience, but when I asked “Great! When can we get you back?” they would often tell me that they used up a lot of their vacation time on our trip, and that for the next year or two they would have to spend more of their vacation with their partner. This led to the insight that the partner was the limiting factor in their being able to do more mountain bike trips, and this led to the lightbulb moment of creating trips where mountain bikers could bring their partners along, with their partner taking part in a non-mountain-bike adventure (e.g. hiking, rafting, cultural tourism, etc.).
Talking to your customers will often reveal opportunities like these.
4. More Business
My conversations with customers inevitably lead to more business. Speaking to our customers at length, and really listening to who they are and what their needs are, makes them feel valued. And customers who feel valued are more likely to purchase more products/services from you, become repeat customers, and refer their friends (I specifically ask for referrals in my interviews).[continued after this short commercial break]
Making the Process Efficient
To make to process of speaking to 5 customers per week as time and cost-effective as possible, I use a few tools:
1. Template emails with Mixmax: I just started using Mixmax and love it. It’s an amazing Gmail plugin that offers a host of useful features, replacing three other plugins I was using separately – all for free! For the purposes of this process, I use their template feature, which allows me to create a template that I then load and slightly customize before sending to my customers:
I could of course automate this process and just send this email to my customers automatically as soon as they sign up for a trip, but I want to customize the email a little bit, and send it directly from my Google account as opposed to our booking system’s automation feature – this has helped my conversion rates significantly (over 50% of the people who get this email book a chat with me)
2. Timetrade.com: To avoid all the back and forth of scheduling these chats, I use an app called Timetrade, which allows me to set availability for these chats, then send my customers a link that shows them my available times. They can then choose the time and date they want (in their own timezone no less). This saves a lot of back and forth to pick a time, and the appointment gets created in both of our calendars once it’s booked.note: Timetrade is a paid app, but if you want most of the functionality that Timetrade offers, for free, check out Youcanbookme.
3. Google Forms: I’ve set up my customer interview as a Google form. Before I call my customer at the prearranged time, I open up the Google Form so that I have the questions in front of me. Then as I go through the interview I enter their responses (or as much of them as I can enter with my typing prowess) into the form. After the interview is over I add a few notes and hit the submit button – the entire interview is then saved in a Google Sheet, with all my previous interviews, so that I can review both individual interviews and aggregate responses to individual questions.
QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR CUSTOMERS IN THE INTERVIEW
The best time to conduct these interviews is shortly after your customers have purchased from you. Their excitement is high, as is their motivation to want to talk to you. You should also reach out to customers who haven’t bought from you in a while, and you should definitely conduct interviews with your best customers (the ones who buy from you frequently and refer their friends to you).
Below is a selective sampling of questions that I ask my customers. This is more of a ‘question bank’ than an interview guide; I typically only ask about 60-75% of the questions in the script, depending on how the interview is going and my customer’s willingness to talk beyond the 20 minutes scheduled. I improvise on the fly and choose which questions will yield the most insight with that particular customer.
I’ve included some notes in italics about my motivation for asking each particular question.
- Demographics (Age, Location, Occupation, etc..): Whatever is relevant for you and your company – you want to hone in on 3-5 demographic indicators that are most useful to you. If you’re going to ask potentially sensitive questions such as relationship status or income, let them know in advance that they can skip any questions they’re uncomfortable with.
- Why did you purchase our product/service? This gives you insight as to the motivating factors they have for using your product/service
- What alternatives to our product/service have you used in the past? These could be competitors or DIY solutions. Self explanatory.
- Why did you use those alternatives? Tease out why they use alternatives to your product/service. This can help guide the development of your product/service, as there may be things you are missing in either your product or messaging.
- Why did you choose us this time? Something convinced them to choose you over their typical alternative. You want to know what that is!
- How long did you ponder making a purchase before you actually made the purchase? There might be a long waiting period for your customers to purchase from you.
- What made you hesitate? These are the psychological objections that get in the way of people buying from you.
- What finally convinced you to make the purchase? And this is the voice in their head that tells them why they should overcome their internal objections. For our customers, it’s usually some variation of ‘Life is short’.
- What’s your biggest consideration when purchasing this type of product/service? Is it price? Quality? Convenience?
- I’m going to list a few features/aspects of our product/service. Of these, what are the 2 or 3 that are most important to you, or let me know if there’s something I missed? [This will help you make the tradeoffs I mentioned above. For Sacred Rides, these features include things like well trained guides, spectacular scenery, challenge, nice lodging, great meals, great trails, shared group experiences/ group bonding, affordability, pre-trip customer service and pre-trip planning, integration with local communities and cultures, etc.]
- Of the ones you listed, which is the single most important factor that we’d have to get right in order for you to have an amazing experience with our product? This is the thing you have to focus a lot of your energy on, if you start to see your customers repeating the same thing over and over.
- What are the least important factors? This is stuff you can take resources and energy away from, freeing them up to focus on the most important thing(s)
- What are some of the companies or brands that you love, or that really impress you? This helps you get a sense of what impresses them, the types of companies they love and how they spend their money
- What have other companies – or people – done to show their appreciation for you that really resonated with you? This will give you ideas on how you can really impress your best customers
- What would make you come back to us over and over again? Here’s some clues as to how to boost your repeat customer rate.
- How would you describe our company to a friend? You may have a picture of what your brand represents to your customers, but if you let them describe you in their words, you may be surprised.
- We rely heavily on referrals from our customers, but we also try and reciprocate and refer people to our customers. In your line of work, are there opportunities for us to refer specific types of people your way, and if so, who might those types of people be? This is an interesting one that always gets a good reaction – people are typically surprised that you are interested in helping them out. Your customers probably share a lot of similar characteristics, and may often work in the same industry, so you’re in a good position to help your customers out with a referral or two. If you can do that, you’ll have yourself a customer for life.
- On that note, is there anyone you can think of that would be interested in our product/service? We’d be happy to reach out to them on your behalf. If there are, I’ll follow up with an email and you can send me their details. We’ll give you ____ (e.g. $100) for every new customer you refer to us. If you don’t ask, you usually don’t get. There’s plenty of debate on whether to offer people incentives to refer friends to you; some say that it gives people a bit of extra motivation; some say that it poisons their motivation to naturally want to refer their friends to you because they like you.
Some examples of the questions I ask that are specific to my company/industry include:
- What’s your mountain bike skill level?
- What role does mountain biking play in your life?
- What’s your relationship status?
- How much vacation time do you get per year? How much of it do you actually take?
- Besides Sacred Rides trips, what other types of vacations or adventures do you typically do when on holiday?
You’ll have to, of course, develop questions that are relevant to you and your industry.
There you have it. I promise you if you make the time to speak to you customers – talk to at least one per week (I recommend five if you can), it will be the best possible use of your entrepreneurial time. You will end up with a stronger company, happier customers, and more revenue.
To download a Word doc of these questions that you can use for your own purposes, please enter your email address below.
Download the Customer Interview Guide
Enter your email to address to get a free download of the Customer Interview Guide that you can use to conduct your own powerful customer interviews.
Thanks - your submission has been received. Check your inbox in 28 seconds for your download link. Happy interviewing!
I’d love to hear more about your experiences with interview and speaking to your customers. Do you do this already? Are you going to start? What are some of the most powerful insights you’ve gained from your customers? Let me know in the comments below!