Customer Interviewing – Some Basics

Interviewing customers for case studies and success stories is the marketing writer’s stock in trade. Some ideas on getting the most out of it.

The case study or customer success story is to your Website what a recommendation is to your LinkedIn profile: an excellent addition to your trophy case.

But it’s a long road from the point at which you, the marketing manager, say “Hey, let’s write up the Schmedlapps account!” to that trophy case, and the first step is the interview.

Criteria for interviewee

First, not everybody wants to reveal that they’re using your product. “We’d love to do a case study with you, Gus,” you’ll hear, “but you guys are our secret weapon. We don’t want our competitors to know how we’re doing so well.”

And many large customers make it difficult to do a proper business-to-business case study, especially for small companies. You’ll have a marketing communications writer author the piece, then you’ll send it over for review, and it will get raked over the coals by your customer’s Legal department. Drag.

For this reason, you should make an ongoing campaign of case studies, so that you have a pipeline of interviews, drafts, approvals and trophies always in motion.

Set up time with Sales and go through the customer database for ripe candidates. Select interviewees using criteria like:

  • is a current customer
  • has had a good experience with the product
  • can talk about technical and business benefits
  • can talk authoritatively
  • can talk (this is often overlooked, making for short, fruitless interviews)
  • is a manager or above

Setting up the customer interview

As interviewer, you’ll only be able to control 50 or at most 51% of the interview; the rest is in the hands of the customer. Prepare well, but also consider that you cannot predict everything.

  1. Have Sales initiate the request. They know the personalities involved and can steer you to the person most likely to give a glowing review of your product. They want to help. Of course, if you go over their head and initiate contact without their knowledge, they’ll consider it a slight.
  2. Once Sales has gotten the customer’s approval for the case study, suggest four different one-hour windows and ask the interviewee to select the most convenient one. Plan on a 45-minute question-and-answer session.
  3. Set up the conference bridge or online meeting and send the details to the interviewee.
  4. Prepare a list of questions and send them to your interviewee ahead of time. He will not likely read them, but you’ve done your part. Ask the questions you need to ask, along with at least 3 great case study questions.

Mechanics of the customer interview

A sufficiently motivated interviewee with a decent story to tell will do most of the work for you. In fact, you may even get in her way with your annoying questions, but as long as you’re getting useful details that your readers will want to learn, you’re still fulfilling your mission. The marketing writer can do the rest.

During the interview:

  1. Mention that the interviewee will see and have the opportunity to approve a draft of the case study. Many people ask about this, so take care of it up front.
  2. Describe the audience and your goals for the piece. This gives the interviewee context and may determine the general direction of your conversation.
  3. Reward good storytelling and juicy details: “This is just what we’re looking for. It’s gratifying to hear such a good story about our product.”
  4. On the other hand, some people aren’t comfortable in an interview. If the interviewee is not inclined to talk much, be frank: “I was hoping to get more details on how your company uses our product. Can you think of somebody else I should talk to instead?”
  5. Try to get a statement of quantifiable benefits. Customers – especially large ones – are usually reluctant to issue them, but it’s worth a shot for the impact they have on the case study. If you can’t get a good, solid statistic, try something like, “Would it be accurate to say that our product shortened your testing cycle from weeks to days?” If the answer is “yes,” turn it into a quote.
  6. Also, be sure to get a clear explanation of how the interviewee did things before using the product and how she does them now that she’s using the product. The before-and-after sequence makes it easier for your readers to follow the story.

Conducting a good interview isn’t the same as writing a robust case study, but it will put you and your marketing writer squarely on the road to it.

photo credit: St0rmz


Author: John White

John White of venTAJA Marketing is a content marketing writer for technology companies. He posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s a dirty job, but somebody has to do it. Download his eBook, “10 Questions to Ask When Hiring Your Content Marketing Writer.”