Understanding customers: How to listen, so they talk

Seven tips to help you conduct great research interviews

A crucial element of our work is conducting great interviews that lead to deep and meaningful insights for our clients. Interviewing people may seem like a simple task, one that anyone can do. However, it is a higher order skill that you hone over time. In this blog, we share with you a step-by-step guide to conducting great interviews with stakeholders – customer, partners, employees, external experts and more. These tips are relevant for in-person as well as online/phone interviews.

  1. Prepare yourself

Clarify your objectives before the research/interviews. What do you want to learn from different groups of interviewees? What do you want to achieve at the end of the research? 

Prepare a discussion guide/questionnaire in line with your objectives. Organise the questions under specific topics (E.g., Introduction and background, Experience with the category, Perception of organisations and brands, Reaction to concepts). Prepare an exhaustive discussion guide and then if it is too long, trim it down by removing redundant questions.

For authentic insights avoid leading questions. E.g., Do not ask “What do you like about x?” before the interviewee tells you that she likes/dislikes x. Leave the questions open-ended unless you are asking them to rate or prioritise options.

Chat, don’t interview

Begin with introducing yourself, your background and what you are doing there. Opening up about yourself establishes trust and brings the interviewee’s guard down.  Ask for a similar introduction from the interviewee. This step is very important as it serves to assure the interviewee and break down barriers for sharing. 

Keep the questions that need the interviewee to open up and share freely for later in the conversation. Start with easier and straightforward questions.

Flow with it

Make the discussion free flowing. Use the discussion guide, not as a questionnaire, but as a way to organise your conversation. A great tip is to memorise sub-topics in the discussion guide (or write it on a piece of paper that you can glance at, while talking). As long as you cover these topics, missing a few questions here and there does not matter.

Allow for spontaneous flow of conversation even if they move away from what is there in the questionnaire. It can lead to insights that you wouldn’t have normally got with your discussion guide. If the conversation goes too far, for too long, gently steer the conversation back to the topic under discussion. 

Listen to the said and unsaid

At all times, offer deep listening to the interviewee. It is difficult to fake interest in a long conversation. You have to have genuine interest and curiosity about people to be able to deeply listen. We have found the use of body language and verbal reactions – head nods, reacting with facial expressions, even a soft hmm – encourages people to share more, even in video/audio interviews.

Do not stop listening till you leave. Often important things are said when the interview is declared as over and you are exchanging byes. Everyone is relaxed and interviewees open up further when there is no pressure of being interviewed looming over them.

Dive deep

The value of qualitative insights is in understanding why people say/do/feel certain things, so don’t forget the whys. Early in my research days, I would often accept things the interviewee said at face value without trying to understand the reason behind what they were saying. It led to incomplete and non-actionable insights.

Pay respect

Take permission from them if making audio/video recordings. Assure them that the recording is meant only for you to listen later and analyze information across interviewees. Thank them sincerely for the time and insights they are giving you.

Take permission from them if making audio/video recordings. Assure them that what they say is confidential and will be anonymised. 

Have fun

Relax and have fun (not if you are discussing a solemn subject!). People generally love a good, fun conversation so crack a few jokes, remark on something interesting and laugh with the interviewees. The lives of people are actually very interesting, and this is not difficult to do. Without the element of fun, interviews may sap your energy.

Research is fun
Interview in progress

We admit, conversing with diverse people from across the world is the most fulfilling part of strategy development. It teaches us not only about people but life itself. Having to park our own prejudices and opinions to listen and understand others is a great exercise in learning to be more accepting and empathetic. 

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