I sat down with Bruce La Fetra of La Fetra Consulting for a conversation on customer interviews. We compared notes on qualitative conversations versus quantitative surveys and exchanged tips and tricks. Bruce presented some great insights on how to organize findings and how to take best advantage of insights gleaned from interviews.
What follows is an edited transcript with some hyperlinks for clarity.
La Fetra Helps Experts Understand Customer Needs
Bruce: I focus on expertise-based professionals such as consultants and architects and engineers and attorneys and other people that have a lot of skill. I help them to understand why their best clients chose them instead of other very worthy firms in the industry.
The answer is often surprising and allows us to build strategic marketing plans that are efficient and effective for seller doers in particular. Marketing they can embrace and get their arms around. It takes the mystery out.
Sean: When you’re planning these interviews, how do you prepare for them?
Bruce: I use an outline to ensure every conversation addresses the same key questions and it helps me to reel the interview back if we are going into the weeds–although it’s crucial to follow tangents that the interviewee thinks are important.
I develop the outline by a series of conversations with the management team. When they all agree, I can just validate that item if it checks out. If it’s different, if it’s out of alignment, I really want to know that.
The Shibboleth Test
The other thing is that I work in a lot of technical markets where I don’t necessarily have detailed technical knowledge, so I need to pick up the jargon and the lingo. I’m not trying to fool anyone, but they will only offer insight and nuance when talking in their language. Otherwise, they’re just going to treat it like a survey and answer with quick answers and try to get done. This takes preparation as well and planning and structure.
Sean: We call that the shibboleth test: you have to be able to talk about problems in a way that the customer understands, as if you’re inside the industry and not an outsider.
Panning For Gold: Dust, Flakes, and Nuggets
Sean: What’s the nature of the feedback or the distillation that you offer?
Bruce: In terms of making sense of it, I think of it like gold panning where you discard a lot of material, but you don’t want to lose that little bit that you’re looking for.
My clients know their customers pretty well. A lot of times these are long-term relationships. Not everything I hear is new and unknown. There’s some value in validation, but the real value is the conversation that they can’t have with their customer.
Oftentimes, the real value comes in the course of a 45 or 60-minute conversation by getting the customer, the person being interviewed, to really think about the issues in different ways. If I were to just ask the question at the beginning, I might get a very different answer than the one I get at the end.
Hopefully the one at the end is much more thoughtful. I love to hear, “Now that I think about it …” These are gold nuggets. They’re much more than the usual gold flakes.
Surveys vs. Interviews: Correlations vs. Surprising Insights
Bruce: To your earlier question about difference between qualitative interviews and quantitative surveys, surveys are a great tool for answering questions that you know what the question is or getting answers to a known question or creating validation. A survey is an awful tool to get at that quadrant of “you don’t know what you don’t know.”
Sean: I think most of the learning takes place in that quadrant actually. When you summarize a conversation back, is that a verbal briefing or a written briefing.
Bruce: I don’t do transcripts. That’s just like dumping a load of data on them. I usually do summaries of two to three pages per interview. I try to bucket thoughts similarly across the different interviews, and provide that as part of my findings to the client. Particularly for sales people, that’s often really valuable.
What I do is I do a presentation. This is one of the points where I like to talk to the entire leadership team, not just the executive that’s hiring me. The findings are another point where I want to bring the larger team together. It’s just findings; I never combine findings and recommendations.
The findings are built around customer quotes plus a voiceover to add perspective and context.
Sean: We’re typically working with smaller teams. There might be two or three people that are either the founders or that are part of the sales and marketing side. We offer more of a journalist’s summary: what would a 150 to 300 word article say if a reporter talked to this person. We highlight some key quotes and numbers around what happened.
Bruce: If you’re doing customer references that is 100% where you want to go. You want to know the story that they’re going to tell to a customer of yours. If they trot out bullet points, the person you want to become a customer isn’t going to remember it. They will remember a story. You want to know what the story is, you want to know what those values are. You want to ask them how they would describe it. It’s wonderful when a critical mass of the customers you interviewed use similar words: you have a description that is really resonating and now you know how to talk to them.
The Movie Review Test
Sean: I like the movie review test.
If you went and saw a great movie and I asked, “Bruce, why did you like the movie?” you’ll probably give me three reasons why I might like that movie in about 30 or 45 seconds. You won’t spend 20 minutes telling me every scene.
The trick is to figure out how your customers talk about you to somebody who is busy.
If I had 30 seconds, I would say, “You should listen to Bruce because he’s been at this for a while. He’s done a bunch of interviews. He knows a number of techniques that have helped a lot of service companies scale up.”
Bruce: That’s exactly right. The interviews come down to summarizing the important points, not to all 47 things we heard of which 35 they probably already know.
- What are the things that will impact their business and why?
- How does it fit in?
- What will help them?
That’s the value of a story versus a product description: the product may have 14 features but it’s the key things they do with it. If you can translate features into a story, it’s easier to remember and it actually what they will tell other people.
Separate Findings Into Validation, Observation, and Speculation
Sean: You talked about presenting findings, can you elaborate on that?
Bruce: I present what I have discovered in three basic buckets:
- Validation: I don’t spend a lot of time on this one, but I’ve got to validate what they know. If I come in and talk only about stuff that they don’t see, then I won’t be credible. It’s a little bit of validation that builds credibility and sets a baseline.
- Observations: I mention some things that are obvious to me as an outside but may not be obvious. Success can breed complacency–and even when it doesn’t people tend to stick with what’s worked in the past. This part of the findings tends to be easier to talk about. They lead to comments like, “Now that you say it that way, it makes a lot of sense.”
- Speculations: these are comments mentioned by a few customers that I think may be significant. I don’t claim them as truths, but I will say there was a customer that said something, and it’s worth thinking about. You might not build your whole business around it, but keep this in mind. This is often where innovation comes from and is what gets them thinking outside the box.
Customer speculations are sometimes the most valuable findings. The company may not immediately adjust how they are operating, but the leadership will start to say, “We need to investigate why some customers are making these statements,” and that encourages them to continue asking the right questions.
It’s really important to keep observations separate from speculations: observations are facts you have to act on; speculations are possibilities that need further investigation.
Sean: Thanks for very much for your time this afternoon.
Bruce: Thank you for inviting me Sean.
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