“People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole!” – Theodore Levitt, Harvard Business School

I was recently introduced to Tony Ulwick’s Jobs-To-Be-Done framework for customer research and man, did it strike a chord with me.

Building on Levitt’s quote, Ulwick says:

“Historically, the primary cause of failed products and services is a misalignment with customer needs. This is not surprising given that 95% of product teams do not agree on what a customer “need” even is.”

How often do we make assumptions about what our customers and prospects care about?

  • The problems we think they have
  • The goals we think they’re trying to achieve
  • The questions we think they need to get answered

What if instead of making assumptions, we created a deliberate process for learning the truth – and right from the mouths of those exact people?

This article is about customer interviews.

And the resulting benefits are plentiful:

  1. You’ll demonstrate you’re listening. People want to be heard, not talked at. By simply giving your customers a platform to talk, you’ll naturally deepen those relationships.
  2. You’ll gather market research. Speaking with a variety of individuals inside a particular customer segment will unearth trends in both customer needs and buyer behavior.
  3. You’ll impact product development. You can feed the insights you collect right back into R&D and start building what your customers actually want (instead of what you think they want).
  4. You’ll create a foundation for impactful content. The most effective marketing content is rooted in real-life pains, buying triggers, goals and questions of the people you’re trying to reach and influence.
  5. You’ll set the stage for case studies. These conversations will warm up customers to telling their success stories about the impact you’ve had on their businesses.

Below, I’ll start by elaborating on these benefits.

And then I’ll leave you with some advice from people much more experienced on this topic than me about how to conduct impactful customer interviews (and where to start).

As for those five benefits…

1. You’ll demonstrate you’re listening

“We tend to think that we’re perceived as smart by the things we say. But I think that even more powerful are the questions we ask, and how well we listen.”

These are the words of Dave Loomis, President of Loomis Marketing and an expert on “Voice of Customer” (VoC) work.

As a recent guest on our podcast, The Manufacturing Executive, Dave talked about how we sometimes default to “leading the witness.” We come into a conversation with a preconceived notion of what the other person is going to say. And we craft our question to get the answers we expect (or want) to hear.

Dave advocates leaving your questions much more open ended. Instead of saying, “I bet you’re having a problem with ___”, you can say, “Today I want to talk about ___.” And then you let them talk. Create focus on a topic, but don’t put words in their mouths.

When we give our customers an open platform to talk, not only do we demonstrate we’re listening, but we’ll naturally learn things we couldn’t have by making assumptions alone.

And these things will let us serve them better.

That leads us to benefit number two…

2. You’ll gather market research

Our strategist Grace Wright had the following to say when I asked her about her experience with customer interviews:

“I’ll give a lesson I learned from a recent customer interview I conducted for one of our clients.

My goal for the call was to answer this question: Are the statements listed in the persona documentation for this audience accurate?

After 30 minutes of active listening, I learned they weren’t quite right.

But more importantly, I gained a better understanding of what this audience DOES care about, what DOES keep them up at night and what DOES sway their purchasing decisions. He even gave us great insight into a particular product that would be a “gold mine” if we positioned it correctly to others in his role.”

Now think about the power of scaling that:

  • Talk to one customer, you’ll learn what’s going on in his or her head.
  • Talk to five customers in that segment and you’ll see some patterns emerge.
  • Talk to twenty customers in that segment and you’ll have a legitimate market research report.

One build before we go to #3. I got this one from Dave Loomis too…

Next time you go to a trade show (where hundreds of people in your target audience have congregated in one small area), how about conducting interviews right there on the spot?

Rent a suite at the hotel. Or better yet, do it right there at your booth.

These individuals may not be your current customers. But by course of these interviews, you’ll collect insights (and establish relationships in the process) that will make some of them future customers.

3. You’ll impact product development

The next three benefits, starting with this one, are natural byproducts of the first two:

Once you’ve collected real customer insights, now you can apply them.

For many manufacturing organizations, the Marketing team has traditionally been thought of as trade shows support, creators of nice-looking print materials and “the website guys” (I cringe as I write it!).

But when your Marketing team (whether that’s an internal person, group of individuals or agency) starts talking to customers, now they’re doubling as contributors to product development.

Remember Tony Ulwick’s quote from early in this article?…

“95% of product teams do not agree on what a customer ‘need’ even is.”

That’s a pretty darn risky game to play.

4. You’ll create a foundation for impactful content

We’ve long been advocates of content marketing at Gorilla.

And there are lots of great ways to develop content ideas that will resonate with your buyers. But none is more powerful than simply addressing the pains, goals and common questions of the people you’re trying to reach.

My all-time favorite marketing book is They Ask, You Answer by Marcus Sheridan. And frankly, the title says it all.

What questions do your buyers need answered during the buying process?

Now answer them!

In blog posts. In videos. In podcasts. In webinars. Choose a medium and just go.

The number of amazing content ideas you’ll have after five or 10 or 20 customer interviews will blow your mind. I guarantee it.

Oh, and remember Dave Loomis’ idea from earlier to use trade show for interviews?

Well, what if you put a mic and camera on those individuals?

It’ll cost you a couple thousand dollars to find a local videographer on Upwork. Or just your your dang iPhone.

Since I’m writing this in February of 2021 (still no trade shows on the horizon), Zoom will be your best friend on this front. You can do the exact same thing there.

Chris Luecke, creator of Manufacturing Happy Hour, describes how he does it in this short audio clip from our recent podcast episode:


And while we’re on the topic of podcasting, how about doing what James Carbary advocates for in his book, Content Based Networking:

Interview your future customers. And turn those interviews into podcast episodes.

Now you’re building relationships with the exact people you want to do business with (and learning from them in the process).

5. You’ll set the stage for case studies

I got this one from our strategy director, Matt Sciannella.

Let’s say you start by interviewing five customers. I’d be willing to be that at least one of them loves you enough (and it’ll be clear from his/her words and tone of the conversation) to do a case study with you.

“We had ___ problem. And we were amazed by the way your team listened and then did ___ and ___ to solve it for us.”

You’ll use this preliminary customer interview to warm them up to the idea.

Set up a second call if they’re willing and have them break it down.

Matt will tell you:

  • A written case study is great.
  • An audio case study is better.
  • A video-based Zoom interview is phenomenal.
  • A video interview with a professional videographer is gold.

But start somewhere.

Watch the impact of that case study take root. Then reinvest.

How to get started with customer interviews

Two of our good friends at Gorilla – Logan Lyles of Sweet Fish Media and MJ Peters of Firetrace International (a first-class manufacturing professional) recently had a great conversation on the B2B Growth podcast.

In Logan’s interview with MJ, she described three different applications for what she calls “customer listening”:

  1. Deliberate customer listening. You’re researching customers for the first time
  2. Regular cadence. You build customer listening into your processes every day
  3. Experimentation. You take insights from your research or regular cadence and apply them to get a continuous feedback loop

Here are some key points MJ made in that conversation:

She advises that you create a “Customer Hypothesis” ahead of the interview:

  • Who is it we’re trying to sell to?
  • What are we going to learn about them?
  • And what are we going to do with that information?

She says to frame the conversation by saying, “I will not take up more than 20 minutes of your time.”

(Along the same lines, Dave Loomis will tell you to state directly that you promise not to sell in this meeting. Help them take their guard down. You’re there to learn).

MJ says to go track down five emails addresses from customers and send them a note like this:

“Hi, I’m just trying to learn more about this industry. I noticed that you’re an expert because I read X, Y and Z on LinkedIn. I’m not trying to sell you anything. Would you be open to talking to me for 20 minutes so I can learn?”

It’s that simple.

You can do this. Just start.