Interviews with customers: tips to validate your startup


Table of Contents

Validation interviews are a great tool for testing your business idea.

Users are one of the critical factors in starting a company. The best founders maintain a direct connection to their users because they need to obtain information from them during all the different stages of running their company. Often, people think that founders can outsource this research to other people, but if you are the founder, it is your job to talk to customers. So, take the time to learn how to do it well.

In this article, we want to provide some advices on how to plan your strategy to talk to customers, as well as some questions and strategies that you can use to conduct your own customer interviews.

What do you think is better? A few interviews with the right people, asking the right questions, or collecting hundreds of surveys in a few days? Remember that quality is better than quantity, but we always recommend doing surveys too.

Let’s start!

Find your target

First, it is necessary to target your customers and identify the Early adopters. Identifying the first potential customers will allow you to deepen the problem(s) you are trying to solve, modelling the solution based on the feedbacks received.

But who are the Early Adopters? They are those people who are desperate and burdened by the problem you are trying to solve. They are those people who are aware that they have the problem, they try to solve it, but do not find a satisfactory solution.

Once you have found your target audience, you can move on to the interview phase.

How to prepare for interviews

To define the basic ideas, you can compile a Lean Canvas or use the Javelin Board, i.e., tools able to clarify your ideas and write down the necessary hypotheses to get started.

Once you have compiled the tools you are ready to go!

General interviews advices

  • Conduct the interview informally, leaving the interlocutor in his or her comfort zone.
  • Expect a duration of between 15 and 30 minutes maximum. The interview should guarantee the desired result without ending up in a useless chat.
  • Conduct the interview in person. Interviews can hide pitfalls: is the interviewee paying the right attention to your questions? Do gestures and expressions contradict the answers? Does the interviewee appear bored or scarcely interested? Therefore, prefer interviews conducted in person, keeping the other options good only in case of necessity. Verbal communication is only one of the useful data deriving from the interview. Be sure to observe the person’s body language as well, writing down any cues from context or non-verbal communication.
  • Interview one person at a time. Avoid interviewing groups of people at the same time as you may get distorted feedbacks from uncontrollable group dynamics.

Ask the right questions

The interview should follow a logical pattern designed to deny or validate the hypotheses on your idea, that is, for example, the problem you think may afflict the interviewees. The goal is not to ask people if they like the solution you have in mind, but to try to understand if you are on the right path. Therefore, avoid talking about your idea or trying to sell the solution you have thought of.

Listening is the key during this phase. Ask open questions that can put the interviewees at ease and that guarantee maximum freedom of expression, to capture any useful suggestions and ideas.

Remember to write down everything that is said by the interviewee. Ban hypotheses, instead make your interlocutor think in the past: how often did you happen to…? How did you behave …? How much did you pay to fix the problem…?

Key questions

Here are some examples of questions that everyone can ask during their early customer interviews:

  • “What is the hardest part about doing the thing that you are trying to solve?” – In general, the best startups look for problems that people face on a regular basis or that are painful enough. This question can help confirm if the problem that you are working on is exactly the one that users feel as a pain point, i.e., as something that they actively want to solve in their life.
  • “Tell me about the last time that you encountered this problem.” – It is a good question to try to get to specifics rather than hypothesis and the goal is to obtain an idea of the context in which the customer encountered that problem. If you obtain enough information on the context as you develop your product, you will be able to reference real-life examples of past problems that potential customers had. Moreover, you can overlay your solution on top of that, to see if it would have helped in that circumstance.
  • “Why was this hard?” – Ask this question not only to identify the exact problem that you may begin to solve with your solution, but also to begin to understand how you can market your product and how you can explain to new potential customers the value or the benefits of your solution. In general, customers don’t buy the “what”, buy the “why”.
  • “What, if anything, have you done to try to solve this problem?” – If potential customers are not already trying to fix their problem on their own, it is possible that the problem that you are trying to solve is not that big for customers to be even interested in your solution. So, this question is useful to try to answer another question: is the person who encounters this problem already trying to solve it?
    Ask this question to figure out whether the problem that you are solving or you are working to solve is even something that people are already looking for solutions to, and to find out what are the other competitors out there. What will your product be compared against as you end up rolling out your solution and offering it to customers?
  • “What don’t you love about the solutions that you have already tried?” – This question is very tactical because you are in the beginning of your potential feature set. This is how you begin understanding which features your solution should offer to solve the problem.
  • “How much are you currently spending and how much have you spent in the past to solve your problem?” – Ask this question to try to quantify the problem and to then be able to make arguments also on pricing.

Common mistakes during the interviews

In the book called “The Mom Test” by Rob Fitzpatrick, he explains that there are 3 common errors people make when they try to conduct customer interviews:

  • They talk about their idea. – A customer interview is not the right moment to talk about the idea because the goal is to obtain information to improve the product, the marketing or the positioning with feedbacks. Therefore, the purpose is to learn about their life instead of trying to sell them the product. Talk about specifics around the problem area that you are trying to solve and that the customer may be going through.
  • They talk about hypothesis. – Talking about what the product could be or its features is useless during this phase. Instead, talk about specifics that have already occurred in the user’s life to gain information to make product and company changing decisions. Ask them general and specific questions about their life to extract context around how they encountered the problem and why they got themselves into that problem in the first place.
  • They talk a lot. – In a customer interview, try to talk less and listen more. Take notes and listen to what the customer is saying because, in that time that you spend with the customer, you are trying to extract as much information as possible to bring hard data, real facts about users’ lives to the table. Take detailed notes because you never know until later which key facts of these user interviews may be useful. If you are not great at taking notes while you are talking to someone, bring a co-founder or ask the person if you can record the interview.

If you want to know more about “The Mom Test”, also read the article The Mom Test book: how to interview your target 

The different ways of conducting the interviews in the various phases of the project

Talking to customers is useful at all stages of your company but there are 3 critical phases to point out based on different goals:

  • The phase of the idea
  • The phase of prototype tests
  • The phase after the launch

Let’s see them below in details.

The phase of the idea

In this phase, you don’t have any first users yet, so, you need to begin finding the first people that will be interested in either providing information about the problem that they have encountered or potentially signing up to be your first users.

But how can you find your first users? Please note that some of the best companies sell products or services that are built for the founders themselves. So, start with yourself: test your user interview strategy on yourself and try to walk through a situation where you have encountered that problem.

The next step after that is to talk to friends and co-workers to get warm introductions. You don’t have to talk to thousands of people as what you are trying to obtain is an unbiased and detailed customer or user interview strategy. So, when in doubt, if there is a specific target customer base that you are looking to get feedback from, just try showing up. At the end of the day, think that you are solving a problem that your target customer base is facing. You will be helping them out by taking them 15 minutes to learn more about the problem.

Industry events are another great way to get a high number of new customer interactions, but always be aware and respect the other person’s time.

The phase of the prototype tests

As you move past the idea phase into testing your prototype with users, the next benefit that you can get from talking to users is figuring out who will be your best first customer.

This is critical because at this stage you should ask questions with the purpose of obtaining numerical answers. One example could be: how much does this problem cost them today? Or how much revenue do they stand to earn if they solve this problem? Or how much money is wasted today as they try to solve this problem?

Please note that is necessary to understand how frequently they encounter this problem. Do they encounter it on an hourly basis, a daily basis, a quarterly basis, yearly basis? In fact, the best problems that startups can target are the ones that occur more frequently. This is beneficial because if users encounter a problem on a more regular basis, it means that they are feeling the pain of that problem on a more regular basis, and therefore they will be much more receptive to a potential solution. So, the best first customers are the ones that have this problem very frequently.

Also note that you want to get to the bottom of how large is their budget for solving this problem. So, again, as you are trying to identify the best first customers, make sure that you are asking questions about whether they would solve the problem given the choice.

At the end of the interviews, build a spreadsheet to find out to which customer you should begin to sell your product first.

The phase after the launch

In this phase, the interviews can benefit to iterate and find out which features work better.

On a weekly basis, for example, you could ask on a percentage of your customer base some critical questions, such as: “How would you feel if you could no longer use this product/service?” and get feedbacks like:

  1. very disappointed,
  2. somewhat disappointed,
  3. not disappointed.

In this way, you can measure the percentage of users who answered each question. It has been discovered that successful companies are the ones that have the answer 1 (very disappointed) above 40%.

If you are at the stage where you are iterating and you actively have users that you can ask this question to, this can be immensely useful to quantitatively determine whether the features that you worked on in the previous week were benefiting and if you can add them to your product-market fit, or potentially detract them from it as well.

Remember to always ask your users for the phone number during signup because, oftentimes, you will be looking at the data and you will be wondering “Why is the data showing this particular kind of learning about our customers?”. So, investigate why a certain percentage of people have this problem by getting on the phone and talking to one person who is encountering this problem.

You need to begin to understand whether those features are truly going to help make your product more useful. To do that, say: “Here’s an upgrade flow. If you want this new product, put your credit card” or “If you want this new feature, put your credit card information or pay more.” Even before you build out the feature, this could help give you information about whether the feature that you are working on is something that the users are going to use. Remember to discard bad data such as compliments and fluff, as “The Mom Test” taught us.

Conclusions about the interviews

In this article, we provided you with some tips on how to build and conduct your interviews with customers in the different stages of your startup project to be more effective.

Most of the information of this article have been taken from a wonderful speech by Eric Migicovsky, YC Partner. Watch the video below.

If you are interested in customer interviews, find out more on Validate your startup idea page. You will discover more interesting content and videos to watch!