5 Tips For Better Customer Interviews

The easiest way to collect interesting, usable data from a research effort is to blend into the background of the subject’s life. Media journalists know this – that’s why they’re embedded in the presidential campaigns and in the military actions.

To give honest unselfconscious, response, subject’s need to be comfortable with researchers – as peers, as collegues, as one of them.

Susan Orlean describes this necessity in her recent interview on MPR’s Midmorning. For good data, she schedules at least a week to blend into the background.

The need to commit time to really see into someone’s life is echoed in Tod Maffin’s the Art of the 10-Hour Interview.

The projects here at Working Pathways move much more quickly than those in either of the articles. We are often charged with capturing usable data with less than hour per respondant. With that in mind, here are 5 tips we use for “becoming invisible” in under an hour.

  1. Make Good Small Talk.
    The weather, the traffic, a recent news item, the goal is to find common ground quickly. You probably share a handful of similarities -find a a couple. Share the joy of meeting someone new is this small world.
  2. They’re the Expert.
    Whatever you’re talking about, they know more than you. Chances are their situation and challenges in whatever you’re talking about are unique. Use the little you know on the subject to probe and show them you can speak the lingo, not that you could take over their job.
  3. Pay Attention.
    Everything is a conscious decision – body language, intonation, language, word selection, wardrobe, facial expressions, everything. Each movement betrays their personality and honest, unguarded emotions. Picking up and following up on these cues is where the good data lives.
  4. Always Be Curious.
    There’s nothing worse than an interviewer uninterested in the respondant. If you don’t need or want another interview, cancel it. Otherwise you’re wasting everyone’s time and money.
  5. Keep the recording devices out of hand and sight.
    This is not to be sneaky or misleading. As an ethical researcher, all participants should be aware and give concent to recording. Have an assistant be responsible for the recording equipment. This recommendation is so;
    1. You can focus all your attention on the conversation and not recording.
    2. Your respondant can focus on the conversation, not being recorded. Thereby reducing the chance of them being self-conscious or saying what they think ther researcher wants to hear.

3 thoughts on “5 Tips For Better Customer Interviews

  1. I disagree about hiding recording devices. First, your point could be misinterpreted to be advocating misleading or sneaky approaches to capture. People need to consent to being interviewed, and ideally be rewarded in some fashion.

    Second, newcomers to interviewing think that the process is naturalistic. It isn’t – being interviewed is NOT what normally goes on at the breakfast table or the sales desk or wherever you are conducting your research. What you are doing is creating an artificial experience – a piece of theater. In my experience, the video camera, obvious but not played with, is an important prop in that theater. It justifies the “performance” (in sociological terms) that you are asking the research participant to engage in. It’s NOT normal, there isn’t normally a person asking direct questions and hanging out, and the camera can help shift the experience to a professionally valid one from a creepy intrusive one.

    (yeah, there’s a lot of other things you have to do to ensure that, but the camera CAN help).

    That doesn’t mean play with the camera and look at the camera and ignore the person, but neither do you need to conceal it or mislead the participant.

  2. Your point on keeping devices out of site well taken – and I’ve updated the post to reflect it.

    I agree that devices shouldn’t be hidden to be sneaky or subversive. The focus of the interviewer should be on the participant not the recording device, an additional team member should be responsible for the camera, audio, note taking, etc.

    In my experience, most accurate data comes from the naturalistic experience, why enthnography is a valuable customer research method. Yes, the participants need to provide consent. After that, they should be so engaged in the interview that they are not aware of the video and audio recorder.

    Yes, someone hanging out and asking direct questions may not be a regular occurrence. That’s why by focusing on an engaging interaction – not the recording devices, prevents self-conscious, data-damaging behavior.

    This opinion of not focusing on the equipment is seconded by
    Tod Maffin, Freelance radio producer for the CBC

    Treat Your Mic Invisibly: At first, don’t shove the mic in their face. Rest it against your cheek, as if you’ve forgotten about it, for the first couple of questions then, if they’re giving you good tape, move it closer while maintaining solid eye contact with them. Never acknowledge the mic by looking at it. Move it as little as possible. The conversation should be with you, not the microphone. When people focus on the fact that they’re being recorded, they don’t speak naturally. Or at all.

  3. Never turn the camera off. If you do, your customer will say the perfect 6 second sound byte and you will never recreate it

    Also.. after going through your questions and you have ‘run out’ of things to say. Start over and do it again. The customer will enjoy now answering things as they have been through them once.

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