How to interview customers without exposing your startup idea

Interviewing customers correctly is the key to unlocking their real problems. Few things in life are as fulfilling as understanding someone else's problem, and helping them solve it.

Here are five interview questions that you should ask. Learning to do this well will not only help us learn about our customer’s problems; we’ll learn if they’re worth solving, and also how to solve them.

The 5 Interview Questions:

  • What’s the hardest part about [problem context]?
  • Can you tell me about the last time that happened?
  • Why was that hard?
  • What, if anything, have you done to solve that problem?
  • What don’t you love about the solutions you’ve tried?

Let's start with Question #1:

What’s the hardest part about [problem context]?

The tough part about this is to not tell your customer about the problem you want to solve, yet being able to extract out the real problems they face. Let's say you've a hypothesis that people dislike fixed lens colors for their sunglasses.

Here's two scenarios to avoid:

Question is too specific till it gives out the problem: What's the hardest part about finding the right pair of lens color for your sunglasses in your city?

Possible response: I've never had a problem with that.

Congratulations. The conversation ends here!

Question is too broad till it brings up a range of unrelated problems: What's the hardest part about sunglasses?

Possible unrelated answers: If my friends think I look cool in it, whether its made in China? (You want to focus on the lens color correct?)

Better question: What's the hardest part about choosing a pair of sunglasses?

Possible answers: Determining if the sunglasses fit my eyes properly, the limited choice of colors for the frame, UV protection is not enough etc.

Now, the question is not too broad that the problems are unrelated, yet not too specific that it gives off the problem you are solving. Either way, the 3rd question helps you validate if your hypothesis (people dislike a single fixed lens color) is correct. Even if its invalidated, the question is still broad enough to point you to other problems that are worth solving.

Question #2 - Stories help you set the context and learn so much more than what you would do in front of the screen.

Question #3 - Customers don’t buy the what, they buy the why. The 'Why' will be used for crafting marketing copy.

Question #4 – If your customers aren't looking for solutions, then the problem isn't big enough to solve.

Question #5 - This feedback will be used to craft your startup's Unique Value Proposition. It'll help you make an alternative product offering that's better than the competition.

If you find that in the course of interview, customers don't mention the problem and you'll have to surface the problem repeatedly, and they're not taking steps to solve it, then they probably not going to pay for your solution.

It's time to then look at other problems mentioned in Question 1, and go through the process again.

For an example of an actual interview excerpt I conducted with a customer, check out this other post I wrote: A Customer Interview Excerpt On People Losing Phones.

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