How do you interview potential customers? V2

The purpose of this article

  • The goal is to help founders as they are launching their startup.
  • The article is structured to help with potential customers interviews starting in the first week of the startup.
  • The information in this article can be modified to help a later stage startup, a scaling company, or an established mature company.

This article is not intended to make you an expert in interviewing potential customers and analyzing interview notes.

You may download a PDF of this article from: How do you interview potential customers V2

What is a startup?

  • A startup is a temporary organization designed to search out a repeatable, scalable and profitable business model with lots of potential customers who are willing and able to pay to solve their problems and needs.
  • A business model describes how a company creates value for itself while delivering products or services to customers. What are you building and for whom.  What customer problems are your solving? What customer needs are you addressing?  What benefits and value are you enabling customers to achieve?

Why interview potential customers immediately?

You don’t want to spend time and money to build a solution for which there are no customers with a problem or needs for which they are willing and able to spend money.  You don’t want to build a cattle ranch for selling meat and then discover that your customers are vegetarians.

The following two articles illustrate the value of talking with customers before you launch a solution.

What must you learn about customers and users?

You need to interview both C&U (Customers and Users). Customers are those who give you money.  Users are those who use your solution but don’t give you money.  You must learn about both of those groups.  Google would not have advertisers if there wasn’t a large number of satisfied people doing searches.

What do you want to learn from your interviews?

There are 5 areas you want to learn about, in a variety of interviews.

  • What are the C&U urgent problems and needs?
  • What do the C&U believe is the value to them if their urgent problems and needs are addressed?  Value can be both financial and non-financial?
  • When during the course of the day do C&U experience urgent problems and needs? How do they feel?
  • How will the C&U daily experience change as a result of your solution?
  • What is the decision-making process? E.g. who are influencers? Who are recommenders and advisors?  Who makes the financial decision?

The analysis of interview may reveal different C&U segments.

How do you analyze interview notes?

 Validating and invalidating assumptions as well as identifying new facts required thematic analysis of the interview transcripts. Two analytical approaches are used:

  • Inductive – the data validates or invalidates assumptions
  • Deductive – the data identities new facts or findings, other than the initial assumptions.

The Further Reading section has links to articles on how to analyze user interviews and how-to use excel in this analysis. As the number of your interviews increases, you’ll be able to analyze them by customer segment, and other characteristics.

The customer journey description in the initial interview is documented in the customer journey map.  The Further reading section has a link to examples of customer journey maps

 The analysis of your interviews, combined with 3rd party market research, will help you determine the market size of each C&U segment.  E.g. Potential revenue = (number of customers with an urgent problem or need that they believe they must spend money on) X (what they are willing and able to spend).

 How do you document your interview learnings?

There are three sets of documents:

  • The business model canvas, updated based on thematic analysis and customer journey mapping.
  • The one-page summary thematic analysis of interview notes. This analysis validates or invalidates assumptions made in the business model canvas.
  • The one-page page summary customer journey mapping, based on what the C&U say during interviews.

When do you interview C&U?

  • You start interviewing as soon as you launch your startup, before you have spent any time or money to start build a solution.
  • You continue to interview throughput the startup journey, as you start to build and validate that your solution addresses C&U problems and needs: Wireframe, proof of concept, functional prototype, pilot solution, initial MVP, enhanced MVPs, and product market fit.
  • You continue to interview as your company grows.
  • You never stop interviewing.

 What is the overall process?

  • Day one of your launch:
    1. Create the business model canvas. It will likely be 100% assumptions.
    2. Create the customer journey map. It will likely be 100% assumptions.
    3. List the assumptions from the business model canvas you want to validate or invalidate, with the open-ended questions you’ll ask.
  • Define the structure you’ll use for your customer journey map.
  • Define the format of the one-page report you’ll create from your thematic analysis of interview notes.
  • Schedule interviews with C&U, selecting C&U represented by your business model canvas. Before you start to build something, you will interview 100 people. Most people will likely decline to be interviewed which means you may be reaching out to 100s of C&U.
  • Develop an interview guide, customized for the initial C&U interviews focused on their problems and needs.
  • Two people must be on the interview, with one person taking detailed notes of what the interviewer said.
  • Document each interview.
  • After each day of interviews,
    1. Update your one-page summary thematic analysis.
    2. Update your one-page customer journey map.
    3. Update your business model canvas, based on your thematic analysis and customer journey map.
  • The interview guides will need to be revised as you learn from interviews and as your startup goes through different stages.

What’s an example interview guide for the first problem validation interview with potential C&U?

  • Start with 1-2 minutes of personal ice-breaking, based on your research of the interviewee.
  • Set the stage for the interview. What are the objectives and how will the interview work.
  • Collect some demographic information about the interviewee, focused on their business or lifestyle in the context of the problems you’re trying to solve.
  • Set the problem context by telling the story of how you identified the problem and why you think the problem is important.
  • Validate the problem by getting the interviewee to rank the urgency and frequency of their problems. Ask the interview if there were other problems which you did not identify.
  • Test the solution. Go through each problem in urgency sequence and ask how the interviewee solves it today, what the value of a solution would be to them, and what this value would be.  This is a very free from discussion with you listening to the interviewee.  The interviewee may be begging for a solution may not care if there is a solution.
  • Conclude by asking:
    1. if OK to come back to discuss your solution.
    2. if interviewee would refer other people for you to interview.

What are the dos and don’ts?

  • Do define your target C&U and select potential C&U who are representative. For example, if you are creating a venture capital fund which will focus on providing investor exits within 3 years, do not interview potential investors who seek a 20+ year exit in-order to facilitate inter-generational wealth transfer.
  • Do face-to-face interviews. Video calls are a distant second best.  Phone calls are a very distant third best.
  • Do document the criteria for assessing the answers. This will avoid confirmation bias, in which you’ll ignore information which invalidates your hypotheses.
  • Do not interview friends, family, or those you have a personal connection with. You need brutal honesty, rather than hearing from people who do not want to hurt your feelings.
  • Do focus on the people who actually have the problem or need for which you are creating the solution.
  • Do create questions which require quantitative answers or specific descriptions. Don’t ask for subjective or hypothetical feedback.
  • Do create questions that help you understand how customers think, and why they take the actions they do.
  • Do not talk about your solution in your initial meeting.
  • Do not ask about price or what customers are willing to pay in the initial meeting. Do ask about the customers costs, budgets, etc.
  • Do finish each interview asking “What should I have asked but did not ask?”
  • Do create a data collection form for each interview. This will contain things such as: the description of the customer profile, your open-ended questions, which hypotheses were confirmed and why, which hypotheses were invalidated and why, which hypotheses you gained no insight into and why, what changes you should make for the next interview (target customer profile, hypotheses, questions to ask).

Other C&U understanding techniques to consider:

  • Watch the C&U (or video record them) as they carry out their work.
  • Actually do the C&Us work yourself.
  • Focus on the C&U who is suffering the greatest pain and determine their work-around solution(s).
  • Understand what the customers’ required outcomes are, as well the problems in achieving that outcome.

What are the challenges in interviewing potential customers

  • The founders, or existing companies, passionately believe that they have created right solution. They believe there is no reason to interview potential customers. They are focused on building the solution and selling it. Their passion results in them being unable to listen to and understand what the customers are saying.
  • The founders, or existing companies, believe any sales and marketing problems can be fixed by changing the sales deck and changing the website.
  • The founders, or existing companies, are passionate that they have the right solution. Hearing brutal feedback from potential customers requires founders who are self-confident, self-aware that they don’t have all the answers, and have the ability to learn and adapt.  I’ve observed many people who are not able to learn and adapt.
  • The founders lack the personality and skills to contact a large number of strangers to setup and conduct interviews.
  • Doing interviews appears to be lack of progress. Building a solution is more fun and appears to be progress.

Your next steps

  • Ensure your team has the skills and experience to interview C&Us and to analyze the results. These may reside either in team members or advisors.
  • Build your interview plan in conjunction with your survey plan. You will be surveying far more people than you interview.


1 “What is a business model canvas?”  The following is a link to my article

Further reading:

Creating an interview guide and interview process

The book “Lean Analytics – use data to build a better startup faster” by Alistair Croll & Benjamin Yoskovitz

Chapter 15 “Stage One: Empathy”

How to transcribe an interview

How to analyze user interviews

An example of using Excel and pivot tables for thematic analysis of user interviews

Some example of customer journey maps

Do you understand your customers?

The purpose of this article

  • Help the board of directors and C-Suite establish a common understanding of their customers and users.
  • This article provides an overall framework.

You may download a PDF of this article from: Do you understand your customers

Why am I writing this article?

  • I have observed that the majority of companies, both startups and established companies, have limited understanding of their customers and users. There are often opinions and assumptions regarding the customers. Frequently these assumptions and opinions are undocumented and not commonly understood and agreed upon.
  • A McKinsey survey of board directors revealed that “Only 16 percent said directors strongly understood the dynamics of their industries, just 22 percent said directors were aware of how their firms created value, and a mere 34 percent said directors fully comprehended their companies’ strategies.”1
  • Your company will fail if you base your understanding of customers and users on hopes, dreams, and opinions.

What is the process to understand your customers and users?

  • The seven-phase process is set out below.
  • The most critical part of the process is listening to what the customers and users are saying and observing what they are doing.
  • You start out by listing your assumptions.
  • Then you validate these assumptions via customer and user input.

Phase 1 Analysis of market data

  • What have been the historical trends?
  • What is the existing aggregate analysis of target segments e.g. geographic, social characteristics, demographic?

Phase 2 document your assumptions, whether or not you have customers and users

Step 1: Define who your customers and users are

  • Identify the key members of the customers’ ecosystem? Users are most common.  There can also be influencers, recommenders, blockers, etc. e.g. Google’s cash paying customers are advertisers.  Google would not have customers if there weren’t a large number of free users doing searches.
  • Who are your target customers and customer segments e.g. geographic, social characteristics, demographic?

Step 2 What does a day-in-the life of the customers and users look like?

  • What are the points of the day when they have urgent problems, pains, needs which your solution may be able to help with. Rank these in terms of intensity and frequency of occurrence.
  • What are the points of the day when they could expect benefits from your solution? What will make them happy? Rank the relevance in term of relevance and frequency of occurrence.
  • What value would the customer achieve as a result of solving problems of gaining benefits? g. time saving, saving money, making more money, reducing frustration, increasing happiness, increasing social standing, etc.
  • At which points do they touch or become aware of your solution? These include: friends, colleagues, social media, conferences, publications, website, app, email, customer service, etc.
  • How do the customers and users perceive the value of your solution vs the current situation and competitors?

Step 3 What is the market size?

Market size requires customer who realize they have an urgent problem or need, are willing to spend money to solve it, and can afford the spend the money.

  • How many cash paying customers, and what would be the revenue, if you receive 100% of customer spending, regardless of distribution channels, and geographies?
  • How many cash paying customers, and what would be the revenue you receive 100% of customer spending, with your current distribution channels and partners?
  • What is your current market share? How many cash paying customers do you have, and what is the revenue? If you’re a startup, what are your assumptions for years 1,2,3?

Phase 3 Validate your assumptions

  • Interview and survey your customers and users, in a series of iterative and learning steps.
  • You’ll need to do thematic analysis of your interviews.

Phase 4 Additional input if you have customers and users

The single most important question is asking  “Would you recommend our solution to others?”  This metric is known as NPS (Net Promoter Score)2.  Follow on questions could be “If so, why?  If not, why not?”

A more detailed question would be: “How would you feel if you could no longer use our product or service?”3

  • Very disappointed?
  • Somewhat disappointed?
  • Not disappointed – it’s not really that useful?
  • I no longer use it.

At least 40% of your target customers must say “very disappointed”.  If it’s less than 40% you need to reposition/change your solution.  One approach can be to segment the answers to find a customer segment where the response is above 40%.

You must understand the group above 40%.  The 5 questions to ask them are: 1) who are you (demographically) 2) why did they seek out your product/service?  3) how are they using it 4) what is the key benefit 5) why is that benefit important?

Additional sources of customer input include:

  • Follow up emails after customer and user interaction, customer purchase, or customer/user exit.
  • Analysis of live chat discussions.
  • Analysis of sales call logs.
  • Analysis of app or website interaction.
  • Analysis of customers and users postings in social media, including review sites.
  • Survey kiosks at physical events.


Much of the customer input require thematic analysis, because it will be qualitative and unstructured data.

Phase 5 Analysis of company data

  • What % of customers and users do you lose each month?
  • What is the lifetime profit of a customer?
  • What is the customer acquisition cost?

Phase 6 Combine all of the above data

  • All of the above data may be combined and analyzed.
  • Different customer and user views include: by cohort, customer/user segment, geography, channel, partner, etc.

 Phase 7 Continue the above 6 phases on an ongoing basis

  • Understanding customers and users is an ongoing process not a one-time event.
  • There are rapid and ongoing changes to: customer and user problems and needs, the competition, market sizes, regulation, the economy, new technology enable solutions, etc.

Your next steps

  • Document your current situation, based on what you’re currently doing or not doing in the above 6 phases.
  • Assess the gaps and the risks associated with those gaps.
  • Does the board of directors and CEO believe some or all of those gaps are urgent to correct? Most of the startups I’ve met and many of the established companies I’ve met do not believe it is urgent to have a fact-based understanding of customers and users.
  • If the decision is made that there are urgent gaps, then prepare a company specific plan to close those gaps and establish an ongoing process.


1 Eric Kutcher, “Corporate Boards need a facelift”, McKinsey May 4, 2018,

2The Net Promoter Score concept was initially developed by Bain.  The following is a link to the Bain website homepage for Net Promoter Score, which contains several short articles:

The following is a quick overview of using Net Promoter Scores:



What is a value proposition?


  • A value proposition is the customers perception of value.
  • The value proposition = (All the customer achieved benefits) / (All the customer incurred costs)
  • You need to understand both the customer and the competition.
  • Your growth and survival in the marketplace requires helping your customers achieve a compelling value proposition.

A value proposition is the customers perception of value.

This perception can be influenced by: facts, emotions, family & friends, social media, etc.

The value proposition = (All the customer achieved benefits) / (All the customer incurred costs)

All the customer achieved benefits can include both financial and non-financial (e.g. time savings, convenience, status, etc.)

All the customer incurred costs can include financial (purchase costs, costs to switch to your company, other adoption costs, and ongoing costs) and non-financial (time, inconvenience, loss of status, etc.)

You need to understand both the customer and the competition.

  • What is the reason the customer wants or needs something?
  • How can you help the customer with what they need or want?
  • Do your customers believe your value proposition is more attractive than the customers’ current situation?
  • How do your customers perceive your value propositions’ competitive differentiators? And weaknesses?
  • How do your customers perceive your competitors’ value propositions differentiators and advantages? And weaknesses?

Your growth and survival in the marketplace requires helping your customers achieve a compelling value proposition.

  • You must take market share and business away from competitors.
  • Enable customers to stop dealing with current suppliers and start dealing with you.
  • You may be creating a new market (e.g. Apple with the iPad)

Your next steps

Download the following one-page slide to enable discussion with your board of directors, C-Suite, and advisory board.

What is a value proposition?

 Further reading

Thomas Ripsam and Louis Bouquet, “10 Principles of Customer Strategy”, PWC Strategy& website,


What do you do if you’re losing customers?

The first and most important question is: What is happening to the size of your target market?  If the market size is shrinking, then you may need to rethink your target market.

The second most important question is: What have the customers started spending their money on?  In other words, are their needs still the same but a competitor has a better perceived value proposition OR have target customers’ needs or priority of needs changed?

Let’s assume market size and customer needs are not the issue.

Then you need to further hone in on customers’ perceptions:

  • Why are potential customers making one of three potential decisions? Why have they not bought from anyone? Why have they not bought from you?  Why have they not bought from your competition? or from your competition?
  • Why are your current and past customers making one of three potential decisions? Why did they buy from you?  Why are they staying with you?

There are two ways to understand customer perceptions:

  • Analytics can provide insights into customer behaviours and actions (e.g. who are customers buying from). You need to get deeper understanding – why are customers making decisions?
  • Listening to them can provide you with the underlying reasons for actions and behaviours. Customer decision-making is both emotional (trust, brand, fashion, etc.), and rational.  Emotions often drive decision-making.

It is hard to listen to customers.  The 2017 Edelman Trust survey for Canada showed only 36% of respondents believe companies listened to customers.  It is far easier to make assumptions and guesses as to what customers are thinking, rather than focusing on the “words out of their mouths” as well as behaviours and actions.

There are two ways to listen to customers:

  • Passively – what customers ask and tell you in person; via emails they send; via questions, reviews and comments on your website or other social media; what they talk about when contacting customer service, etc.
  • Actively – you proactively engage with your customers, e.g. one-on-one interviews, focus groups, surveys, etc.

The single most important question to ask the target customer is “Who would you recommend?”

Your understanding of the customer results in quantitative and subjective metrics.

You now have some understanding of why you’re losing customers.  What sorts of changes are you going to make to people, processes and technology in order to impact the decisions made by current and potential customers?  The business case will identify both the value of the changes as well as the costs.

So far you have been addressing an urgent issue – the short-term loss of customers and immediate plans to address this issue.  Now you can step back at look at the longer-term issue. How will you ensure you won’t get into this situation again?

  • How will you understand your customers better than the competition does?
  • How will your customers perceive they receive a better value proposition from you rather than from your competitors?
  • What changes do you need to make to your board of directors, advisory board and C-suite?
  • What other changes are required to people, processes and technology?

To enable discussion with your board of directors, advisory board and management, download the following one-page slide:

What do you do if you’re losing customers?