How do you interview potential customers?

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Why interview potential customers?

You don’t want to spend time and money to build a solution for which there are no customers with a problem or need you can satisfy  You interview potential customers to understand their problems and needs, with an absolute focus on listening.  This is very different than trying to sell a solution.

The overall process is to:

  • Document some hypotheses: What are the characteristics of a potential customer? What are the potential customers’ problems and needs?
  • Test the hypotheses by interviewing potential customers. You may have to contact 10 or more people for each interview, which is best done face-to-face. The absolute minimum number of completed interviews is 10.  50 completed interviews are better.  One founder completed 300 interviews in a year.
  • The interview process will either validate or disprove your hypotheses.
  • During the interview process you will likely revise some hypotheses, as well as set down some facts (i.e. validated hypotheses).

You document your hypotheses in the business model canvas1.  This framework ties together customers, their needs, your solution, and what’s required to build your solution.  Your business model canvas will change as your hypotheses change, are validated, or are invalidated.

What are the dos and donts?

  • Do document and execute a structured process.
  • Do define your target customers and select potential customers 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.  Don’t do emails or surveys because those do no allow interactive dialogue and understanding.
  • Do get out and interview lots of customers. The absolute minimum number of customer interviews in 10.  50 interviews are a better number.  One founder completed 300 interviews in one year.  You will have to contact many people to get the necessary interviews because most people will decline.  They are strangers with busy lives.
  • Do ask potential customers if it’s OK to record the interview for later analysis. If not, have a second person take detailed notes.  Do not conduct a non-recorded interview by yourself.
  • 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. Do ask about the customers costs’, budgets, etc.
  • Do not use or send a survey form. These tend to ask closed-end questions, while you want open-ended responses to open-ended questions.
  • Do finish each interview with two questions: “Who else would you recommend I interview?”, and “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).
  • Do review and update your business model canvas as you validate your hypotheses regarding target customers and their needs.

Other customer understanding techniques to consider:

  • Watch the customers (or video record them) as they carry out their work.
  • Actually do the customer’s work yourself.
  • Focus on the user 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.


You will fail if your customers do not believe your solution addresses a key problem or need.


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