How to Prepare for Customer Interviews in 7 Easy Steps

BY Amanda Vanelderen
July 29, 2020

You might not realize it, but the success of your case study starts before a word is written. Here are our secrets to nailing great interviews. Every. Single. Time.

You hop on a call with your biggest customer. You need to get all the information for your case study in a single phone call. You need to keep it quick, so you don’t waste their time. You hit RECORD and…

You freeze.

What do you ask first? What do you do if they stumble over their answers or don’t know the numbers? How do you turn your customer into a storyteller?

The answer: prep work. The success of a case study starts way before you ever book a call. Some elbow grease before the call pays off in spades after the interview when you create your case study.

Here are 7 steps to preparing for customer interviews that are worth their weight in case study gold.

Step 1: Know your mission

Nobody wants to be on either side of an awkward interview. And things get tense fast when you haven’t done your homework on your customer and the story you want to tell.

But what’s even more awkward is an interview without a goal. If the interviewer doesn’t know what we’re doing here and ask intelligent questions, how the heck can your customer give good answers? You’re on a fishing expedition without bait. 

Before you get the customer involved — and long before you put pen to paper — take a long, hard look at what you want to get out of this. 

Get crystal clear on your business goals: 

  • What do you plan to do with the interview?
  • Who are you trying to reach with the end product case study? 
  • What are you trying to showcase? 
  • Why is this story important to your target audience?
  • Who is the right customer to tell this story?

 Consider those goals against customer backgrounds, relationships, and key metrics when you choose who to ask for an interview. Which brings us to step 2…

Step 2: Build a core question set

Even if you’re not producing case studies regularly, creating a template of your core questions is a no-brainer before a customer interview.

What do you ask and how do you ask it? At Case Study Buddy, we are all about the BDA, baby.

Before, during, and after (BDA) is a simple model for building your core question set. It brings structure to the customer interview and a safety net of questions to get customers talking about their experience, not just reciting facts.

  • Before: Explore the problem or challenge. Why was it such a big deal that they went looking for a solution when they did?
  • During: Talk about how they chose and implemented your solution. Ask about relationships, support, features they love, and how it felt to get help. 
  • After: Discuss how life changed for the better. Loop back to the pain points and ask about specific fixes and bottom-line impacts.

Your core questions can use simple icebreakers to get the customer thinking about the benefits of your relationship. For example…

  • What does success look like to you? 
  • What does a typical day look like for you and your business?

Core questions mean less interview minutes wasted on what you should already know, like their job title or how to spell their name. 

Step 3: Adapt your questions and your language to the customer 

Here’s where things get tricky. If you help customers in different niches or offer a range of solutions, you can’t use a one-size-fits-all question set. So, you might need to come up with two or more question sets to fit.

When you know which core question set you’re using, slice and dice it to suit the specific customer you are interviewing.

We use completely different question sets for SaaS customers and agency customers. 

We refine the question sets even further with data we collect before the customer interview. So, when customers go off on interesting angles, we’re ready to change tack mid-interview and follow the story. 

Nothing kills an interview faster than making it obvious you haven’t done your research.

Do you need to be an expert in their industry before you hop on a call? No… but you need to know just enough to be dangerous.

In other words: Do your homework. Answer the obvious questions yourself and use language that shows you understand your customer, their industry, and what’s important to them.

Step 4: Stay on topic (but stay flexible)

Another sure-fire way to kill your interview is to read your questions from a script… it sounds like The Terminator has slipped into the interviewer’s seat. Now, describe your human emotions about the solution.

Anyone can ask a question from a script, pause for a response, repeat. But that’s not listening, and it’s not interviewing.

If you’ve got a pulse and a brain, show it. If a customer preempts your questions or offers an interesting angle you hadn’t planned for, grab it with both hands.

But keeping people on topic is just as important.

Not every tangent is worth chasing down. It’s your job to spot the difference.

Try thinking like a journalist angling for the juiciest story possible…

  • What is the non-negotiable information I need?
  • What else can I ask that can help chip away at barriers and capture the human experience?
  • How do I get those detailed answers to bubble up?

When you know what info you need to get, and have a strategy for getting it, you can go off-book to search out angles that might benefit your story.

My advice?

  1. You don’t need to go into an interview already knowing all the answers to your questions. But you need to know where to dig.
  2. Dig into impacts and how it felt, not just a set of numbers.
  3. Don’t be afraid to talk about what the customer doesn’t like. You can leave it on the cutting room floor and out of your case study, but it’s too good a chance to pass up for some voice of customer research. 

Step 5: Get the right contact on the line

Do you dread an interview full of “I don’t know” responses?

Solve that headache by making sure you speak with a person who is indispensable to the story you’re telling.

You’re not just going to hop on the phone with random intern #7.

You want to talk with someone who ticks one or more of these boxes…

  • Made the decision to choose your solution
  • Was heavily involved in implementing your solution
  • Works with your solution on a day-to-day basis
  • Knows firsthand the impact your solution has on their business 

Your painstaking research to select the right customer and define your goals will be a spectacular waste of time if you don’t interview the right person.

Step 6: Shine the spotlight on your customer

It’s a subtle step that’s hard to master, but critical if you want to tell a good story.

Let’s be clear: you are not talking about yourself. You are not talking about your service, features, or the benefits you bring to the table.

You are talking about your customer.

If you do it well,  you don’t need to insert your solution into the story. Ask the right questions about the customer’s experience, and they’ll do it for you. 

Real stories of customer success are compelling. They sound like the customer and show your prospects what success looks like for someone just like them.

The role of your business? Being the enabler for your customer to tell their story. It’s win-win.

The right preparation leads to customer interviews that add the color, detail, and depth to transform clinical BDA case studies into compelling reading. 

Step 7: Go beyond results, to impacts

Metrics and hard numbers. That’s the stuff case study writers dream about (just me?).

But here’s the rub: you can have the biggest win of your life + ALL the numbers, and still create a story that puts readers to sleep.

Because data is great, but numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Rookie error 101 in case studies is talking about the result and not the impact. A customer saw a 20% rise in inquiries… so what? What did that mean for them? How did it affect the person who achieved those results? Their boss? The company? Why does it matter? Dig deep into the impact for the person you’re interviewing.

The impact is where you’ll find the compelling human story.

For every big number or result worth bragging about, bring it back to the personal level:

  • How did that feel?
  • What surprised you about it?
  • What did that make possible for you? 
  • What did that make possible for your company?

As for which impacts you should dig deeper in… remember you want your reader to see themselves in the story. If you’re writing for a CMO, focus on benefits that a CMO would care about.

TL;DR: when you’re prepared, you’re confident

They say dogs can smell fear (or is that bees?). So can the customer on the other end of an interview you’re not prepared for. 

Preparation breeds confidence. When you know what you’re looking for, you can relax into an interview that flows like a friendly conversation. 

Apply these seven simple steps to be an interview force to be reckoned with — and master the art of transforming a 30-minute conversation into a mountain of social proof.

Need some customer interview support? We got you!

Ask the Case Study Team about telling your compelling customer stories.

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