What to ask in a customer discovery interview

Lorenzo Bernaschina

You have found the people to interview. In this article I share how to make the most of the conversation, drawing on the teachings of some influential resources you can find below and my own experience in leading hundreds of them.

What you need to learn

The goal of a customer discovery interview is to meticulously piece together the customer's journey steps from initial awareness to long-term commitment.

Let's see what it looks like with an example before introducing tactics and questions to conduct the interview.

Customer journey map
Customer journey map

Awareness (First realization)

Prospects become aware of a problem that requires a solution. Understanding what triggers this realization helps in identifying potential opportunities to introduce your product.

Triggers can be functional or emotional:

John, a casual jogger, notices that his old running shoes are worn out and starting to cause discomfort during his runs. He realizes he needs a new pair of running shoes to improve his running experience. (Functional trigger)

John has been using a generic brand of running shoes that he bought at a discount store. They served him well for a while, but now a friend of him signed up for a marathon and he feels inspired and challenged to do the same. So he's looking for something that offers better support and performance. (Emotional trigger)

It's important to notice that people can live with sub-optimal solutions for long periods of time. Having a problem does not automatically mean needing a solution.

The problem must be big enough to prevent progress towards the desired outcome. So it's important not only to find problems, but also to understand the level of functional and, more importantly, emotional struggle they cause.

Consideration (Exploring)

Prospects seek out potential solutions. Understanding where and how they look for information can guide your outreach and marketing efforts.

John starts noticing billboards and TV commercials. He visits sports apparel websites, reads reviews on running forums, and watches YouTube videos comparing different brands.

Selection (Evaluating)

Prospects narrow down their options. Understanding the criteria they use to evaluate different solutions can make your outreach and marketing messages more effective.

John narrows down his options to a few running shoes models. He considers factors such as price, features, and user reviews.

Acquisition (Buying moment)

Prospects become customers. This stage involves the actual purchase. To make a purchase there is always a sense of urgency that adds to the struggle. Understanding the final push and incentives that leads to a decision to buy can help refine your landing page copy and sales pitch.

The day of the marathon is approaching. John decides to purchase online a pair of shoes attracted by a promotional discount and free shipping offer.

If you are only interested in how people choose products to better position yourself in the market, you can stop the interview here.

However, user acquisition doesn't mean revenue. People can buy and return a product after a few days. If you are also interested in what makes people stay with products, you need to investigate further how they use them.

Activation (Aha moment)

Customers have their first experience with the new product. Understanding how they engage and become proficient with the product can help you provide them with value faster. This is critical as people only spend a few minutes on a new product to decide whether or not it deserves their attention and commitment.

When the shoes arrive, John tries them out on his next run. He finds that they fit well, provide excellent support, and feel much more comfortable than his old shoes. The initial experience is positive, and he feels satisfied with his purchase.

Retention (Habit formation)

Customers integrate the product into their routine. Understanding what makes them come back and how they establish a habit around its use is crucial to ensure long-term retention.

John continues to use his new running shoes regularly. He notices an improvement in his running performance and reduced discomfort. The shoes become an essential part of his running routine, and he starts to rely on them for all his workouts.

Referral (Loyalty and advocacy)

Happy customers start recommending the product to their friends and colleagues. Understanding what turns customers into advocates can help in creating strategies to enhance customer satisfaction and encourage word-of-mouth referrals.

John's positive experience with his running shoes makes him loyal to the brand. He begins to recommend the same brand to his friends and even posts a review online sharing his satisfaction. When it's time to buy another pair, John doesn't hesitate to choose the same brand again. He also considers other products from the same brand for his athletic needs.

By understanding each of these stages, you can tailor your sales, marketing, product development, customer service, and partnership strategies to better align with the customers' journey.

Below are some personal experiences and tips from "Lean Customer Development" by Cindy Alvarez and "Running Lean" by Ash Maurya to run the interview.

What to do BEFORE the interview

Familiarize yourself with the person you are about to talk to

Have a look at their social media profiles:

  • What type of content they share?
  • What's their job role?
  • What's their industry?
  • Are they tech-savvy or not?

When interviewees see that you've made an effort to understand their world, they feel respected and valued, which can lead to a more honest and open dialogue.

Get rid of any other potential distractions

  • Turn “Do not disturb” mode on.
  • Keep open only the apps, windows, and tabs that are strictly needed to run the interview.
  • Leave the phone in another room.

Have a blank customer timeline in front of you

Especially if you are not an experienced researcher, this is a useful reference to cover all the important stages of the customer journey during the conversation.

Click here to get a spreadsheet template to hold open to the side of your screen and fill in as the interviewee speaks.

I recommend recording the interview and using the spreadsheet notes just as a reminder for questions that come to mind as the person speaks and to make sure you have touched on all the important points.

What to do DURING the interview

Having a meta-script helps you stay focused on your learning goals during an interview to make the most of the limited time you have.

Welcome (Set the stage)

The first minute is very important:

  1. Make the interviewee feel confident that they will be helpful
  2. Explicitly say that you want them to do the talking
  3. Get the interviewee talking

A good opening script for a phone interview might look like this:

Hi and thanks for participating in this interview, this is incredibly helpful for me. I'm going to ask you a few questions about your recent purchase. There are no right or wrong answers; I am just trying to get your story in your own words. I'll be mostly listening. At certain times, I'll dive really deep and ask detailed questions about a situation. You can think of it like I am filming a documentary and I am trying to set the scene and get all the details right for a closeup. Any questions?

Great! Would it be OK if I recorded the call so I don't get distracted taking notes? Just for internal purposes only. Awesome, thanks. Let's begin.

Initially the interviewee may give short answers despite your encouragement to speak. After the first question, look at the computer clock and say nothing for the next 60 seconds. Often people resume talking after a pause to fill the uncomfortable silence.

Encouraging the interviewee to lead the conversation shows your genuine intent to listen and welcomes detailed responses. However, be mindful that some individuals are naturally reserved or concise. Avoid overusing the "stay quiet for 60 seconds" tactic with them, as it can seem cold or manipulative.

Anchor around the current solution (Selection)

The first question frames the whole conversation. Take the customer back to the purchase/signup event of their current solution, then work backwards to first realization and forwards to last action.

interview order
  • Why you purchased X?
  • Before you purchased, did you imagine what life would be like with the product? And what were you expecting?
  • When did you purchase it? Do you remember if that was something you did during work or later in the evening or the weekend?
  • Do you remember where or how you heard about X?
  • Did anyone else weigh in on the decision? What was the conversation like when you talked about purchasing X with your team/superiors?
  • Did you have any anxiety about the purchase? Did you hear something about the product that made you nervous? What was it? Why did it make you nervous?
  • Did you have any concerns about pulling the trigger?
  • How did you overcome your last doubts about buying?

Look for functional and emotional triggers (Awareness)

Go back to earlier in the customer journey timeline and try to determine the triggering events.

  • Do you remember when you first started?
  • What was going on in your life when you first realized _____ was a problem?
  • How did you know you needed to start looking at that time?
  • Where were you? What were you doing?
  • Once you realized you had a problem, what did you do next?

Understand the competitive landscape (Consideration)

  • Tell me about how you looked for a product to solve your problem.
  • What kind of solutions did you try? Or not try? Why or why not?
  • How did you first hear about _____? What did you know about it at the time?
  • Why did you decide to do something at all?

Explore early usage (Activation)

Go back to the sign-up or purchase event and explore forward from there.

I'd like to go back to right after you purchased/signed up.

  • What do you remember about the onboarding process?
  • What did you do first?
  • How did you feel the first time you used the product?
  • Were you alone or with someone?
  • Did you need help getting started? If so, how was it helpful to you?

Explore recurring usage (Retention)

  • How long have you been consistently using X?
  • On average, how many times per week do you use X?
  • On average, what's the duration of each session when you use X?
  • What specific features or functionalities do you use most frequently in X?
  • Do you use X more during certain times of the day/week/month/year? Why?
  • How has your workflow changed since using X? How difficult was it to adapt?

Explore loyalty and advocacy (Referral)

  • How do you feel about using X?
  • Did you recommended X to someone? Who?
  • Did you leave a review? Where?
  • So what's your next step?
  • Are you still looking for a solution?

Keep the conversation flowing

While conducting an interview, it's important to be genuinely interested and non-judgmental about what your customer is talking about. They will notice this and be more willing to reveal themselves — particularly their anxieties, prejudices, and insecurities.

Here are some tips to make people feel more comfortable and enable them to share valuable insights:

Keep the tone conversational

Use informal language to encourage open conversation and avoid putting the interviewee in a negotiating mindset.

When you're talking, use "you", "a person", "some people", "I", and "me". Don't use "we" or "company".

People who reveal personal information about themselves are more often liked by others.

Emphasize the personal

Use phrases like:

  • In your personal experience…
  • For you, specifically…
  • In your world…

It helps emphasize that the interviewee is the expert and that their specific opinions and behaviors are valuable.

Focus on facts, not hypotheticals

A golden rule for discovery interviews is focusing on what customers actually did in the past versus asking what they'll do in the future.

Do NOT ask questions like:

  • Would you have done ____ if ____?
  • Will you buy ____ in the future?
  • Why do you think ____ happened?
  • If you could wave a magic wand ____?

Pretend you're a journalist. Your job is to uncover the raw story.

Be patient

People will tell you about the “official” or “ideal” process first. It may take some follow-up to get into the unofficial processes, grumblings, and workarounds they use in their jobs.

Be kind

You may see them a little uncomfortable telling the raw story. Reassure them that you have already heard the same experiences from others and try not to make them feel guilty about the problems.

Ask for clarity

Restate the interviewee's words whenever they say something notably interesting or unexpected, and also after a series of questions before transitioning to a new topic. This will trigger even more in-depth answers.

  • Tell me more about that…
  • Sounds like [what the interviewee just said] worked well for you…
  • So, if I understood correctly, you do [list the steps the interviewee just illustrated]. Did I get it right?

Stay on the problem

You are not interested in what customers say they want, but rather in how customers behave in order to make educated guesses about what they might actually really want. Focus on their problem, not their suggested solution.

When someone begins discussing feature ideas or specific solutions, gently steer the conversation back to their underlying issue.

You're saying that you'd like [feature]? Could you walk me through when and how you would use it?

[Listen to the answer, then transition from feature back to the problem]

So, it sounds like today you have the problem of _______. Is that accurate? Can you tell me more about this problem? I want to be sure I fully understand it so we can work on solving it.

If the person you're speaking with starts asking about your product, it is better to wait until the end of the conversation before showing it in order not to influence his answers.

Keep an open and curious mindset

If the interviewee brings up issues or situations seemingly unrelated to your questions, take a minute or two to explore the tangent. Here are some useful questions to ask:

  • Do you spend more time on [tangent] or [original idea]?
  • How many people are involved in doing/thinking about/approving/fixing [tangent]?
  • How high a priority is [tangent] in your home/workspace?

Respect people time

I advise against extending interviews beyond 45 minutes, as it can potentially exhaust the interviewee's patience and goodwill.

If the conversation was brief and crucial topics weren't addressed, gently request to extend the discussion by an additional 5-10 minutes.

The last few minutes

The last minutes of the conversation should be used to build relationship:

  1. Offer some of your own time to the interviewee
  2. Make the interviewees feel that they have successfully helped you
  3. Thanks them for their time

[Name], I think you've answered all the questions I had. Is there anything I can answer for you?

[Pause, answer questions as needed]

Thank you so much for talking with me today. It was really helpful for me to talk about [repeat a problem or situation the interviewee discussed]. That's the type of detail that it's just impossible for me to learn without talking to real people who are experiencing it.

Can I keep you in the loop as I continue to learn more?

If I have further questions, or once I'm closer to building an actual solution, can I get back in touch with you?


Thanks again, and have a good rest of your day!

Here are some cases where you may need to contact the person again:

  • If you didn't cover something important during the conversation
  • When you think you've spotted a pattern and need some more data points
  • Once you have a minimum viable product to show

What to do AFTER the interview

Interviewing is a complex skill that takes time and practice to master. It is best approached iteratively. Right after the interview, take five minutes to ask yourself the following questions:

  • How did the first minute of the interview go?
  • Did I ask open-ended questions to encourage detailed responses?
  • How effectively did I listen to the interviewee's responses without interrupting or imposing my own biases?
  • Did I manage the time well, ensuring that all important topics were covered within the allotted timeframe?
  • Did I effectively probe for deeper insights when necessary, without making the interviewee feel uncomfortable?
  • How well did I manage any unexpected challenges or deviations from the planned discussion?
  • Did I summarize key points and confirm understanding at appropriate intervals?
  • Did I maintain a neutral and non-judgmental stance throughout the interview?
  • What did I learn from this interview, and how can I apply these insights to enhance future interactions?
  • Overall, how satisfied am I with my performance, and what specific areas do I need to focus on for improvement?

It's your turn!

Remember to:

  • Smile 😃
  • Stop talking, you're just the note-taker
  • Start follow-up questions with Who, When, What, Where, Why, How + Present or Past
  • Restate anything interesting back to the person

By the end of the interview, you should be able to identify:

  • The first realization event that made them aware of the problem
  • The old solution (what they were using before choosing the new solution) and why it was no longer good enough
  • The consideration set (what other solutions they considered)
  • The new solution and why they picked it
  • Old habits and new anxieties preventing them from fully committing to the new solution

Getting to your prospects' raw stories or unspoken motivations is a superpower and an unfair advantage over your competitors.

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