Getting to the Heart of your Audience: How to Conduct Effective Customer Interviews

Harriet and I have been hard at work on a new, comprehensive guide for Distilled’s readers. No Words Wasted: A Guide to Creating Focused Content (as you might have guessed) walks readers through content creation and strategy from beginning to end.  


One of the most crucial steps in content strategy (and one our guide focuses heavily on) is audience research. Consumers are inundated with content, so yours has to be relevant and targeted to keep your audience's attention--but in order to create content that achieves those goals, you first have to understand who your audience is and what they’re interested in.  

There are a few ways you can get to the heart of who your audience is--a great place to start is audience interviews. The following is an excerpt from the upcoming guide that covers how you can effectively conduct customer interviews.    

Choose customers for interviewing

You’ll get the best results if you interview a variety of customer types; however, you still need to make sure your interviewees are strategically chosen. Don’t interview an outlying customer who doesn’t represent a segment of your larger customer base. While a wildcard interview might provide insight, the results won’t necessarily represent what your larger customer base thinks or wants to see changed.

Interviewing a diverse pool of customers means not only looking at gender, income, age, etc., it also means looking at where interviewees are in the conversion funnel, and if you’re B2B, looking at where customers are in the decision hierarchy (CEO vs. office manager). You should also look at when customers last made a purchase – if they haven’t purchased anything in months, they might not be able to articulate why they chose to purchase in the first place.  

Once you have a pool of customers willing to be interviewed, keep the following in mind:

Conduct interviews in pairs or record them

If you record your interview, you can go back through it as often as you need in order to glean the information you’re looking for. If you’re unable to record interviews, make sure you conduct them in pairs: one person for asking questions and one person for note taking.

Conduct interviews via conference call

Conduct interviews over the phone, as people tend to open up more than during in-person interviews. Don’t resort to email unless you have to; talking to someone gives you the opportunity to feel out areas they might be willing to open up about -- this can reveal information you might not have discovered otherwise.

Start with problems before solutions

Asking customers for their ideas on how to fix a problem (or how you can improve a service) is very helpful; however, this can be a rabbit hole you can easily get stuck in. Start by asking your customers about their problems or behavior before you start asking them for solutions.

Don’t ask leading questions 

A leading question is one that prompts customers to respond in a particular way, which can provide biased or slanted information. For example:

  • Leading question: Do you have problems with your boss?

  • Non-leading question: How would you describe your relationship with your boss?

The first question prompts customers to divulge only the negative aspects of their employer relationships, while the second question will give you a more holistic, neutral view of the relationships.

Ask open-ended questions

These allow the customer to tell you about their experiences in their own terms, rather than framing their experiences to fit your question. For example:

  • Open-ended question: What’s the most frustrating part about problem X?

  • Close-ended question: Is problem X frustrating for you?

The open-ended question encourages customers to prioritize their frustrations; it also allows them to open up and give you a full account of what’s going on. The close-ended question is a yes/no question, and doesn’t encourage customers to respond at length.

Create a safe space for honesty

Your customers might feel shy about criticizing any aspect of your brand, so make sure you affirm their feelings (you don’t have to agree with them to affirm them). For example:

  • Customer: I find it really frustrating when there aren’t video instructions for your product.

  • Interviewer: I see how that would be a frustrating situation for you. Can you walk me through this problem more?

Here, the interviewer affirmed the customer’s frustration without necessarily agreeing with him/her.

Allow tangents

You should develop an interview script so 1) there aren’t uncomfortable pauses that derail the conversation, and 2) you ask about all the areas you want to cover. However, you also need to allow customers to go on tangents if they head in that direction. This can provide unexpected and useful information. If the tangent goes too far, gently steer the conversation back to your questions.  

If you’re unsure exactly how to structure your interview, try using the following template as a starting point. You’ll likely have to adjust the questions depending on your business, but this can give you a foundation to build from.


Sample interview

The information you ask about can largely depend on whether your business is B2C or B2B.

For all interviews:


  • Describe your age, gender, marital status, whether you have kids, etc.

  • Describe your educational background. What level of education did you complete, which schools did you attend, and what did you study?

  • Describe your career path. How did you end up where you are today?


  • What are your biggest challenges concerning X?

  • Can you tell me about the last time you experienced those challenges?

  • Why was that hard?

  • What, if anything, have you done to solve that problem?

  • What don’t you like about the solutions you’ve tried?


  • How do you find new information?

  • Who do you typically talk to about decisions concerning X? (Could either be job or personal life, depending on your business)

  • What publications or blogs do you read?

  • What associations and social networks do you belong to?

  • Who are the people you most respect and why?

Shopping Preferences

  • How do you prefer to interact with vendors (email, phone, in person)?

  • What types of information do you look at before making a purchase?

  • Describe a recent purchase. Why did you consider a purchase, and how did you decide to purchase that product or service?

For B2B interviews:

Job information

  • What is your job role? Your title?

  • Who is your direct supervisor? Do you supervise anyone?

  • What does a typical day look like?

  • What skills are required to do your job?

  • What are the goals of your role?


  • What industry does your company work in?

  • What’s the size of your company (revenue, employees)?

For B2C interviews:


  • How do you spend your free time?

  • What activities do you consider an indulgence or treat?

  • What activities do you consider routine or mundane?

  • What types of topics do you generally read about?

These questions are a great place to start, but you’ll likely have to tailor any set of questions to fit your business and the individual customers you speak to.

For detailed information on how to use your audience insights to create relevant content, check out No Words Wasted: A Guide to Creating Focused Content.

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