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The executive’s guide to participating in customer research

#BuyerInsight, #CustomerExperience

Customer research is an important source of inspiration and validation for marketers and customer experience professionals. In-person interviews, in particular, can be a rare opportunity for executives to get direct exposure to their customers. Are you thinking about, or planning to, participate in a research initiative? If so, here’s what you should know to get the most from the opportunity and contribute to the success of the research:

Before the interview

Dress to fit in.

Instead of ‘dress to impress,’ think ‘dress to blend in.’ The goal is to make the interviewee feel at ease. Consider what he/she will be wearing as well as the environment where the interview will take place. For example, when I did interviews with auto mechanics in their garages and shops, I chose jeans and a business-casual top with flat, closed-toed shoes. Knowing that this was a dirty environment, I also pointedly avoided white shirts.

Prepare to adopt a role on the interviewer team.

Imagine being outnumbered by strangers—all focusing on you and asking questions. It would make anyone feel uncomfortable. To help put the interviewee at ease, it’s typical to provide a logical rationale for why each member of the interviewer team is present. For example, I have often designated the executive participant as the ‘AV person.’ In such cases, the executive needs to prepare to operate the audio/visual recording devices with confidence.

Make a listening and observing plan.

Take some time to plan out what you want to listen and look for during the interviews. This will help you to get the most out of your participation. Write down the topics or questions you are curious about and bring that list with you to the interview. Use it to focus your attention during the interview. Share your list with the interviewer(s) in advance of the interview—they may be able to give these topics special attention.

“Take some time to plan out what you want to listen and look for during the interviews. This will help you to get the most out of your participation.”

During the interview

Don’t answer questions.

There are many reasons to ask a question. The interviewer(s) might ask a question because it’s expected—or because it’s unexpected. They might ask a question because they don’t know the answer or because they do. In qualitative research we’re rarely seeking THE answer; instead, we’re seeking the interviewee’s answer. Trust the interviewer(s) and resist the urge to chime in. If you suspect that you’ll find this tough (and from experience, I know you wouldn’t be alone in this), one thing that can help is to read the discussion/interview guide before the interview to build comfort with the questions. If it is important to provide ‘the official answer’ to the interviewer(s), do so when the interviewee is not present.

Get comfortable with silence.

For most people, silence in the middle of a conversation is uncomfortable. Interviewers will use this to their advantage, with an interview technique called a ‘silent probe’ (rather than asking a follow-up question, the interviewer probes with silence). In this situation, the silence will feel uncomfortable for you as well as the interviewee. But, for the silent probe to work, the interviewee must be the one to break the silence.

Keep your body language neutral.

Interview participants want to be helpful—they are cognizant of the time you’re taking to speak with them and the incentive you may have promised them. As such, they are on high alert for cues that will guide them to be helpful. If you react to their comments in any way—be it a positive or negative reaction—it will cause them to adjust what they say and do. Try to keep your shoulders and face relaxed. Avoid crossed arms and hands on hips. If you’re feeling stiff from concentrating so intently, try nodding.

Jot notes: write in memory triggers.

Regardless of your assigned role, feel free to jot notes. Allow yourself to be ‘present’ and engaged during the interview.

“Allow yourself to be ‘present’ and engaged during the interview.”

Divert no more focus to note-taking than necessary. Write in brief ‘memory triggers’—notes to remind you of your observations, ideas, new questions, etc., which you’ll review shortly after the interview. Select a notebook that you can write on comfortably without a table. (It’s best not to take notes on an electronic device. It communicates disengagement with the conversation as you could be replying to emails, browsing social media, etc. Larger devices also create a physical barrier.)

After the interview

Journal: write down reflections.

Set aside time following the interview to reflect on your jottings (while you can still decipher them) and the overall experience. These notes are for your own use, so that you can use what you personally learned—both about the research topics and about participating in the research process—in the future. What did you see and hear? What have you figured out? What new questions do you have? What did you learn about the interview process and yourself as a participant in it? If you can’t do this right after the interview, ensure you do it sometime during the same day. If your day tends to get eaten up by meetings, book this journaling time into your calendar as a 15-minute meeting.

Debrief with the interviewer(s).

Take time to debrief with the interviewer(s), especially if there are more interviews to be done. Seek feedback on your conduct during the interview—especially important if you are participating in additional interviews—and share what piqued your interest during the interview. If you have had a chance to journal before this debrief, speak to what you wrote down. Share what you found most interesting, if anything surprised you and what new questions or areas of curiosity the interview sparked. This may help the interviewer(s) adjust their strategy to focus even more on topics that fit your insight needs.

“Seek feedback on your conduct during the interview…and share what piqued your interest…”

Ready to participate in customer research? Discuss it with your research team or firm. Then, go for it! A good interviewer will have your back. Get to know your customers and have fun.