When customer interviews go badly, with one-word answers or poor engagement, try these three things: vocalize pauses, repeat back responses and “name their claim.”

One question into your interview, the worst is clear:

Your customer is not a talker. 

Managing the customer interview and drawing out valuable customer data is, of course, your job. But landing a one-word answer when you’re anticipating a meaty response is an unpleasant surprise – no matter how good an interviewer you are. 

And if you’re not braced to handle such unpleasantries, you’ll be thrown off-kilter and off-script.

Don't let an awkward customer interview throw you off-kilter!

So before you hop on your next customer interview call, prep yourself with these three psychology-backed strategies to move beyond the awkward silence and glean rich nuggets of insight, even when your customer dishes out the tiniest of sentence fragments.

Technique 1: Bring the customer interview to a momentary halt with a vocal pause 

Yes, it’s your job to keep the conversation going. But more important than continuity is keeping the conversation on track. 

The right track. 

The track where you end that Zoom recording with a deep and intimate understanding of who your customer truly is – and with voice-of-customer data you can actually swipe

Here’s how: 

When your customer answers short, you go long – and take what I call a “vocal pause” 

A vocal pause is when you intentionally hesitate a second to regroup after being caught off guard, but you say something over the silence to mask it.

Examples of a vocal pause include:

“Hmm, that’s interesting, okay.”

“I see, I see.”

“Okay, okay, that makes sense.”

“Ah, okay. Hmm, so let me see….”

These are filler words. They mean little, but they accomplish a lot: they help you take pause without actually pausing. 

This👏 is👏key 👏, folks.

If you don’t pause and instead panic and hop over to the next question, you’re wasting a golden opportunity to dig deeper. 

It’s okay to be caught off guard. It happens.

And with the vocal pause, you can still save face and stay in the driver’s seat of your customer interview – before you reroute to a sharper question.

Technique 2: Double-check your customer’s response 

This step’s a tad cheeky, but it works.

When you’ve had a sec to recalibrate (a la Technique 1), the easiest and smartest way to dive back into the interview is to double-check where your customer is at.


Say what you heard them say right back at ’em. In their words. Then, cheekily check you’ve got it right. 

I’ll show you what that sounds like in a minute, but here’s why it works. It’s called active listening, and done right, it achieves two monumental goals:

  1. It tells your customer you’re actually listening! Which is huge. And ridiculously uncommon. When people feel that heard, they can’t help but feel THIIIIIIIIIIS AMOUNT of safe. And feeling safe is directly tied to how willing they are to open up to you… a stranger.  
  2. When you reflect back what you heard your customer say, you’re kickstarting a sentence – their sentence – for them to finish. Which they will. And nine times out of 10, they’ll add a little extra. 

This is how you start to dig deep – by turning your customer interview into a conversation. 

Here’s an example of a customer interview, which I like to use when I lead customer research workshops: 

The interviewer below was trying to unpack why the customer chose a particular brand of cat food, but the customer kept coming back with an unhelpful response: “Well, I just go to the shop and buy it.” 

In a role play, I used the double-check technique to dig deeper. Take a look at what happened.

👨Customer: “I just go into the store and get it. It’s what’s on the shelf.”

💂‍♀️Interviewer: “I see. Okay. So you buy that cat food because it’s just what’s in the store, what’s on the shelf. Did I get that right, or… ?”

👨Customer: “Yeah, it’s just there. It’s convenient and it’s the one I know.”

Bingo! Now we’re onto something. 

Thanks to a super simple double-check, we now know that the customer is deeply loyal to his brand. So loyal he doesn’t think twice about it. To know it’s not just a matter of convenience and apathy like we thought at first, is actually a pretty big deal (see why). 

Let’s break down how we got to that insight using this customer interviewing technique:

  1. First, the customer offered up a two-dimensional answer. Nothing rich or emotional. 
  2. I paused, repeated it back to him IN HIS WORDS, and…
  3. Checked if I’d gotten it right. How did I double-check? Here’s the clincher. By adding a two-letter word at the end of my question: “or?”. This mighty word flipped my double-check from a closed to an open-ended question.
  4. And that’s exactly what helped the customer, all on his own, to take a step further and share more detail.

See, most people don’t have well-thought out reasons for why they buy the things they do. They need your help to tease it out.

When you repeat back what they are telling you, they get a chance to a) hear it and b) correct it. 

This helps you both unpack their true, unconscious rationale – together. 

Technique 3: “Name their claim

What if you do a vocal pause, double-check what you heard and your customer still dishes out a plain old “Yes, that’s right” when you reflect back? 

Are you doomed? Is my three-step technique a farce?

No and no.

Here’s the game plan.

If your customer still isn’t giving you much and you want to go even deeper, here’s how: 

Give what your customer just shared a name.

Call it something.

Is it convenience? Is it ease? Is it a no-brainer? Is it being cost effective? 

See, even though people have lived their own experience and know it by heart, most haven’t had to talk about it. Which means they don’t know how to describe or articulate it. To do that, your customer needs your help. 

And this is really good news for you. 

When you strap words to your customer’s personal experience, it’s like adding color to a black and white image. It’s a welcome attention to detail. 

That, and naming their claim also gives them something to react to. 

They can yay or nay the label you’ve offered, and help you finetune and flesh it out. 

Let’s see it in action. We’ll use the same interview as above so you get a fuller picture. 

👨Customer: “I just go into the store and get it. It’s what’s on the shelf.”

💂‍♀️Interviewer: “I see. Okay. [VOCAL PAUSE] So you buy that cat food because it’s just what’s in the store, what’s on the shelf. Did I get that right, or… ?” [DOUBLE-CHECK] 

👨Customer: “Yeah, it’s just there. It’s convenient and it’s the one I know.”

💂‍♀️Interviewer: “Ah, okay. So you pick it because you know… that it’s good? [NAMING] That it’s worked before so it’ll work again?” [NAMING] 

👨Customer: “Yeah, yeah.”

💂‍♀️Interviewer: “Okay, makes sense. [VOCAL PAUSE] Is that a convenience thing?” [NAMING]

👨Customer: “Yeah, yeah.”

At this point, I have enough of the story to start unpacking it, which is exactly what I proceed to do…

💂‍♀️Interviewer: “Okay, so, let me ask you this. Are there other cat food options at the store?”

👨Customer: “Don’t know, I just picked that one.” 

💂‍♀️Interviewer: “So you don’t really pay attention to what other ones there are?”

👨Customer: “No, I just get the same one every time.”

💂‍♀️Interviewer: “It sounds like getting the same one is maybe easier. Like you don’t have to think about it. You just trust that brand? Is that right?”

👨Customer: “Yeah, yeah. I like that brand, it works for me, why change what’s working.” 

Do you see the pattern here?

The job of the interviewer isn’t just to administer a reel of pre-determined customer interview questions. It’s to dive right in with the customer and unpack their story with them. 

When you’re with a tight-lipped customer, they’re not skirting you out of spite or because they’re consciously holding out. 

They genuinely don’t have more to say, and often, it’s because they haven’t thought it through. They haven’t looked into why they bought this brand at that store. 

Understanding that mastering your job as customer interviewer means helping your customer realize what you want to know – that’s the difference between a dud of an interview packed with one-word dead ends and an interview so insightful, you can’t take notes fast enough.