How to master customer interviews

Presented live on Tuesday, February 5, 2019

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As you look at your calendar – at that 60-min blue box marked “Customer Interview” – you find yourself praying that it somehow… just… vanishes.

What are you gonna say when you first get on the call?

How do you move from small talk to the questions that’ll get your interviewee to open up?

What if you find yourself asking leading questions? And suddenly the data’s all crap? And you feel like you’ve wasted everyone’s time?

In this live Tutorial Tuesdays, conversion copywriter, Joanna Wiebe, welcomes Hannah Shamji as she shows you how to use human psychology to get ready to ask good questions in customer interviews… and ease your anxiety.


Joanna Wiebe: Hello everybody. Good morning, afternoon, evening, depending on where you are. We’re talking today. We have Hannah in today. We will be recording this. I know people are still filing in, but we have Hannah in to talk to us today about interviewing customers, which is one of the scarier things that we all have to do as conversion copywriters, and that can be a little off-putting, right?
It can be scary enough that you’re like “I don’t know what to ask. I don’t know how to run this thing. I’m not even gonna bother doing it.” Hannah’s gonna help us out with some answers to that. Yes, Hannah? No?

Hannah Shamji: Yes. I am. Aren’t interviews your favorite part, Jo? Really?

Joanna Wiebe: What?

Hannah Shamji: Aren’t interviews your favorite part of the whole copywriting process?

Joanna Wiebe: I like interviews quite a bit, but I didn’t the first few times I did them.

Hannah Shamji: Yeah.

Joanna Wiebe: The first few times I was like “I don’t know what to say.” I wasn’t on camera. I was just madly writing down every single thing they said, and then when they paused going like, “What do I say next?” That was a terrifying thing. Yeah, but no, then you practice, and you study, and you pay attention to what you’re supposed to do, and how you’re supposed to get it done, and you end up doing much better.
Today, for those who are here, slow filing in happening, let’s dive in. I know it’s super cold everywhere too, by the way. It’s super cold here. It’s minus 33 degrees, so that’s just a thing. [crosstalk 00:01:54]

Sarah: The link, yeah. I’m just gonna tweet it out here, real quick. Okay?

Joanna Wiebe: That’s good, yeah, because I’m like “Where my people at? Where are my people?” Yeah, so okay. I don’t know why that would be. Zoom sends these out, so we can’t do anything about that. Sarah’s on it as best as she can be, and we’re just gonna dive in, and for those who didn’t get the link, well we’ll send out the replay after this, in the next week or so, but for now we have Hannah here, and you are going to share with us your insights.

Hannah Shamji: You got it.

Joanna Wiebe: Alright. Cool beans.

Hannah Shamji: Will people be putting questions here in this Zoom chat, right?

Joanna Wiebe: Yeah, so for chat go ahead and put any questions that you have for Hannah in the moment, like “Oh wait, can you go back to that last slide,” or something like that. For questions that you want answered before the end of the session, then put those in Q&A. I’m getting messages galore now from support team that’s like, “No one’s got the link for this morning.” Sorry for those people who didn’t get it. We don’t trigger it, Zoom sends it, so I’m really sorry but thanks for those who are here, and their link in old emails. Okay. All done. Up to you now, Hannah. Go for it.

Hannah Shamji: Alright, so if I miss any questions, let me know. I am gonna share my screen.

Joanna Wiebe: Cool. Thank you. It started at the end.

Hannah Shamji: Oh, nuts. I didn’t even see that. Hold on a second guys, I’m too eager. Alright. There we go. That’s why you were like, “Thank you.”

Joanna Wiebe: I was like, “Oh, I didn’t even do anything yet, but thanks.”

Hannah Shamji: Alright.

Joanna Wiebe: Awesome.

Hannah Shamji: You can see my screen okay?

Joanna Wiebe: Yeah, that’s perfect.

Hannah Shamji: Perfect. Welcome today. Thanks for having me here. I’m super excited to talk to you, and like Jo said, we’re gonna talk about customer interview. I wanna start here, which is just to get a little bit of a baseline. What are you guys thinking? Do you think this is a good interview question? “Why did you buy Copy School?” You can insert Copy School with anything, but is this a good interview question or not? What are people’s thoughts?

Joanna Wiebe: Why did you buy X, is that a good question to ask in an interview? Todd says no. Charlotte says no.

Hannah Shamji: Okay.

Joanna Wiebe: Oh. Now they’re flying in. It’s too vague, too broad, not so good, very open-ended, not so good, no. Yes it’s an open question.

Hannah Shamji: Okay.

Joanna Wiebe: It’s too vague, it’s decent but could be better, too open. Okay, so it sounds like leaning towards, no.

Hannah Shamji: Okay. For those of you that said no, absolutely right. This is a not so good question, but maybe for a slightly different reason than some folks mentioned. If you think about in your every day life. When people ask “why” questions, I might say to my husband like, “Oh why didn’t you wear a scarf? Why didn’t you bring the umbrella, or why did you make that for dinner? They kinda all have a little bit of a sting, a little bit of a bite to them. My questions tend to do that, right? They have a little bit of a finger pointy-ness, and you really wanna avoid that.
Not to mention the fact that it sort of implies that there’s one right answer, right? “Why did you do this?” As though, I know what that right answer is, and I’m waiting for you to give it to me, and possibly one of the worst reasons to ask why, is that if you ask people why you’ll kind of notice, their eyes will go and track right or left of the screen, and they’ll answer with, “Um, I don’t know. I guess I-,” and that is a cue for you that they are thinking. They have gone into this cognitive state, which is not what you want.
Cal Fussman uses this. He’s a master interviewer, and he uses why questions to help people figure something out with him, but you don’t want that for these interviews. You wanna peel back what is already determined as their why. You don’t want them to screen out and filter, like “Oh, here’s a why that you’re gonna think is appropriate to,” right? Steer clear of why questions, and instead, stick to what and how. You can still ask why, right, because that’s the whole point of the customer interview, but ask it in a different way.
You might say something like, “How come,” or “What made you decide to do that? How did you come to that decision?” All of these get at why, but it’s a much softer approach, right? I have a more curious lens of “I wanna understand what’s happening for you,” as opposed to “Tell me that one reason,” which as we know, people don’t really have a linear way that they make decisions, so what and how questions instead.

Joanna Wiebe: Nice.

Hannah Shamji: Alright, so this is a phrase we all know. I’m pretty sure I have heard Joe say it a bunch of times, right, and it’s because it’s the tentative. The best copy does not come from your own typing fingers. It comes from your customer’s mouths, but, and this is a big but, if you have ever left an interview thinking or feeling like “This was bad. This was useless. This was a waste of time.” You know that writing copy, and conducting interviews are two entirely different skillsets, and this is a problem right, because one begets the other. I need to be able to dig out all of the insights in an interview, in person, so that I can kinda slap them on the page.
Not to mention, that a bad interview doesn’t feel good. I mean, it doesn’t feel good in the interview itself, probably for yourself and the interviewee, but also feels pretty crappy after, right? Your customer’s gone off topic, they’ve gone on a bunch of tangents, maybe they gave you short answers, talked around the topic, whatever the case may be, you’ve now spent a bunch of time doing an interview, let alone a bad interview, and now you have to do that pick up the pace after, and fill those gaps.
What do you do? How do you give better interviews, and especially how do you get your customers to write your copy for you, because when I first read that, and I’m pretty sure I heard this from Joanna when I first came across copywriting, I loved this phrase. I mean, who doesn’t want the “Oh, wow, I kind of don’t have to figure all of this out. If I ask the right questions, I can get my customer to do it for me, but how do you actually make that not just a reality, but your reality?
What I wanna share with you today is some of the ways I do exactly that, and I’m gonna be pulling from my own background in psychology and training as a counselor, so I’ve been to become a counselor just graduated last year, so three years of training had. Yes, 350 hours of giving and getting therapy, and prior copywriting, I was in healthcare, and so did a whole bunch of interviews, and analyzing data with doctors and patients, which if you have worked with them, are not the most susceptible crowd, that plus my own experience in copywriting, which I bring that up to say what I know about copywriting tells me what to ask in an interview, but it’s my counseling skills I pull on to figure out how and when.

Joanna Wiebe: Nice.

Hannah Shamji: Is this really relevant, right? If this came up for you as a question, it is a fair point. Is what I’ve learned in counseling where I have a whole bunch of time to build rapport, right? I have somebody whose volunteering to come. They know that we’re gonna be talking about emotions and feelings. The stage is very different. Can I really apply the same to customer interviews?
My argument is absolutely, because the goals are pretty much the same, and for the first part of counseling, you’re trying to pull out people’s feelings, their thoughts, their belief systems, so that you can then facilitate change, and you’re doing the same in customer interviews. I would actually say that there’s maybe a little more leniency in a counseling scenario, because you can see someone over a few months was customer interviews, I need to build rapport, kind of on steroids. The same tools are gonna still gonna be relevant, which is what I’ll share with you now. Six ways to avoid bad interviews, feel better about your interviews, and get better stuff from those interviews, so you can write better copy.
Now, I’ll start this one with an apology, because admittedly, this point is annoying, Annoying because it’s not a hack or a technique, as much as it is the way that you think about interviews. In an interview, if you’re even using the term interview in your own brain, and in conversation with your customer, there’s not really space for getting to emotions, and getting to feelings.
When I think interview, instantly think job interview, right? Who’s gonna start opening up their heart in a job interview? It’s just not appropriate. You wanna be mindful of how you’re actually perceiving this. Are you seeing this as a business formal transaction, because then your customers really not gonna wanna go there with you, and behind the scene especially when you have those crappy interviews. While you’re sitting there, that person is still a human right? They have their own life, their own agenda, that they’re taking time out of to hang with you, and impart whatever information they’ve got. Keep that in mind. What are are you thinking about like, “Oh, this is really annoying. Why are they going off on another tangent? I’m not getting what I want.” That’s the cardinal don’t do copywriting rule, same applies here right, same in person with your customer.
The way I like to think about this, is that it’s the start of a relationship, and the reason I say start is because there’s a certain delicacy there, right? You approach it slightly differently, maybe with a bit more intention, a bit more deliberation then you would a romantic relationship, or someone that you’ve been friends with for a long time. You bring a lot more thoughtfulness to that situation.
Here is how I start these interviews. Now this is after framing which I’ll get to, but I’m showing these here, steal from them. This is pretty much the stuff that I say when I’m ready to go from small to talk into let’s do the actual conversation, and the key is to start general, right? The reason you wanna start general is bringing people on the same page is important. You know that really awkward moment that comes up when “Hey, we’ve done this small talk, but who’s gonna bring up the fact that we have to transition into business stuff.” It can be really small, but it happens in people’s heads, right? Should I bring it up. I don’t want it to be too abrupt. I don’t wanna go too early, and come across in the wrong way. This is gonna help really easy that transition.
Start general and then funnel further, and what you’re doing here is you’re saying “I’d like to talk to you about this. Are you still using that?” Easy answers right, nothing intense. You’re gonna work your way up from here, but this is stuff that they don’t really have to think about to participate, and it’s a flag that, “Okay, now I’m going to start asking you more questions.”
Alright. This is a text exchange, so one person’s saying “Hey I’ll be home late today.” The other person, “Oh okay,” and an ellipses. What do folks think with the person in orange? Good tone, bad tone, debatable, suspect? What do we got? Average to bad. Bad, okay, a little annoyed. This person is wondering, very bad.

Joanna Wiebe: Disappointed. Dinner is delivery tonight. Yeah.

Hannah Shamji: Alright. Okay, so full confession. This is a paraphrased conversation between myself and my husband from last week. I think someone else, I think it was Amy who said the same. I would say the same thing in orange, and my husband would think I’m mad. My husband hates those three little dots, are like the death of our text messages, and the reason I bring this up is not because there’s necessarily an objective right or wrong tone, it’s to the say the tone is subjective, and so one, check your own tone.
If you’re thinking that the person in front of you is gone off on another tangent, and it’s really annoying, be mindful of how you’re sounding. This can come out in a subliminal way. Two, there is such a thing as vocal emotion. I was reading about this in a study last week, and it says that when you hear someone excited, automatically you shift your own mood, and your own emotion, so if they detect even on an unconscious level that you are annoyed, that’s what they’re gonna be picking up off. That’s not gonna help them open up, so you wanna be mindful of that, but two, check out their tone.
Instead of worrying about the fact that they’re not opening up, what is their tone telling you, because if they’re your customer, if they’re your ideal client, whatever it is, everything that they are putting out, whether or not it comes in the answers that you like is information for you, right? That’s stuff that you can use, how busy they are, how distracted they are, whether or not they like talking about feelings. All of these are really, really great pointers, but also maybe steer clear of the ellipses in texts with intimate partners, just my own personal tidbit.
Alright, if those of you, maybe you’ve seen the show Everybody Loves Raymond. When I was putting the slide together, I remembered a scene from the show where Ray’s saying he can get away with calling his wife absolutely anything, as long he uses the right tone. In the scene, he is sitting, hanging out with his friends at home, his wife walks in the door, and he’s like watch this, turns to his wife, and he’s like, “Hey my little trampy tramp. How are you doing,” and she doesn’t bat an eyelash. All of his friends are in a state of shock, because I mean, he went pretty far with that name, but she doesn’t even notice, which is to say that tone is so forgiving.
The right tone can let you ask more challenging questions, it can let you push back. It can let you fumble your words, or ask something that might be a little confrontational, that might be a little pokey, but you can get away with it, with the right tone, so keep that in mind. Check your tone, which dates back to feeling good about this conversation, before you step into the interview. It’s going to give you a lot of liberties.
Alright, selective hearing is real. My husband is kind of the point I’m poking on in this presentation, but it’s so relevant. This is not a scapegoat that my husband uses to get out of doing stuff. Selective hearing is so real. We tune out what we don’t care about. We tune out what we’re not interested in, but most importantly, we tune out what we think we already know. They use generalities, because they probably don’t wanna divulge more. They don’t think you need to know more. It’s just easier to communicate a difficult life circumstance in an appropriate little package, so don’t assume that you mean by confidence, is the same thing as what they mean by confidence. I was doing a set of interview for a client recently, and that was exactly what was happening. Everybody was saying that this program helped them feel confident, but what does that actually mean.
Question, dig deeper here. One of the ways to do that, or a couple here, this is the kind of thing that I’ll say in an interview where someone is seemingly reluctant to share more. “Can I just interrupt you for a second, because you said something that really jumped out at me, and I wanna go back to that. Can we talk a bit more about it? Is that okay? I wanna understand what you meant.
Suddenly, interrupting is maybe more okay, because, “Oh, wow, first of all, you’re listening to me, and you picked on something really specific,” right? People wanna lean in. If someone is paying that much attention to what I’m saying, I know I feel great, and I’m more than happy to keep talking, same thing here. Before you go on, what do you mean by hard? What was hard about that, or what was difficult about that. Again you’re tuning in. You’re picking out individual words that really stick out as otherwise vague, and you’re able to slice deeper.
Alright, frame the conversation. This is about how you kickstart that conversation. Now maybe you’ve already done this in an email, but if you have, do it again on the call, because this is all about safety. If people don’t know what to expect, they don’t really know where this is gonna go, and how to pointed your questions are. They’re not gonna feel safe, and you kinda need them to feel safe if you wanna get any of that juicy insight in order to write your copy.
Start with thanking them for being on the call, telling them high level what you are going to ask about, telling them how long it’s going to take, especially asking, “Do you have a hard stop?” That is such a critical question. I mean, if you’ve been in the scenario, and I know I have where I have to go somewhere, and this person keeps talking to me, and I’ve got one eye on the clock, one eye barely in the conversation. More than that, I’m definitely giving you short, short, short answers, because I need to go. Manage their time. Don’t introduce friction, just take that off the plate.
These might sound like seemingly trite, but they are pivotal when it comes to emotions, right? These small, human behaviors and knacks that we really need to create a space that they want to share. They want to want top open up, and they feel like “Oh, I don’t need to look at the clock. She already said we’re gonna be respectful of that, and I’ve got it covered.” Also, you wanna talk about recordings as well, mention that it’s gonna be recorded, that it’s gonna be anonymized, right? You don’t want people to be thinking about that, and wondering either during or after the fact, and end with “Is that okay with you?” “Does that sound okay,” right? It wraps up what I’ve said. I’ve finished the frame, but it also gets their buy-in. They’ve agreed to something now, and then you can easily move forward into those general questions.
Alright, zip it. This has to do with being careful about your opinions. Opinions, not only biased people, but make it really, really, really easy for people to lie to you. I was at my hairdresser’s last week, and we were chatting. She was cutting my hair, and she says something like “I don’t understand. Why would people go to a different hairdresser every single time. It just doesn’t even make sense to me,” and that is totally me. I don’t go to the same hairdresser for no reason other than I just haven’t found a really good one, but I felt my stomach, like, ugh, “She’s talking about me. Now I have a choice. Do I be that person that she’s talking about that she’s already clearly judged, or do I not say anything?”
I decided to say something, and I said “Actually, I’m one of those people. Do you think that’s a bad thing? Why do you suggest otherwise,” and it was great. We had a great conversation, but you don’t wanna leave that up to the personality of your interviewer, because maybe they aren’t gonna be comfortable sharing. In some interviews that I was doing, this was a case where I had to keep my own opinions to myself about how much I liked the client, and how much I loved the course. When people were sharing the same, I didn’t wanna create a point of agreement, because then, it introduces a bit of a risk to challenge that, like “Oh, we both like this thing, but actually there’s a part of this thing that I don’t really like, but I don’t wanna tell you now, because we kinda seem like we’re friends.”
Be careful when you’re building rapport. Be really choosy about that. One of the ways to do this instead is, which is kind of a similar thread of the whole presentation here, just be curious. Be curious, because what that does is it pulls people in. The reason that people who go to therapists or counselors like it after a while, is because very few have the luxury of someone only talking about themselves, and people love that, right? I’m all up in wanting to understand you. There’s a certain power in that, so use that to your advantage.
Alright, so let’s see where people are at here. I’ve got a couple phrases, and I wanna see what you think. Is this building rapport, or is this biasing. First phrase, “That makes sense.” What do people think? Neutral or not so neutral? Okay. I’m gonna pop to another one.
“I know what you mean.” Biased, okay.

Joanna Wiebe: It’s tough.

Hannah Shamji: Mm-hmm (affirmative), and the last one “I hear you.”

Joanna Wiebe: Okay, we’re getting on that one, neutral, nice, rapport, rapport, neutral, rapport, rapport, neutral.

Hannah Shamji: Okay.

Joanna Wiebe: Yeah.

Hannah Shamji: Okay, so don’t hate me, but it depends, right? This absolutely depends, I’m sorry. Depending on the context, depending on how you say it. I could say something like “Ugh, I know what you mean.” That is a point of agreement. Steer clear, or “I know what you mean.” What about, there’s a neutrality in there, or like, “Ugh, I hear you,” is we’ve made a connection, versus “I hear you. That sounds really interesting. Can we talk a bit more about that?” Completely different, right?
Be careful. You using these words is an indication that everybody uses them. Notice when your customer’s using them, so you can pick out what they really mean when they’re using these vague words, but it also forces you to be a lot more accurate in what your intention is, and what you’re saying, because all of that is coming out from you to your customer, and it’s gonna impact the type of conversation you’re getting, the type of insights that you’re getting.

Joanna Wiebe: Cool.

Hannah Shamji: Last one here is reality check, and this is pulling from some of the threads before, but it warrants it’s own point, because it is so important. Listening is one thing, reflecting back is another, but checking that you actually heard what they’re saying correctly, that’s where the nuance is. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to someone, “So what I’m hearing you say is X, Y, and Z. Did I get that right,” and they respond with something like “Yeah, mostly. There’s also this,” because you’ve put it in a frame for them. They get to hear it back, and they get to check box, did she get all of those things right, and the power of that is huge, right?
You don’t wanna make those assumptions. Ask at every point, “Is that right? Did I get that right?” Keep checking, and last thing I wanna leave you with is this. This is my all-time favorite go-to question. The reason is because it instigates a curiosity. It gets at the feeling level of things that emotional level of things. Without holding up a giant flashcard like, “Hey, we’re about to talk about your feelings right now,” right? This gets to that without blasting it in their face, and it’s also this invitation to, “I really wanted to understand what that’s like,” either “I kinda have an idea, but I wanna understand what that was like for you,” or “I can’t relate to that, and I really wanna understand what that was like for you,” right? There is leaning in there.
You’re gonna get people helping you to understand what’s going on in their mind, what their experience was, which is exactly what you’re going for right? Super, super, super, powerful, and that’s all I got for you.

Joanna Wiebe: Nice. Thank you.

Hannah Shamji: Thank you.

Joanna Wiebe: Hannah, thank you so much. Thanks everybody for your link to Zoom today, and showing up. The replay will go up afterward. Yeah, that was amazing Hannah. I love it. I hope people took screenshots of questions that they want asked. If you didn’t, Sarah just chatted out the link to where the replay will be available in about a week, and then we’re gonna send the replay out too for those who missed it.

Hannah Shamji: Thanks guy. Nice to meet you.

Joanna Wiebe: Have a good day, and we’ll see you on our next tutorial Tuesday.

Hannah Shamji: Bye.

Joanna Wiebe: Bye.

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