Growth through Customer Research


10, Aug 2020. 17:02pm

Gathering data through conducting conversational interviews

In 2017, in an empty classroom at the California Men’s Colony, a state prison, I sat at a desk facing an inmate, convicted of attempted murder, who was slated to be released the next day.

The inmate sitting across from me had spent 31 years in prison since his sentencing in 1986. At the time I had completed the first year of my journalistic career and I considered that interview to be monumental—and still do to this day. I had a flood of questions racing through my mind, but I had to stay focused on the story that I was working on about state prison programs that assisted inmates with re-entering society.  

This individual and I talked at length about his life, the actions that led to his sentencing, his experience at the jail, his belief that the re-entry programs have prepared him for the following day, and his hopes for his life moving forward.

Aside from factual research, I find that stories and quotes from interviews have the most impact in an article because they give the reader someone to relate to. The same can be said for collecting data for your brand or product: customer research that includes conversational interviews help you make real connections. As a company, you and your team can learn a lot from a customer’s experience, such as understanding your audience’s decision making process or how your brand or product aligns with their needs and interests. 

How to uncover the truth

During the first phase of an engagement with a client, we take a deep dive into uncovering the truth of their brand. This almost always includes qualitative customer research: interviews and observation. Each of our team members is required to complete a course from the Massachusetts Institution of Technology, Qualitative Research Methods: Conversational Interviewing, taught by Sociology and Anthropology Professor of Behavioral Health and Policy Sciences and researcher, Susan Silbey.  

Quantitative research, such as surveys, polling, or questionnaires, are important too. But conversational interviewing stands out because it’s an opportunity for customers to articulate their stories, interpretations, and feelings.

Just as it sounds, conversational interviewing is not a structured list of questions for the customer, but rather a list of open questions that will guide a conversation between the researcher and the customer. In the course, Silbey says that each interview can be regarded as an effort to document or challenge one or more theories about the topic. Before you even think about compiling questions, formulate a research process checklist.

Research Process Checklist

  1. Develop an understanding of the product or brand you want to ask questions about.
  2. Create research questions based upon the answers you seek to learn.
  3. Pose a hypothesis you want to explore.

I find it extremely helpful to write the focus of the research at the top of a piece of paper and jot down all the questions I have underneath. When I’m finished with my list, I highlight the most important questions and eliminate others.

When gearing up for your interview, you’ll want to follow Silbey’s interview protocol to optimize the information you gather from the customer.

The interview protocol is a set of questions and prompts that will invite the respondent to engage in a conversation. That will provide the data you will analyze to address the research question, according to Silbey. Remember, this isn’t a Q&A between you, or a member of your team, and the customer, it’s a conversation in which the customer will share their stories of experience and understanding of your brand.

Whether you’re interviewing someone just once for 30 minutes or over a period of time, conducting a conversational interview also means building trust between yourself and the interviewee so that they become comfortable sharing their experience with you.

Speaking to the issue of trust, for almost two years I followed a family whose mother had been deported to Mexico and was barred from returning for 10 years. I was in contact with the eldest daughter of the family through monthly interviews to check in on the family, how their mother was adjusting to her relocation, and what they were doing to bring her back home. I always strove to keep the interviews conversational so the family would be comfortable speaking with me about their experience.

Silbey lists four stages in her interview protocol: introduction, open conversation, clean up, and wrap up. The introduction period is a time to get the customer and the interviewer comfortable with each other—build a rapport. The more comfortable the customer is, the more likely they will be to give you detailed answers to your questions. In the open conversation portion, without explicitly asking a detailed question about the brand or a product, guide the conversation by asking the customer about their experience with it. The clean-up portion of the interview involves asking specific questions that have not been addressed yet. Lastly, the wrap-up portion is a time to ask the customer if they have any last comments or anything they would like you to know.

Here is an example of a simplified interview protocol from the MIT course layout:

Part 1: Introduction

Thank the customer for participating in the study. Note that the study is interested in the customer’s experience with a brand or product. Give the customer an opportunity to ask questions and answer as best you can. Silbey says this part of the interview is to help both parties get comfortable with the conversation.

Part 2: Open Conversation

Ask open-ended questions to orient the conversation towards talking about the brand or product. They may be questions like, “What do you like most about the product?” “What do you like least about it?” Or “What has been your experience with the brand?” By contrast, an example of a leading question might be “Have you had any specific negative experiences with the brand?” Or “Can you describe a positive experience you’ve had with the product?”

Part 3: Clean Up

Use the basic who, what, when, where, and why questions, but continue to leave them open-ended. Focus on asking questions about the customer’s experience, engagement, and opinions. This section, Silbey says, is for finding stories from the interviewee about their life, their experience, or the product you’re trying to collect information on.

Part 4: Wrap Up

At this point let the customer know you’ve come to the end of your questions, and ask their opinion of the questions you asked. Ask them if there were any questions you should have asked, Silbey said. This is also the time to give the customer the opportunity to say anything else that’s on their mind. Thank the customer for their participation and assure them that their data will be kept confidential.

At the end of your interviews, you’ll have stories of the customer’s views on a certain brand or product for you and your team to analyze.

Last year, forty-seven-year veteran journalist Dean Nelson published the book Talk to Me: How to Ask Better Questions, Get Better Answers, and Interview Anyone Like a Pro. Nelson’s advice—which is quite similar to the Conversational Course—is to prepare ahead of time, ask specific, but not limiting, open-ended questions, and record yourself and your subject (with their consent).

A passage in the book that spoke to me was this: “I look at conducting interviews the same way I look at writing stories. Ultimately, a good story is a controlled release of the narrative. This leads to that, which leads to something else. It doesn’t tell everything—it reveals only what’s necessary for the story to develop.”

A narrative story was at the forefront of a social campaign for the leading breast pump provider in the U.S., Medela. #22Victories addressed false expectations around breastfeeding, as many mothers become discouraged: 1 in 4 don’t make it past the first 21 days. The goal of the campaign was to show that breastfeeding moms who have the right kinds of resources and support during the first three weeks of breastfeeding would be able to make it to day 22.

Medela partnered with two moms to share their candid experiences of breastfeeding for the first three weeks, using journal-like content, and shared the unfiltered experiences on the company’s social channels.

Not only was the mothers’ shared story a success in reaching pre and post-natal moms, the conversation went well beyond the expected 22 days. Medela revisited the mothers and filmed a retrospective video of the two moms’ journeys and shared that on their social channels as well. 

The #22Victories campaign advanced Medela’s goal in unveiling the expectations of breastfeeding and amplified the provider’s brand as a resource for its audience.

Medela knew what questions to ask, what story it was hoping to get from the mothers, and then successfully used that data to inform its audience.

Getting the right interview framework for your team.

How can you put qualitative interviews together with your team? Want to learn the most effective way to narrow down your focus of research? Contact us and we’ll send you a detailed template which we’ve built through years of qualitative interview practices. We can also provide virtual brainstorming sessions with your team to practice qualitative interviews and research in real time.