By Bryce Colquitt

No business can survive without knowing their customers. You have to know who they are, their desires, and their motivations. It’s how you gain new customers and keep your current ones happy. But to know your customers, you have to talk to them.

That may seem obvious, but not many small business owners do. For many that try, they don’t interview their customers in a way that allows them to truly learn about them. Here’s how you can get to know your customers and what they really want.

Identify Your Customers

The first step is to identify your customers (or prospective customers). I don’t mean listing names and demographics – I mean identifying the reasons that people use your product or service. Clayton Christenson, Harvard Business School Professor and author of “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” refers to this as the “jobs to be done” framework. Instead of thinking about demographics and categories, think about what problem you’re solving for the customer. The customer has a job to do, and they “hire” your company to do it.

For example, if you’re a small public relations firm, customers “hire” you to get them in the press. Or, some may hire you to keep them out of the press. These are different jobs, and they require different skillsets from your company. Identify what jobs your customers have hired you for, and categorize your customers that way. If you need help, look at your marketing copy. That should clarify what you’re selling your customer on.

Interview Your Customers

Once you’ve categorized your customers by “jobs to be done,” now you can interview them. It’s better to start by deep diving into one category of customers, rather than interviewing a few of different categories. When you interview, keep in mind that the goal is to first understand the customer’s problem, then to figure out if you’re solving it the best you can. So don’t ask them if they like your product, and don’t try to sway their thinking. Just learn.

Learn About the Person

Start the interview by learning more about who your customer is as a person. Ask them about themselves and their role at the company. In this stage of the interview you can build rapport and make the customer comfortable while still learning about them. You want to learn what they do in their job day-to-day, and how they fit in to the larger organization.

You can ask questions like:

  • What’s your role in the company? How are you expected to help the company succeed?
  • Could you describe what your typical day is like?
  • How much time do you spend doing [certain task?]
  • How much money do you think [certain responsibility] is worth to the company?

In the first part of the interview you should learn the role of the person and how they contribute to the organization. It will give you a sense of how important their function is, which can guide your product decisions.

Learn About the Problem

After you’ve learned about the person, learn about their problem. What do they perceive as the problem, and why do they have it? How does it affect their job, and how does it affect their company? Remember: this conversation should be focused on the problem for the customer, not on your product or service. You should be learning what’s the “job” they want to hire for.

You can ask questions like:

  • What are the top challenges you have in your job?
  • When you’re looking for a product to help you with these challenges, what do you look for?
  • What have you tried using/doing to solve this problem? Why didn’t it work?
  • If this problem is magically solved, what does that mean for you and your company?

Final Tips

1) Quick notes. Take quick notes during the conversation. Jot shorthand notes down and review them afterwards to fill in with full notes. If you take full notes during the conversation, you can’t have proper eye contact and people may feel like they’re being studied.

2) Be conversational. You don’t have to stick to a script – in fact, it’s better if you don’t. Be natural and conversational, and you can build a relationship and learn a lot about the customer.

3) Have an open mind. You never know what you’ll find, so don’t try to frame the conversation to hear only what you want! Try to be open to learning – you just might find an opportunity you never knew was there.

If you really want to learn about your customer, interview them the right way. That’s how you find out what they really want. When you do, you can provide products and services that meet customer needs, and that’s how you grow your business.

Bryce Colquitt is a consultant and founder of Small Business MBA, the place to learn how to grow your business. They provide no-fluff, practical guides and training on strategies to help small business owners. Like them on Facebook to get free, in-depth guides on growing your business.